Follow TV Tropes


Slave Galley

Go To
"Row well, and live."

"Pulling the weight up against the wind
is the plight of the galley slave
Chained to this cold bench, six to the oar
Sentenced to an early grave."
Accept, "The Galley"

A staple of the Sword and Sandal and Fantasy genres, firmly established by the novel Ben-Hur and its film adaptations (the 1959 one especially). The hero is enslaved and forced to work as a galley rower, while chained to his fellows. Necessary embellishments include:

  • A coxswain with a drum beating out a steady rhythm
  • A brutal first mate with a whip
  • Dirty rowers seated two-by-two down either side of a narrow aisle, like an even-more-sadistic school bus
  • A friendly Scary Black Man chained next to the hero, who will die heroically for the hero's freedom

Showing a character as a galley slave is a quick-and-easy way to depict their suffering, as it combines all the bad parts of being a sailor with all the bad parts of slavery — that is to say, all of it.

This drama makes slave galleys one of the rare Types of Naval Ships that occurs in media often enough to have its own trope, but historically, this trope is Newer Than They Think and belongs in the realm of Briefer Than They Think. The heyday of the slave galley lasted only for some 70 years - from the beginning of the 16th century to the Battle of Lepanto (1571), coinciding with the heyday of the Ottoman Empire for a few different reasons. Galley slaves were introduced only during the Renaissance (16th century) as cannons became the main weapon of galleys instead of ramming and boarding and less skill was required for rowers. Slave galleys were uncommon in the ancient world for various reasonsnote , making this trope an example of Artistic License – History. Some nations, such as Venice, never adopted galley slavery. Some, like Sweden and Russia, used conscript soldiers for galley crews.

When being sent to the galleys is a punishment detail rather than a military necessity, compare Prisoner's Work and Working on the Chain Gang.

Compare Gladiator Games, the alternative for a male slave in ancient times. Not to be confused with "Galley Slave", a story about a robot made for proof-reading galley copies of manuscripts.


    open/close all folders 

  • The "spokescandies" for M&M's which take the slavemaster's line and turn it into a rendition of The Hues Corporation hit "Rock the Boat".

    Comic Books 
  • Asterix:
    • In Asterix at the Olympic Games, the Gauls hire a ship to transport them to Rome only to find the ship they hired is a galley, where they're expected to do the rowing. The ship's captain explains that these are the "deck games and sport" promised. He then confirms that it's usually a slave ship: "You got the better deal, normally rowers are chained and whipped!"
    • Asterix the Gladiator, when being transported to Rome as a prisoner of Odius Asparagus on board the latter's galley, Cacofonix offers to lift the galley slaves' spirits with a song. The slaves consider his singing to be even worse than getting whipped, and promise to put extra effort into the rowing if Cacofonix shuts up.
    • Similarly, the Phoenician merchant who shows up from time to time uses "business associates who didn't read the contract very well" to row his ship.
    • And in Asterix the Legionary, the troop Asterix and Obelix signed up in are the rowers (see the Real Life section below). The voyage ends up quite pleasant, driving the captain nuts by countering his orders (heading straight for the pirate ship, for instance). He also tells the drummer to beat faster... only to be told the little Gaul has already requested it.
    • And in Asterix and Obelix All at Sea, the drummer thing is subverted when the pirates end up in command of a Roman galley. They ask their (not very) Scary Black Man Baba to be the drummer, at which point he pulls off a high-speed drum solo before being replaced with a standard drummer.
  • In Barbe-Rouge, Eric ends up as a galley slave after being framed for stealing the cargo of a ship (being the adopted son of a fearsome pirate helped). The conditions are hellish enough, but thanks to the help of his friend Baba (who happened to have been sent to the same galley) and a cabin boy he had helped earlier, he soon manages to not only lead a successful slave revolt, but to carry out the original mission of the galley. He and the other slaves get pardoned as a result.
  • In De Cape et de Crocs, our heroes are sent to a galley, with the requisite chains, drummers and slave uprising. Amusingly, the drummer wouldn't look out of place in a metal band, and is seen still beating away on his drum while on the lifeboat. Also, due to the Running Gag of referring to every ship as a galley, we get this exchange, as Don Lope and Armand have snuck onto the janissary's ship:
    Don Lope: Ola, amigos! We are Christians, like you! We've come to rescue you from the Barbary scum!
    Armand: Once again, Don Lope, this is not a galley, but a zebec. A zebec is a sailboat...
    Don Lope: So these people in the hold are not galley slaves?
    Armand: No!
    Don Lope: But Turkish sailors?
    Sailors: YES!
  • The Thorgal volume "The Black Galley": Thorgal gets captured and becomes one of these. There's the drummer (who's a Scary Black Man) and the whip-man.
  • The Trigan Empire. Trigo is usurped by his niece who, rather than kill her own relatives, does this trope instead.
  • Wonder Woman Vol 1: When Diana and her sky pirate foes led by Nifta are tossed back in time by an odd Clock Roach to maintain the Time Loop that has Nifta feeling like she's fought Diana before Diana ends up shackled on a slave galley, and she breaks her oar for a weapon and convinces the others slaves to revolt as well.

    Comic Strips 
  • The Far Side:
    • Parodied in a cartoon. The sailors are wondering why their ship is going around in circles all the time... which the reader can see is because they put all the big, muscular slaves on one side of the boat, with the other side being crewed entirely by skinny wimps.
    • Another featured a galley slave complaining to the whipmaster about getting jabbed with a splinter.
    • Yet another had a slave complain that it was his turn for the window seat.
    • One had the drummer replaced by a bad entertainer on a piano.
    • One had a list of the day's activities: Rowing, rowing, rowing, etc. with aerobics in the middle.

    Fan Works 
  • Loved and Lost: After Prince Jewelius seizes the throne of Equestria, he legalizes slavery and sentences Applejack and Pinkie Pie to work as galley slaves. They're stuck in this situation for one week before the other discredited heroes free them.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The Adventures of Philibert, Captain Virgin: Count Clotindre's favorite method of disposing of someone is to send them "to the galleys", doubling as a Shout-Out to Ben Hur. One of his Black Squadron guards, Martin and Philibert end up there.
  • Ben Hur (1959) was the first film to popularize this trope. The title character spent a few years on a Roman slave galley.
  • The Crimson Permanent Assurance, the Monty Python short at the beginning of Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, has a scene in which the hard-working accountants switch to galley slaves, complete with BONG-BONG-BONG drummer.
  • Erik the Viking also has a slave galley (chasing the heroes' boat). Here the brutal first mate is Japanese (with silly subtitles).
  • A very weird example in Fashions of 1934. The wild, trippy Busby Berkeley Number includes a scene with a "slave galley" on a stage set, filled with half-naked chorus girls, all wearing platinum blonde wigs, smiling beatifically as they row.
  • The Magic Christian has a brief scene in which a modern cruise ship is revealed to be powered by topless female galley slaves driven by a whip-wielding stripperific Raquel Welch. Played for laughs.
  • Les Misérables (1935): The novel frequently refers to Valjean as a galley slave. This is due to the words "galley" and "galley slaves" continuing to be used in French for a kind of penitentiary (bagne in French) and their inmates, long after they were not actual slave galleys anymore. This film, however, takes the term literally — Marius' group, rather than aiming to overthrow the monarchy, now wants the prisoners to not be treated like slaves while in the galleys.
  • Monsieur Vincent: Still in use in 17th century France, complete with slave drivers banging a drum and whipping the men on the oars. Vincent is so horrified by what he sees that he takes the place of a galley slave at an oar.
  • The undead crew of the Black Pearl in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl used galley oars for a speed advantage. Since the crew were immortal zombies, they could conceivably push to flank speed for hours at a stretch, and still be ready to fight when they caught their prey.
  • The Sea Hawk Thorpe and the other surviving crew of the Albatross are sentenced to this by the Inquisition.
  • In The Three Stooges Meet Hercules, the boys and the romantic lead end up as these. This eventually causes steering issues.
  • Up Pompeii: Lurcio has a Have We Met? moment with another slave, Gorgo. Lurcio doesn't recognize him at first, and the other guy only realizes when he sees the back of his head. He sat behind him in the galley, so that's all he saw of him for all those years, but he would recognize the back of that bonce anywhere after that.
  • The Smokers from Waterworld showed off their cruelty by forcing their crew to move their flagship - a supertanker - by muscle power. This is spectacularly stupid since the supertanker weighs 30,000 tons even before loading any cargo, but Scifi Writers Have No Sense Of Scale.


  • The overseer to the galley slaves: "Men, I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is, you get as much as you want for breakfast. The bad news is, the captain wants to go water skiing."
  • British humor: A new galley slave replaces an old one who has died. As the old slave's body is flung overboard, the overseer flogs the rest of the slaves, who respond by opening their breech-clouts and urinating into the air. Confused, the new slave asks his bench-mate what is going on, and receives the reply "we always have a whip-round and a piss-up when somebody leaves." (collection of money and a drinking party)

  • Conan the Barbarian:
    • In The Hour of the Dragon, Conan is kidnapped and taken aboard a ship with galley slaves. He turns the tables on his captors, however, when he notices some old comrades among the galley slaves and convinces them to mutiny.
    • It happened again/beforehand in the City of Skulls, where he escapes with his friend Juma by breaking off part of an oar and beating his slavers to death with them.
  • The Crimson Shadow: This is where anyone the Huegoths capture ends up on. It's considered a Fate Worse than Death.
  • The Death Gate Cycle: Humans made prisoners by the Tribus elves of Arianus are often forced into flight harnesses to move the wings of the elves' flying ships, a very difficult and dangerous task. Later, after the human/elven war ends, the need to move galleys still remains and the elves resort to paying volunteer rowers instead — and a lot of former galley slaves, having built up quite a bit of practice and without many other career options, sign up for this job. The narration notes that, somewhat paradoxically, many become quite proud of their career, now that they are doing it by choice as paid professionals.
  • Discussed in Eric. When Rincewind and Eric are transported back to the time of the Tsortean War and taken captive by the Tsorteans as enemy spies, the interrogator threatens to put them as rowers on a trireme. He says that if they cooperate, he can put in a good word so that they get to be on the top deck.note  Later, he tells them that if they're trying to trick him, there is such a thing as quinquiremes.
  • "The Finest Story in the World", a Rudyard Kipling short story, involves an unimaginative would-be writer remembering in vivid detail his past life as a Greek galley slave, while believing that he's inventing it.
  • The Golden Crown: The time traveling Harry Hawkins is sold as a slave to Romans and finds himself on a ship heading who-knows-where. Lucky for him, pirates burn down the ship (after he grabs the key, and unlocks all the other rowers).
  • Gor: One of the few roles a male slave could live and die in. Captain Bosk made it a practice to free slaves of captured vessels, which made them more motivated rowers, and fighters when necessary, out of gratitude and aversion to re-enslavement.
  • In The Long Ships, protagonist Orm and his companions are captured in Spain while on a viking trip, and spend two years as galley slaves.
  • Master Of Whitestorm begins with the titular character and his slaves working the same oar of a Mhurgai ship.
  • In Les Misérables, the main character is referred to as a galley slave ("galérien"), as was typical at the time, even though by that point the prisoners were no longer allowed to serve as actual galley slaves. However some translations seem to be slightly confused by this and have Valjean as an actual galley slave, as do some of the films. Valjean and those like him were more like enslaved dock workers/manual laborers.
  • Outcast, Rosemary Sutcliff's second and worst-researched Roman novel, has its protagonist Beric arrested and sentenced to row a Roman army transport galley on the Rhine. His oarmate is a dreamy artist with an Incurable Cough of Death, leaving Beric in the role of barbarian best friend.
  • Redwall:
    • Legend of Luke, Mariel of Redwall, and Mossflower incorporate oar slaves for the pirates. More often than not the heroes will end up killing the ship's crew and freeing the slaves.
    • Averted in some later books where the baddies hold slaves, but do not use them on the ships.
  • Saxon Chronicles: Uhtred, the Anti-Hero, spends some time as an oar-slave. Instead of the traditional Scary Black Man friend, he instead finds himself a crazy badass Irishman. They keep each other angry enough to survive.
  • In The Sea Hawk, this happens to the hero when he is betrayed by his younger brother. He later returns the favor to said betrayer.
  • A Series of Unfortunate Events: In "The Grim Grotto", as well as it's adaptation, the villain's submarine is powered by the labour of the snowscouts, whom they abducted in the previous book.
  • Sevenwaters: In Son of the Shadows, one of the Painted Man's men had this as his backstory - captured by Vikings as a way to supplement their losses, freed by the Painted Man who asked the chained slaves to row them to Ulster, after which they could either go free with a bit of gold or stay with him.
  • The Ship Of Ishtar: The eponymous ship is crewed by Galley Slaves in the alla scaloccio type arrangement, with two guys on each oar. Adventurer Archaeologist John Kenton, having been magically transported onto the ship from the 1920s, is Made a Slave and put to work there. His rowing partner is a big warm-hearted Viking called Sigurd. When John takes a whipping meant for Sigurd, Sigurd swears Blood Brothership with him. Far from dying for him, Sigurd helps John and two other allies plan and execute a mutiny.
  • Shogun: Played with. When Blackthorne sees the galley that will transport him to the capital, he panics thinking its a slave ship and is willing to die in order not to be a galley slave. It is revealed that the rowers were all full samurai doing their duty rather than slaves.
  • Solomon Kane: At least one story mentions that Kane spent some time as a Turkish galley slave.
  • Time Machine Series:
    • In The Mystery of Atlantis, the hero can end up as a galley slave at one point. Being a time-traveller, he simply time travels out of there while everyone are hanging their heads down out of fatigue.
    • In Sword of the Samurai, the time traveler can wind up getting conscripted into rowing for a Mongol ship heading to invade Japan. All the Japanese galley slaves start cheering when they see the original Kamikaze is about to wreck the Mongol fleet. The hero quickly makes an emergency jump in time before he can be caught up in the deadly typhoon.
  • The Tough Guide to Fantasyland: If a male character is enslaved, chances are he'll probably wind up chained to an oar in one of these. Jones notes that, since these galleys only ever seem to contain rows of chained-up slaves and nothing in the way of merchandise or soldiers, it's a bit difficult to understand why people keep building them. In fact, it's the only way to reach any Offshore Islands. Though an unpleasant experience, before long they'll be able to break out with a Large Man who they befriend, kill their owners and escape by swimming away.
  • World of the Five Gods: In The Curse of Chalion, Cazaril's backstory is revealed to contain two life-changing experiences/epiphanies during his 19 months as a rower on a Slave Galley (three if you count the circumstances of him ending up on there to begin with). He also fits the Scary Black Man slotnote  noted in the description insofar as a 'boy from a good family' dumped next to him was concerned. Greeting him as one would a lad sharing a tavern bench, sharing his water ration, teaching him, and in the end earning a near-fatal flogging defending him from a rapist.
  • Wulfrik: Averted: Wulfrik only takes volunteers to crew his longship, and actually has more candidates than seats so he has them fight a Duel to the Death and hire the winners (and when he's in a hurry, doesn't even bother with the first part). Shanghaing (or "bashing and stashing" as it's referred to) is looked down on.
    I'll not sail with a man too much a coward to do so willingly.
  • In The Young King by Oscar Wilde, the titular character's second dream is that he is aboard a ship rowed by a chain gang of slaves, who are whipped by a galley master if they stop rowing. One slave is then made to dive to gather pearls for the Young King's sceptre; this slave dies soon after. Later, the Young King refuses to carry this sceptre.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Doctor Who: In "The Romans", the heroes are separated while visiting Nero's Rome, and Ian ends up enslaved and working a galley.
  • Horrible Histories: S1E6 has "Things to remember when you're a Galley slave": a two-part parody of airline passenger announcements.note 
  • The Carol Burnett Show had at least two sketches involving galley slaves.

  • The closing song of Accept's Stalingrad album is "The Galley", a lengthy song about the hopelessness of being a galley slave.
  • Heather Alexander's song "Yo Ho" is about being kidnapped and put to work as a galley. It's not a very happy song.
  • Brian McNeill's "A Far North Land" makes note of the Rev. John Knox having spent time as a galley slave (of the French) in the second verse.

  • The Goon Show had fun with this in "The Histories of Pliny the Elder".
    Ecclus: I've never done this before.
    Hortator: Faster, you dogs!
    Bluebottlus: He wants us dogs to go faster.
    Hortator: Silence, you scum!
    Ecclus: He wants us scum to go silent.
    Hortator: Or do you want a taste of the lash?!
    Bluebottlus: No, thanks, I've just had some cocoa.

    Tabletop Games 
  • On Games Workshop 's game Man of War, the Empire and High Elf crews are all volunteers, whilst Dark Elves, Chaos and Greenskins favour slaves.
  • Many of these ply the waters in Pathfinder's Inner Sea region, but perhaps most iconic is the Burnt Saffron, an apparently cursed slave ship where unfortunate captives suffer under the lash of a sadistic gnoll first mate.
  • One of the "bad endings" of the Tunnels & Trolls solo adventure City of Terror, has your character end up as galley slave. "You learn to enjoy your life as a galley slave, it's not bad.. But it is HELL, when the captain wants to water-ski."

  • In The Duchess of Malfi, Bosola spent some years in the galleys, the last punishment for serious crimes before execution, for murder. This may explain his initial attitude.

    Video Games 
  • Big Karnak have a stage set on a slave ship cruising on the Nile. The ship is filled with rowing slaves who ignores you, and can't be harmed while you fight off mooks on the decks and masts.
  • Downplayed in Golden Sun. Monsters attack the ship Isaac and his friends are on, and by the time you fight each wave off, one of the (voluntarily employed) rowers has been put out of commission. After each round, you have to pick one of the NPC passengers to press-gang into service as a replacement for the rest of the voyage, whether they like it or not. Choosing the "right" combination of replacements will actually unbalance the rowers, sending the ship off-course and getting you early access to the Bonus Dungeon.
  • They aren't seen on-screen, but one NPC in Mount & Blade: Warband will buy prisoners for this purpose. He pays a flat rate of 50 Denars each, meaning basic units like recruits and bandits will sell for more than other Ransom Brokers will pay, but you get a lot less for high-tier units.

    Web Comics 
  • Manly Guys Doing Manly Things: Commander Badass, time traveling super-soldier from the future, tells Jared about a time he and his family/squad were press-ganged into service on board a Viking slave galley. He mentions this off-hand to explain how he finally got his Heroic Build, and provides no further context.
    Commander: After that, it was easier to just keep it up rather than yo-yo back and forth every time we got captured again.
  • Spoofed in this strip from Oglaf.

    Western Animation 
  • Primal: In the season 2 The Colossaeus three-parter, the titular Colossaeus is a gigantic warship whose oars are pulled by an enslaved race of giants. The Colossaeus's queen spared one, the only one who fought back when her soldiers invaded their pacifistic village, to be a battle thrall instead. When he rebels, he frees all the oarsmen, and inspired by his example they soon demonstrate the only thing keeping them in chains was their own aversion to fighting back.
  • In the Simpsons episode "Kamp Krusty", in the scene where the kids at the camp are forced to sew cheap wallets for selling, Kearney keeps the beat on a drum in the background like in this type of scene.
  • We see one of theses in an episode of The Story Keepers when the characters get stuck on a Roman ship. When the ship is attacked and starts sinking the slaves have to be released from their chains before they drown.
  • One episode of Tiny Toon Adventures portrays its own animation staff this way, with Buster Bunny as the cruel drum-beating coxswain who beats up anyone who asks for more money.
    Buster: Faster! Cheaper! Cheaper! Faster!

    Real Life 
  • Usually averted in the Sword and Sandal era, where it was actually far less common (though not unknown) than is usually believed.
    • Slave galleys were a staple of Renaissance naval warfare when it became normal to put several men on an oar. In Ancient and Medieval times freemen were preferred because rowing one man to an oar required more skill.
    • The Roman Army's Naval Service only wanted free men, who were paid well, well trained, and highly motivated by the chance of citizenship at the end of their tenure. Since ramming and boarding actions were a staple of ancient sea combat, you'd need fast ships crewed by professionals willing to do their best. As a further reason, if the ship was boarded, a crew of angry and armed free men rowers was a far better second line of defense than chained, unhappy slaves.
    • Being a Galley Rower was also a prestigious Athenian Navy position, for similar reasons as their Roman counterparts. It is true that the rowers were thetes—the lower class of Athenian citizennote —this was purely economic; the thetes were the most numerous citizens, as well as the only ones who couldn't afford the weapons needed to fight on land.note  Athens recognized the importance of its navy to its defense (calling them, famously, the "wooden walls") and later their importance to the Athenian Empire, and honored the rowers accordingly. The thetes also tended to be most favorable towards going to war, because being a galley rower was a better-paying and much more prestigious job than was available to them in peacetime.
    • The Carthaginian Navy rowersnote  had living and training requirements similar to a modern athlete. No wonder their Navy was so feared in the Mediterranean.
  • Played straight in the Renaissance when the chief tactic was to mount as many cannon (no more than five) as could be fitted onto the bow, gain a positional advantage, and sweep the opposing deck with shot before boarding. This required less delicacy than ramming and the rowing methods of the time meant that the chief desire was having more reserves.
  • The galley was obsolete as a deep-water warship already in the end of 16th century, as sailing ships could carry far more cannons. The main reason why they were built after that date was primarily penal: they had important roles in interior seas like the Mediterranean and Baltic due to weaker winds and tides meaning maneuver by muscle was far more important and could occasionally get an advantage over pure sailing ships. However, their actual reason for existence was to be floating prisons and forced labour institutions.
  • Averted in the Baltic Sea. Galleys did see some use until the 19th century in shallow, coastal waters, such as in the Baltic archipelagoes during the wars between Sweden and Russia, but they were not manned by slaves. Both the Swedes and the Russians used conscripts as rowers. They had their weapons (usually short musket and sabre) aside their thwarts and they acted as marines once boarding action or littoral invasion was commenced. Also, both nations simply didn't practice slavery, and use of forced labor like convicts was deemed impractical for the reasons depicted above. While Russia had a serfdom at that time, which was sometimes hardly distinguishable from slavery, enlistment always immediately freed a person, and a military service was seen as a prestigious, if taxing occupation.
    • Galley rowers do not bear the stigma of slaves either in Russia, Sweden or Finland even today. They have traditionally seen as marine soldiers. The main building of Finnish Naval Warfare Academy in Helsinki, Finland, is affectionately known as Kivikaleeri (Stone Galley).
  • This played a decisive role in the Battle of Lepanto, where most rowers on both the Ottoman and Holy League fleets were either slaves (Ottomans) or convicts (League except for Venice, that still used one man per row and thus relied on skilled volunteers): when the Ottomans, in a last ditch effort to revert the course of the battle, attacked and boarded the League flagship (a Spanish ship, thus crewed by convicts) and were about to win the League admiral don Juan of Austria ordered to free the rowers on his and the surrounding ships to use as reinforcements, thus getting the upper hand, and when the Ottoman admiral Sufi Ali Pasha did the same the Christian slaves he had as rowers promptly rebelled.


Video Example(s):


Ben-Hur in the Slave Galley

Condemned for a crime he didn't commit, Judah Ben-Hur is forced to work as a galley slave.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (1 votes)

Example of:

Main / SlaveGalley

Media sources: