is the plight of the galley slave
Chained to this cold bench, six to the oar
Sentenced to an early grave."
A staple of the Sword & Sandal and Fantasy genres, firmly established by the film Ben-Hur (1959). 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.
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). 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.
Compare Gladiator Games, the alternative for a male slave in ancient times.
- 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".
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
Don Lope: But Turkish sailors?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- In The Three Stooges Meet Hercules, the boys and the romantic lead end up as these. This eventually causes steering issues.
- 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 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.
- 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 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."
- Discussed at length in the The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, where most of the embellishments noted on this page are also pointed out. Jones also notes that, since these galleys only ever seem to contain rows of chained-up slaves and nothing in the way of merchandise or soldiers (and for that matter often lack a clear reason for their voyage) it's a bit difficult to understand why people keep building them.
- Whole chapters of this in The Baroque Cycle. This is the Baroque Cycle, so 'whole chapters' doesn't mean much.
- 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.
- Uhtred, the Anti-Hero of Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Chronicles, 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.
- Cazaril's backstory in Lois McMaster Bujold's The Curse of Chalion 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.
- In the Golden Crown, by Chris Hiemerdinger, 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).
- In the World of 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.
- Robert E. Howard's 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.
- Played with in Shogun. 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- In the Sevenwaters book Son of the Shadows by Juliet Marillier, 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.
- A. Merritt's The Ship of Ishtar 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.
- Rudyard Kipling's 1891 short story "The Finest Story in the World" 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 Crimson Shadow: This is where anyone the Huegoths capture ends up on. It's considered a fate worse than death.
- 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.
- Discussed in the Discworld novel 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.
- In the early Doctor Who serial The Romans, the heroes are separated while visiting Nero's Rome, and Ian ends up enslaved and working a galley.
- In Frankie Howerd's Up Pompeii, the main character has a Have We Met?? moment with another slave. He doesn't recognize the other guy 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.
- Heather Alexander's song "Yo Ho" is about being kidnapped and put to work as a galley. It's not a very happy song.
- The closing song of Accept's Stalingrad album is "The Galley", a lengthy song about the hopelessness of being a galley slave.
- 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.
- 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."
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Usually averted in the Sword & 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 purely penal: 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.