Chapter 1: "Galleys on the Distant Horizon"
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
The sound of the tambour overrides the creak and splash of the oars; it drowns out the laboured breathing of my fellow slaves, the rattling of our chains and the sinister hiss and crack of the overseers' whips as they scourge our sweating, straining, naked bodies. And of course it dulls our answering screams as we cry out in agony.
The sun hangs like a molten ball of red-hot metal in a cloudless blue sky as our galley slices its way through the still, mirror-like surface of the sea. The sun broils my naked body already shredded by the whip, my throat is parched and my tongue clings to the dry roof of my mouth. How long is it since we were given our meagre ration of water? I don't know - for as long we have been rowing and it does seem forever - but it was in the semi-darkness of the predawn when I last tasted the cooling balm of water and my belly rumbles from its hunger pangs.
We aren't fed first thing in the morning - our Master won't allow it. In common with most galley masters, he believes a slave's belly should be empty when he is rowing; a full belly makes for a sluggish slave. So our food intake is limited to once a day at the end of our rowing shifts when the galley anchors for the night. In the cool of the evening, we are given our daily ration of dried dates and the weevil-infested biscuits soaked in what we euphemistically call 'slave wine'. This vile concoction is predominately stale tasting water and vinegar to which has been added a few drops of olive oil. The oil is considered necessary to keep our bowels open; again the thinking of our Master is that a constipated slave isn't able to give of his best at the oar. But quite the opposite effect can also result from this mixture and can cause great distress to an unfortunate slave. This is one the reasons why we are kept naked.
I am a new slave and this is my first voyage. I am twenty years old and was a seaman aboard an English merchant ship trading between Italy and my home-country. I was a peasant boy and I'd enthusiastically "gone to sea" to escape the drudgery of my rural existence. It's ironic that in escaping that drudgery, I have condemned myself to one a thousand times more terrible. I think of this constantly.
Oh, how I wish for the freedom of the green fields of rural England instead of this torture I now suffer. Often, I wallow in my self-pity and there are times when I lose concentration and don't pull hard enough on my oar. Always waiting behind me is an overseer whose whip snaps me out of my despondency and encourages me to fully apply myself to my work.
My owner is a merchant and he owns four, small galleys which trade along the North African coastline and further afield to the Ottomans. Each galley is equipped with thirty oars-fifteen on either side- and these are powered by three slaves apiece. Starting at the bow on the port side, all the slaves are numbered consecutively; I am number 27 - this has replaced my given name of Caleb – and toiling alongside me are numbers 25 and 26. I sit adjacent to the walkway which runs down the length of the galley from bow to stern. This is the domain of our overseers and whip masters who constantly prowl along its length looking for any slave who isn't extending himself at the oar. Should a slave be foolish enough not to give of his best then he can expect little mercy. The whips rain down on him until the overseer is satisfied he can give no more of himself. Even then they keep a sharp eye on the offending slave to ensure there is no slackening of the pace set by the constant boom of the drum. We pace our forward and backward strokes of the oars to the individual beats of this drum; the faster the beat then the faster we must row.
My position at the oar is the least desirable one. Positioned as it is alongside the walkway I am an easy target for the whip masters and several times this morning I have felt the fiery sting of the lash on my back.
How can I describe the unendurable pain of a galley slave? Who can imagine the unimaginable horrors of being worked like a beast-of- burden for that is what we are. We are no longer men deserving of respect and consideration, we have become animals whose only purpose is to propel this galley on its voyage. Stripped naked and shorn of our humanity the only demand made of us is that we serve our Master until we die of ill-treatment and exhaustion. Deprived of proper food and nourishment, we grow leaner as our Master's profits grow fatter from our exertions.
Today as I row, my naked body is racked with pain. Rowing places great stress on every muscle in my body and they scream out for relief. But there will be no relief until sundown. Then our Master will seek refuge from the open sea and anchor for the night in some secluded cove or inlet. There his overseers will feed and water us and we will be allowed to slump over our oars to rest and recuperate before we are awakened in the pre-dawn gloom, given our ration of slave wine and made ready for the new day's rowing.
My body tries to tell me it has reached the limits of its endurance, my mind screams out a silent "ENOUGH" but my fear of the whip keeps me working. My sweat trickles down my naked body; its saltiness irritates the lash marks on my back, stings my eyes and enters my mouth and adds to my thirst. My muscles flex and strain under the unrealistic demands made of them by the overseers and my oxygen starved lungs gasp and gulp at the hot, desert air drifting out over the sea from the nearby land.
We are never out of sight of the coastline; my Master prefers it that way. We are a merchant galley and not a war one so he seeks the security of a friendly port should we ever be confronted by an unfriendly vessel.
Already we have had one narrow escape when several days ago - I'm unsure of the exact number a time for a galley slave is measured by the duration of his rowing sessions and the hours of an all too short a rest period - we'd been chased by a man-o-war. Briefly, I dared to hope that rescue was at hand. Those hopes were cruelly dashed by the ever increasing beat of the tambour and the constant lashing of our bodies as we were made to row harder and faster to escape from our one chance of freedom. As the whips cut into my back, I cried tears of frustration at the cruel realisation of this.
The man-o-war was no match for our speed and manoeuvrability; we quickly out sped it and found safety within a shallow inlet. The man-o-war prowled the entrance to the cove for several hours like some hungry predator waiting to pounce on its prey and I and my fellow slaves stilled dared to hope. Eventually, it gave up and we watched despairingly as it changed course and sailed away. The victorious cheering of our Master and his crew added to our despondency and gloom. Once our Master felt it was safe to leave the sanctuary of the inlet, we were viciously whipped into action and made to row even faster to make up for the time he'd lost.
As I strain at my oar, I am confronted by the ranks of the slaves in front of me. It's possible to tell the period of service a slave has seen at the oars by the darkness of his skin, the filth of his body, the length of his matted hair and beard and the lacerations on his back. These lacerations on a slave's back speak of his suffering; the layering of these welts one on top of the other tells of the time he has spent at the oar. The early ones have dried and hardened into scar tissue while the more recent one are still healing and the most recent ones have opened his back and are bleeding. The bloody stripes on my own back show that I have only recently been put to the oar.
The forward and backward motion of the oars places an intolerable strain on my own striped back and I row with all my strength to avoid the whip. As I strain forward on the oar, the cuts on my back open and the sharp pain I feel is a constant reminder that I must keep rowing; I must keep the beat of the drum and maintain the pace of my fellow slaves or suffer the overseers' cruel whips. I apply myself to the herculean task before me with all the strength and vigour that my body possesses.
Inevitably, a galley slave's head becomes a void; empty of all thoughts and impervious to all but the mind-numbing and repetitious beating of the drum, the to and fro motion of his oar and the awful pain he suffers. His body is no longer his own and it ceases to function as a separate entity. He has become a mere cog in the vast engine that powers the galley. This then is the bleakness of my life and I am without hope.
Yet there are brief respites in the dull monotony of our existence. Whenever, we reach a port some of us are chosen to load and unload the galley's cargo or to replenish its water barrels. Because of our newness, my oar companion, 26 and I are usually two of the fortunate few chosen for this task. How I look forward to this; this chance to walk and to stretch my legs is a welcome one. Even though we struggle under heavy loads and the whips of our masters, I am overwhelmingly grateful for this brief respite from the drudgery of the oars.
I have even learned to close my mind and ears to the jibes and taunts of the port's citizens who have come to watch as we labour. The spectacle of hated Nasrani slaves toiling under the lash is one that both excites and delights them. I don't speak their language, but my intuition tells me that the comments of the youths who gather in great numbers to watch as we work are derogatory and demeaning to us. I know instinctively that they are laughing at our filthy nakedness and they cheer loudly each time a whip cuts across an exposed back or a bare arse. But these respites are all too rare and most of my time is spent chained to my rowing bench.
I share my bench with numbers 25 and 26. Twenty-five is a black-haired, Spaniard and has been at the oar for two years. Twenty-six is like me, a new arrival, and is a blond German. He was captured by the same corsairs who'd taken my vessel and we travelled in chains to the slave-market where our Master had bought us. Our Master is always on the lookout for young, robust slaves to replace any tired and worn-out ones no longer capable of pulling at the oar. Twenty-six and I had caught his eye and he'd bought us. Now we toil alongside one another and we share a bond of brotherhood in our common misery. It's not possible for us to speak during the day but at night, as we lay slumped over our oar, we do manage to steal a few brief moments when we exchange whispered words and we offer mutual support and comfort to one another. Invariably, our talks are abruptly ended by the whip of an ever vigilant overseer who orders us to keep quiet, to rest and save our energies for tomorrow's exertions.
During the night, I weep for my lost freedom and I'm sometimes aware that 26 is also crying. Twenty-five, now reconciled to his fate stopped crying many months ago. This behaviour is common for a newly captured slave. The shock of capture at sea, the journey into slavery in the foul-smelling bilge of a corsair galley and the indignity of being sold naked on the auction block all combine to traumatise the mind of a new slave.
I recall my own mounting despair as I stood on the deck of my ship and watched as three sleek corsair galleys sliced their ways through the azure blue sea towards us. It was early morning when we were taken.
To be continued............................