Our vessel was heavily laden with a rich cargo of leather-goods, silks, spices and ceramics from the best warehouses in Venice. It promised great wealth to the merchants in London who owned our ship and even as a lowly seaman I was to receive a modest bonus from them. We'd sailed down the Adriatic and were about to enter the Middle Sea when we were becalmed; now our heavily laden ship sat on the ocean's still surface like an overfed goose too lazy to either swim or fly.
I sensed the deep concern of our captain and the more experienced sailors. They knew these were dangerous waters at the best of times but to be wallowing helplessly as we were filled them with dread for these were the territorial waters of the Corsair pirates who operated out of Tripoli. As a young, inexperienced sailor I didn't understand their anxiety and was puzzled by the way they constantly scanned the shimmering horizons. But the hoarse cry from our lookout high up in the ship's rigging had enough panic in it to alarm me. My alarm grew as I watched the panic of the older hands as they crowded to the rails of the ship and peered out to starboard. At first I saw nothing; then as my eyes adjusted to the early morning haze, I saw them.
At first they were just three small black specks on the distant horizon but as I watched they grew larger until at last I could see the sun light shining on the brightly coloured lateen sails of three dark hulled vessels. Even from that distance, I could see the sun's rays flashing on the oars as they rose and dipped in unison. I'd caught sight of my destiny.
The general panic that overtook our doomed ship was infectious. We sat low and stationary in the water and without wind to fill our sails we had nowhere to run. And given the speed with which the three galleys were gaining on us, our ship stood little chance of escape against the combined muscle power of the nearly five hundred, wretched slaves manning their oars.
Perpetually scourged by the whips of their whip-masters, these slaves were driven to impossible feats of endurance as they bent their sweat sodden backs and straining arms to their heavy oars. Now assured of the rich prize that sat helplessly ahead of them, the captains of the three galleys ordered a quickening of the drumbeats and a corresponding increase in the oar strokes. As the tempo of the drums increased, the overseers enthusiastically applied their whips to the straining backs of the miserable slaves. While the whips whistled and crackled over their heads, the slaves rowed in silence and were prevented from giving voice to their suffering by the wooden gags clasped firmly between their teeth.
These gags are a necessary accoutrement of the galley slave and they are worn on a leather thong around his neck - I wear one - and along with the chains that secure him to his rowing bench, it is the only thing to adorn his naked body. Its purpose is twofold; to prevent the slave biting into his tongue as he takes the strain of the oar and to help him maintain his silence as the galley captain and his officers shout orders to their crew. From our Master's point of view this makes good sense. Ninety slaves all groaning and grunting as they ply their oars can be both noisy and distracting.
Jubilantly, the Corsairs anticipated the easy capture of our merchantman, its rich cargo and the taking of yet more slaves to carry back to the slave-market in Tripoli.
I had heard of the Barbary pirates - who hadn't - and I had been brought up with tales of their daring and cruelty. As children, our clergymen had called them Satan's spawn and we'd been taught to regard them as the devil's fiends waiting to carry us away to horrors more dreadful than the fiery pits of Hell. Their boldness was legendary and all honest folk living along the shorelines of Europe never knew where the Corsairs would strike next - destroying their homes and carrying them into slavery in North Africa. Even the distant, southern coasts of England and Ireland had suffered their depredations. So now, as I noted the blind fear and panic of my fellow sailors, I was overcome with a feeling of impending doom. Was there nothing to save us from these merciless demons?
My terror-filled, fellow sailors re-acted in different ways; some ran aimlessly around in sheer panic, others sought hiding places in the most remote parts of the ship; their effort were to prove fruitless as the pirates are experts in ferreting out the bolthole of any potential slave seeking to hide himself. Others sought refuge in the sea by leaping overboard thereby choosing a quick death by drowning rather than face the slow, lingering death of slavery. Others were like me and just stood dazed at the awful prospect confronting us. Whatever we did it would be in vain; within two hours those of us who survived would all be stripped naked, placed in shackles and stowed in the slave holds of the three galleys.
I stood by the ship's rail and watched helplessly as the three galleys loomed larger. Even with the powerful strokes of their oars it still took well over an hour for them to be close enough for me to clearly make them out. They had been travelling abreast of one another when suddenly the two outer galleys veered away in a manoeuvre that was meant to encircle us. Now I could hear the incessant beat of their tambours setting the pace for their oarsmen and I could see the rise and dip of the oars keeping harmony with each beat of the drums.
Then, I was unaware of the true horrors of a galley but to my inexperienced eyes they were things of beauty. Their sleek, black hulls were designed for speed and the triangular shape of their colourful sails reminded me of some exotic bird's wings. Even the massive wooden oars moving in perfect unison with one another added to this illusion. But then my senses awoke me to the true horrors of the galleys; wafting across the surface of the sea my nostrils was assailed by the sickening smell of their unfortunate victims. The putrid smell of unwashed, sweating bodies, urine and human excrement caught at the back of my throat and I found myself dry-retching. I'd never smelt anything like it not even in the fetid streets of our home port, London or Venice. It was my introduction to the malodorous conditions existing on all galleys and one with which I am now well acquainted.
Next I heard the abusive shouts of the impatient whip-masters exhorting their charges to superhuman endeavour. I could see the constant rise and fall of their whips and I could hear the loud thwack as leather and flesh met; silenced by their gags the unfortunate slaves weren't able to vocalise their dreadful suffering. Suddenly, as I watched the appalling scenes being played out before me I saw these men - who were soon to be my masters - as true demons from Hell and I was afraid.
From that moment on, everything was a blur. Detached from reality I felt that I was watching some unfolding nightmare from the sidelines. But this wasn't the case; I was very much a part of what was happening. I heard the lessening of the drumbeats and saw the slowing of the oars as two galleys drew alongside our vessel whilst the third stopped behind us and all three held us in their vice-like grip. The fresh sea air was fouled by the nauseating stench of nearly five hundred wretched slaves who were about to enjoy a brief respite from their inhuman labours.
The oars were withdrawn and slowly the two galleys were allowed to drift sideways until they bumped the sides of our ship. The leering, shouting pirates crowded to the sides of the galleys and waved their fearsome scimitars at us. If this was meant to intimidate us then they were most successful. With nowhere else to go, we huddled dejectedly together on the deck like a mob of frightened, jostling sheep; each of us sought to lose ourselves among our companions.
Then as the pirates ran out their gangplanks and swarmed aboard our doomed ship we were overwhelmed by their numbers. Cowed by their incomprehensible shouting and the loud cracking of their whips we were soon surrounded by a mob of jeering, laughing Corsairs. They wasted little time in preparing us for slavery.
Whilst some pirates sought out any hidden crew members, those of us on deck were quickly dealt with. One by one we were dragged from the refuge of our huddle, stripped naked, humiliatingly examined to see that we were in good health and placed in chains.
Those considered not suitable as slaves were swiftly and cruelly dealt with; they were simply tossed overboard. The ship's cook, who had befriended me when I joined the ship's crew, was one such victim. He was jovial man with a large girth who laughed a lot but he walked with a limp. I watched in horror as he was dragged struggling and begging for mercy to the bow of our ship and tossed over the side like a slop pail of garbage.
It was at that moment that I understood my true plight. I was now a slave and my only value was in my capacity to work and meet the demands of my new Masters. The moment I could no longer meet these demands, I too would be dealt with as ruthlessly as the cook. These cruel men were without pity or mercy and had no feeling for their slaves.
Once we'd been processed- and all hidden crewmembers found- we were divided into two groups and driven over the gangplanks onto the galley that was to be both our prison and transport to wherever our captors were taking us. I stumbled blindly over the gangplank and into the waist of the galley. Here I saw the appalling conditions of the oar slaves who, exhausted from their labours, lay slumped over their oars. As I shuffled along the walkway separating the rowing pits, I looked in horror at the serried ranks of naked, whip scarred backs still bleeding from the open cuts the slaves had received during this latest chase.
Ahead of me, one of my crewmates stumbled over his ankle chains and fell to the walkway. He was shown no mercy; momentarily our sorry group paused as an angry overseer whipped him to his feet. Then from behind there were more angry, incomprehensible shouts and much cracking of whips as we were driven forward. For the first time I tasted leather as a whip wrapped itself around my upper body like some venomous, black snake and I heard myself scream. But the whip had its desired effect upon me and I pressed forward in an effort to escape its fiery sting.
Ahead of us, a pirate opened a hatch in the walkway and still driven by the whips we all tumbled down steep wooden steps into an unspeakable horror. We were unprepared for the dark, fetid hold which was to house us until we reached port. Barely high enough for us to stand, we had to stoop as we were driven to the extreme end of the hold.
Our shackles prevented us from lifting our feet and we were reduced to shuffling through the noxious, ankle deep, bilge water. As we moved, our feet stirred up all manners of filth and released the pungent odours that permeated the hold; subsequently, we were to learn this foul smelling, greenish liquid is a mixture of sea water and the seepage from the ordure of the galley slave benches directly above our heads. Driven into a corner we were left to fend for ourselves; this was to be our home for the rest of the voyage. Here we huddled together as a group and tried to find some solace and comfort in still being together.
My eyes were as yet unaccustomed to the gloom, but I was able to make out the shadowy figures of other wretched captives who, like me, had been roughly seized and enslaved. We, all of us, were doomed and destined for the auction block in Tripoli.
The voyage to Tripoli took fourteen days - I think. In the semi darkness of our prison it was hard to keep an accurate count of the days; our time was measured by the rowing sessions of the slaves toiling at the oars just above our heads. We were able to hear their rasping breathing as they strained at the oars, their grunts and groans of extreme exertion and more fearfully for us the shouts and snapping of the overseers' whips as the slaves were exhorted to 'bend their backs and apply more muscle’ to their endeavours. Fearfully we listened to the slaves' torment directly above us and I think many of us saw this as an insight into our own fates.
Any effort at conversation between us was frustrated by the monotonous and repetitive beating of the drum setting the stroke pace for the rowers. The loud drumbeats deafened our ears and imprinted themselves into our consciousness until mercifully our minds at last shut down and lessened our hearing to the intensity of their beat. But they were always there - in the background – reminding us that with each beat of the drum and with each stroke of the oar we were that much closer to our destination.
We were fed and watered spasmodically; certainly there wasn't any set pattern to it. But when the Corsairs did bring food and water we were always sufficiently hungry or thirsty to beg for more – our meagre rations of hard weevilly, biscuit and rancid water were never enough. Clambering over one another, we thrust out our hands and pleaded with our captors for more and if necessary we took the food out of another's hands. Bit by bit our humanity crumbled and we became selfish to our own needs and ignored all others. Our hunger pangs and our thirst overcame our concern for others and in such conditions the strong thrived and the weak grew weaker. It was survival of the fittest and I was strong.
Gradually our stomachs and throats grew accustomed to this irregular feeding and our nostrils no longer wrinkled at the ever present stench of the slaves toiling above us or of ourselves. We had no alternative other than to add our own vomit, urine and excrement to the foul soup in which we either sat or squatted. Stripped of our freedom and clothing and reduced to such animal like behaviour we no longer cared and quickly lost all hope.
Trapped in the dismal gloom of our prison, day slowly followed night and the dull monotony of inactivity stretched before us. Soon we longed for release from our dreadful surroundings and for my part; I wanted only to be taken out from the stench and filth and once more to fill my lungs with fresh, sea air. I no longer worried about what my future fate might be; nothing could be worse than this vile place - or so I thought. I was to be proved wrong.
Then one day, lost in my usual stupor, I suddenly sensed something was changing. We'd been rowing furiously since dawn and now some two or three hours later the drumbeats lessened and the oars slowed down and I could hear the excited chattering and shouting of our captors. Could it be that we had arrived at our destination?
My fellow prisoners also sensed this difference and they stirred themselves from their lethargy and began to whisper animatedly among themselves. Those of us who were seaman knew from the galley's movements that we had reached port and that it was moving into dock. The drum's beat and oars ceased and we heard the grating sounds as the oars were withdrawn from the water and pulled aboard the galley through their rowlocks. My newly acquired seaman's knowledge felt the almost imperceptive movement of the galley as it drifted sideways towards its mooring and I could hear the gentle lapping of water against the outside of the hull. Suddenly, there was a shuddering bump as our galley and wharf touched and those of us who were standing were knocked off our feet and sent sprawling into the obnoxious bilge. As we scrambled to our feet, we heard the loud cheering of our captors.
They had every reason to cheer. On this, only their second pirating voyage of the season, they had returned to Tripoli in triumph. All three galleys were low in the water, laden down with the rich pickings of their raids; their holds were full of booty and held many prisoners destined for the slave market. And lumbering along behind them was the merchant ship of which I'd so recently been a crew member. Yes, the Corsairs had reason to cheer at the prospect of the rich bonuses they would receive and of spending a few days on shore before returning to sea.
And of course, their slaves will also welcome this break from the backbreaking labour of the oars. Naturally, there won't be any rest for them; they will be put to work immediately unloading the precious cargo and moving it to the nearby warehouses before provisioning the galleys and making them ready for sea once more.
But for the next few days there will be blessed relief from the backbreaking labour at the oars and they will enjoy their freedom of movement - even if their backs are bent beneath their heavy burdens.
And after the restrictive confinement of the rowing benches, they will indeed regard themselves as fortunate.
To be continued......................