The History

When thinking about galleys one conjures up all kinds of images from different periods and civilizations: from the galleys of the Egyptians, Persians, Greeks to the oared Roman trireme. Mostly one thinks about the oars, raising and falling in unison with bodies of men sweating and being whipped by the overseer, as in an old 1935 Errol Flynn movie. What I think of is the French galley of the 17th and 18th century.

King Louis the XIV established the Galley Corps in the 1660's. It was designed as a tool of his Royal authority, an extension of his policies and aspirations, as well as a symbol of his power and control. The royal galleys were designed to carry out his royal plans and inspire the loyalty and obedience of his subjects.

Officers and commanders were picked from the aristocratic nobility of France and the Knights of Malta. For generations aristocratic families in France sent their young sons to serve on the galleys of the Order of St. John. They pledged vows of fidelity to the Grand Master and the Roman Catholic faith.

The fighting forces were manned and commanded by the infantry. Only limited experience at sea was needed. Brains, fighting skill and courage were most desired.

In the Mediterranean, galleys survived well into the late 18th century. Many of the small principalities and city states of North Africa were poor, disunified and did not have the resources or large ship yards for the heavy gun warships. Galleys were cheap to build, of light construction, shallow draft and useful for coastal forays. Large sailing warships and ordinance were prohibitive, took a longer time to construct and the knowledge and materials to build them were difficult to obtain. The number of guns needed for a ship of the line would arm a fleet of galleys. More ever there was a good chance that such a ship could be lost.

There were other reasons for the French galleys to operate. They were not dependent on the winds which were often fickle especially along the coasts, shallows and narrows of the Aegean and Adriatic seas. Galleys usually sailed within sight of land, making landfall at night. If bad weather was sighted, they often sought coastal harbors for shelter. Another reason, but a depressing one, for the need of galleys was the lack of a good prison system in France and throughout Europe.

The Galley Corps spent six months in port, mostly in winter. A week was a long voyage. Campaigns were the only time when every officer, soldier, crewman and oarsman was aboard for a significant length of time. When under sail the oars or sweeps as they are called were brought on deck, lined neatly across the thwarts keeping the cat walk free of obstacles.

The Galley Corps, as part of the Royal sea going navy, was abolished by King Louis the XV in 1748. But the galley was not dead, not by any stretch of the imagination. Constant wars and conflicts maintained the need for galleys to patrol the coast.

The Galley's major problem was where to find crew to man the oars. One solution was to use North African prisoners of war. At any given time one third of the rowing force on French galleys were Moslem prisoners of war. Theses prisoners were the most sought after Galley force because of their endurance, physical strength and ability to withstand hardship and adversity. Even the Church of Rome supported the practice of enslaving infidels (Moslems) on Papal Galleys. On the other hand, during this time, the Moslem nations were also condemning Christians to enslavement on their galleys. Turkey and Egypt the main countries in the Ottoman Empire presented an ever growing threat to Europe. This menace was augmented by Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli and Sale' which formed a loose Confederation, in the Ottoman Empire.

Another solution to the shortage in rowing force was to impress men from the extremely over crowded French prison system. Chain gangs, usually an average of 100 men were condemned to the galleys regularly. Whether from chain gangs or prisons, these men were murders, thieves, army deserters and forgers. At this time in history, however, your crime need not be large to be imprisoned. Prisoners could be beggars, gypsies, vagabonds, vagrants, Protestants or simply misfits. Even Native American Indians found themselves at the oars of the French Galleys. Any of these groups could and did find themselves doomed to slavery and misery on galleys without the formality of a trial.

Conflicts in the region were causing instability and loss of commerce as well as the loss of life. King Louis XIVmade treaties which brought about an era of peace and prosperity. Although The Pope in Rome was at odds with Louis' policy of leniency toward the Moslems, this trend would continue. Other Christian countries joined in these policies. Growth in commerce was assured.

As times changed and fewer infidels and slaves were coming into Marseilles, the prisoners aboard the galleys were released, because of the new treaties. A need for a large galley force was cut by a third. Fewer galleys were built.

By the 1730's the galley officers were keenly aware of this decay in the Galley Force. They had only to look around and see the deplorable conditions. There were fewer galleys. Many were unseaworthy and still others needed service maintenance. Everywhere about the naval base there was evidence of deterioration. The arsenal formerly busy with sounds of carpenters, smiths, and sawyers was now mostly quiet. Unused materials for the galleys lay rotting or in storage.

Still there was a use for this type of vessel even though the Navy use was slowly dying. The crown's navel battles would no longer be fought by sending the grand Galley fleet sailing out in all its colors and grandeur. There was still a place for the galleys. There were still coasts to guard, especially against the Barbery pirates. Galleys were still useful in the diplomatic service to Spain and the Italian states.

Since galleys were often idle and tied up in port the galley convicts were pressed into shore duty. They repaired sea walls, built roads, dredged ports, and repaired city buildings as well as the royal dock yards.

Buildings were constructed in the naval arsenal to house the convicts and also provide work space for them. A new system was developing. The establishment of a "bagne" at Marseilles was proposed to Colbert, Louis the XIV's minister as early as 1669. A certain profit percentage would be paid to the King since this enterprise was financed and built on crown property. The bagne was comprised of entrepreneurs. A company of private persons seeking private profit.

The former Galley slaves worked on raw materials brought into Marseilles. Their output varied with previous experience. There were tailors, hatters, shoemakers, lacemakers, wigmakers, engravers, woodcarvers, knitters and even portrait painters among them. The convicts also worked on sails, making hardware and other products that could be used by the Galley Corps. The bagne resembled something like an early modern factory complex.

Most of the men who went from galleys to the bagne were deemed unable to "serve the oar" and were classified as invalid. These men were mostly fifty and older.

Once the bagne was established, the spill over into the citizenry was a natural consequence. A new market for new and different products was created. Household items, articles of clothing such as stockings were manufactured by the bagne. Some convicts were taken into the city and worked in taverns, did laundry, worked as assistants to some business or a trade or even served in apprenticeship to free craftsmen.

By the first quarter of the 18th century the oar was being replaced by the sail. This accelerated the unrelenting progress toward prison reform. Still the convict population was large. One way of dealing with the problem was to ship prisoners to the colonies in the Caribbean and New France in Canada. In the first half of the 19th century King Louis Philippe, rid France of some undesirables by creating the French Foreign Legion.

The Galley Corps were symbols to demonstrate Louis the XIV's superiority. With large gull wing sails spread out on their mast on opposite tracks, pendants streaming overhead on the hundred and forty foot yards and painted in bright contrasting colors blues and reds and lots of gold. Louis's galleys left strong impressions of his prestige and stately splendor. This influence was useful in his absolute regime.

Galleys in the mid 18th century had no chance of survival against a heavy armed sailing ship with large broadsides. Galleys had become obsolete and costly. The "Age of Enlightenment" has dawned which associated the galley with religious and political oppression. Thus the galley was looked at with increasing curiosity and contempt as a relic of a bygone age.

After the Corps were disbanded in 1748 the galleys were still used as state prisons. The last galleys were built in 1750 and were maintained for two decades. There were still nine galleys on the Navy list in 1773 and one was on campaign in the Mediterranean as late as 1799. Then they were gone forever.

The Model

The Heller kit from which my model was basically made from is sound in all ways. The Heller company is well known in the model kit world. This scale is 1/75 which is less than 3/16 of an inch equal a foot. I went with 5/32 inch equals one foot which is closer to scale of 1/75.

As with all companies that produce items for consumers there are many considerations and constraints since time reduces profit, shortcuts often take place. Heller is no different. The La Reale kit, I thought, had things that could be done better only if they took the time to do it.

The long oars or sweeps are made in one piece. The manille or hand grips are just narrow, solid plastic. At the center there were supposed to be heavy timbers for extra support and strength, and which prevent cracking when the oar is under pressure in the sea. Instead you get molded plastic to represent the timbers. Heller?s oars don't look right.

All the deck parts (furnishings) from the kit were replaced. I re-carved them in apple or pear wood. I used the originals as patterns and employed a good working caliper and vernier for better precision.

I did the same with the port and starboard railings, catheads, mast and the ships boat racks. The large ladder that goes to the covered canopy was also made in wood.

The plastic and printed paper canopy supplied by the kit was discarded. I copied the art work on red silk bought at a fabric store.

The heavy gold cord like thread that is around the perimeter of the canopy was replaced with very fine gold thread that I also got at the fabric store. I used a very fine gold felt tip pen for the ornamental filigree.

The dowl holding up the canopy are made from bass wood and the gold painted bullet like crowns are from the kit. I used steel pins to connect them.

The flag poles and pendants on the masts are made the same way as the canopy dowls. All the eyebolts and ring bolts are made from iron wire. Most of the pulleys and blocks on this vessel are scratch built and a few have been modified from model ship sources. The tassels in the rigging and on the stern are made of different size steel strands.

The ships boats are from the kit but are incomplete. I made ribs, floor boards, oars, eye bolts, brackets and a boat mast for the large craft.

Figures are all modified from Revell of Germany. One source of information for the wearing apparel of the period comes from prints in "The Serie Ancien Regime Textes Ets Peintunes Par Eugene Leliepvre."

The ships base is made from walnut stock. The pedestals are modified lamp shade finials. The ships name plate is made from a casting in Aluminite Super Plastic of an advertisement from a liquor bottle. This was painted in silver, black and gold to complete the look.

The model was interesting to build. I enjoyed the mystique of this vessel type which existed so long and yet little of its' history is known, especially in the United States. With research and building, in my spare time it over four years to complete.

The Pictorial