The Slave Ships of the Sun King

Some reflections on your article by Fintan O Toole. I have visited the Orange Mohawks of Tyendinaga at Deseronto, Ontario, Canada several times. Following their expulsion from their homeland in the Mohawk Valley for loyalty to the British cause, John Deseronto founded their new territory in May 1784, which they celebrate every year.

Ed: For Fintan O'Toole's book WHITE SAVAGE: WILLIAM JOHNSON AND THE INVENTION OF AMERICA (2005) , see my comments to

British Revolution, by Dr Ian Adamson OBE, Saturday, May 15. 2010;


In the year 1685, King Louis XIV of France, known as the Sun King, because of the opulence of his court, dealt his country a cruel blow by revoking the Edict of Nantes. For nearly a century this edict, introduced by King Henry IV of France, had allowed Protestants to worship freely and without persecution. With the Revocation countless refugees, the cream of French culture and commerce, sought sanctuary in many other Protestant countries. No one can ever calculate the enormous significance of the Huguenot contribution to Britain’s rise to a position of international pre-eminence in the next two centuries. Certainly everyone has cause to be thankful that the timely replacement of the Roman Catholic King James II by William III Prince of Orange spared our country a similar fate to that of France.

When diplomacy failed to increase France’s wealth and territory, Louis XIV had at his command an army of some 200,000 men to carry out his ambitions through military means. The great fact of the New Age in Europe was the advance of French arms and influence across the continent. The decadence of Spain, and the failure of Germany and Italy to produce one formidable power among the innumerable states into which their vast territories were divided, left the way open for the ambition of France. Her unity in internal organisation had been perfected by Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin (who was reputed to be the real father of Louis XIV himself), and bequeathed by them to Louis XIV and the brilliant group of soldiers and statesmen who served him in his youth. In the ten years since the death of Oliver Cromwell the danger had been apparent to the entire world. The states of Europe, Catholic as well as Protestant, were in panic, but their inefficiency, selfishness and mutual jealousy prevented their union for self defence before William of Orange rose to marshal them and in effect liberate the western world.

One of Louis XIV's greatest instruments of terror was the Galley. To Louis, people were there to be ruled: an attitude typified by the increase in the African slave trade during his rule – with the number of Galleys in the French Navy rising from six to ninety, each able to hold at least 200 slaves. To man these Galleys the French used Turks captured in the Barbary Wars or young French Protestants condemned to the Galleys for life instead of execution. Furthermore, the colonial ambitions pursued by Louis’s financial minister Jean-Batiste Colbert in New France (the French possessions in North America) and the enslavement of the Iroquois Indians of the Five Nations by Donnenville to serve in the Galleys reinforced resentment towards the French which was to bear fruit in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The contest for control of the North American continent between France and Great Britain would ultimately be decided by the choice that the Iroquois made between them.

With the continued persecution of Protestants following the Battle of the Boyne a guerrilla war was carried out by Protestants in the Cevennes against the French troops between 1702 and 1704. The war was eventually resolved through diplomatic negotiations with the authorities. Disillusioned, the leader of the revolt, Jean Cavalier, fled from France in the summer of 1704, when Louis cleared the Principality of Orange of Protestants. Cavalier later commanded a regiment against the French in Spain. Much of his later life was spent in Ireland with the Huguenot community of veteran soldiers in Port Arlington and he became a Major General in the British Army in 1739. Cavalier’s guerrillas were known as Camisards. One of those who fled from the Cevennes to save his own life was Pastor Antoine Court who listed the names of the Protestants enslaved in the Galleys and the reasons for their sentence. For the most part, they had been caught assisting with secret assembly, but they were also arrested for merely circulating books for worship or for assisting a minister.

The Admiral in charge of the Galley fleet of Louis XIV was known as the Général des Galères. He commanded both ceremonial and fighting Galleys. The ceremonial Galleys were substantially larger than most Galleys and lacked the offensive rams of the fighting Galleys, but carried five or six more thwarts for their ranks of oarsmen. Six or seven men were required for each of these oars, whereas only two or three were normally required in fighting Galleys. In 1688 a medal was produced to celebrate the construction of forty Galleys at the new arsenal at Marseilles. These vessels were mostly manned by the Huguenots sentenced for their faith and Turkish slaves.

Jean Bion was Chaplain aboard the Galley Superbe. Deeply moved by the condemned Protestants on board, he was converted to Protestantism and immigrated to England, where he became pastor of the French church at Chelsea. Bion’s moving account describes the conditions in which the Protestants worked as slaves. On the Superbe, each oar had five men behind it, and in addition the end of the oar was held by a Turk, as he proved to be stronger than the Christians. The Galley had a crew of 500 men, 300 of whom were under sentence of penal servitude. The men wore two shirts of coarse canvass, a red serge tunic, and a red cap to cover their head, which was shaven to indicate their subjection. Each prisoner was attached with chains and beaten if he slacked. Bion described how during the winter of 1703 more than sixty men fell ill off the coast of Italy. They were placed in a room only three feet high in the prow of the boat, with only one hole two foot square for ventilation. When Bion was writing eighty-four of the Galleys of the Fleet were based in Marseilles harbour and only six were at sea.

A total of over 3000 Protestants had been condemned to the Galleys by 1775. A charitable fund established in Holland enabled some to buy their freedom and funds were also collected in Great Britain and Ireland for the relief of the galériens. The deployment of canon fire finally ended 2000 years supremacy of the Galley in Mediterranean warfare. After 1748, no more Galleys were constructed in France, although some saw active service with the French forces during the expedition to Egypt in 1794-1798. The last French Galley was broken up as late as 1814. As for the descendants of the Huguenots and the Mohawk Iroquois, the memory of the liberator of their ancestors, William of Orange, lives on, as also do the memories of those slave ships of Louis XIV, the Sun King.

Code: Picts
Ed: John Knox (c. 1510 – 1572), the Scottish Reformer, himself spent some years in the French galleys 1547-49.

The galleys come into the history of the Reformation in Hungary as well. I told part of this story in The Reformation in Hungary whose final part, Part 15 (Thursday, December 3. 2009) has links to all the previous parts.

Part 15 left off with the reign of Rudolf of Hapsburg 1572-1608 (born 1552, died 1612, reigned as Holy Roman Emperor as Rudolf II 1576-1612, as King of Hungary as Rudolf 1572-1608, also King of Bohemia and Archduke of Austria). Over 90 per cent of Hungarians had embraced the Reformation. Some of the earlier Hapsburg, too, had been sympathetic. The later Hapsburgs, however, became more and more clearly agents of the Catholic interest.

Rudolf seems not to have been much interested in state affairs, but rather more in alchemy, astrology and scientific speculations. Rudolf's patronage of Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler significantly advanced the science of astronomy. Rudolf set his capital in Prague, a city rather remote from his Hungarian lands where he allowed the Catholic Archbishops a free hand. The Counter-Reformation arrived in Hungary in earnest. Yet the position of the Protestants in Hungary would become even worse under Rudolf's successors.

In 1657 Leopold I (Lipót in Hungarian) (1640-1705) ascended the imperial throne of Austria and the royal throne of Hungary. Leopold was a bigoted Catholic who sought to eliminate Protestantism by a single stroke. Professor Csaba Csorba writes in The Illustrated History of Hungary (Csorba, Estók and Salamon, Magyar Könyvklub, 1999) in pp 96-7;-

“(the authorities) hauled into court the Lutheran and Calvinist priests, preachers and teachers and told them either to leave the country or to abandon their faith. But, to the astonishment of those in power, those accused did not give in, even when threatened by execution. The authorities did not risk the Europe-wide scandal of a mass death sentence; thus they “only” sentenced them to galley slavery, The unlucky ones dragged to Spain were freed by Admiral de Ruyter of the Netherlands in 1676, and Leopold was forced to allow them to return home.”

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