Tuesday, March 12, 2013

History: Inquisition of the Galleys

Galley slavery has been a high seas reality since ancient times. Everyone from war captives to convicts and heretics have been used by both navies and pirates as labor to move ships along the water. The lives and futures of these unfortunate men were usually bleak. Though galley sentences might be limited, few survived their ordeal and those who did were either denied release or so broken by their experience that they were left few options for the future.

In Europe, France and Spain were particularly attached to condemning criminals to galley service. Under Philip II of Spain (reigned 1554 to 1598), the policy was taken to the New World under the so called "Inquisition of the Galleys." Major Arthur Griffiths describes Philip's policy in his book In Spanish Prisons:

Philip wished to extend the sway of the Inquisition and planned a naval tribunal to take cognisance of heresy afloat. He created the Inquisition of the Galleys, or, as it was afterwards styled, of the Army and the Navy. In every sea port a commissary general visited the shipping to search for prohibited books and make sure of the orthodoxy of crews and passengers.

Those unfortunate enough to be deemed "unorthodox" would be brought before a local tribunal. Conviction was often a foregone conclusion and the captive would be forced into the "celebration" of an auto de fe; literally "act of faith."

Griffiths goes on to quote the memoir of a Seville goldsmith named Carcel who was swept up by the Inquisition, or so he claimed. In describing his own auto de fe, Carcel speaks of his own punishment:

My offense, I found, was having spoken bitterly of the Inquisition, and having called a crucifix a mere bit of cut ivory. I was therefore declared excommunicated, my goods confiscated by the king, I was banished Spain and condemned to the Havana galleys for five years...

It appears that Carcel survived his ordeal having been able to write his remembrances down. Most of those condemned as Carcel were not so lucky given the miserable conditions and potential violence from war and piratical attack that they faced on a daily basis.

Griffiths finally notes that the Inquisition of the Galleys fell out of favor after Philip II's death. Considered an impediment to "business on the High Seas" it "fell into disuse" and was, by the mid-17th century, given no more than lip service in the New World.

Header: Convicts on a galley's benches; exhibit from the Barcelona Maritime Museum via Wikipedia


Timmy! said...

"We keep you alive to serve this ship. Row well and live, 41..."

Pauline said...

Yeah; bad times all around.