The Galleys, the Oarsmen and the Scapoli

October, as the month in which the Naval Battle of Lepanto took place, is a month that brings in mind the galleys. Also, the hardships, the whippings, the illnesses and the battles that cost the lives of thousands of people from the Greek islands and shores.
Even though, since the 15th century the firearms and cannons started to take their place in the battlefields, their dominance was yet to come, especially in the naval warfare. The innovations in navigation and shipbuilding may had introduced the caravel and other types of sophisticated vessels, but the naval battles kept on being decided by resaltos (rebounds) and hand-to-hand fights.
Especially in the Mediterranean Sea, the heavy sail vessels did not prevail until the middle 18th century. Until then the navies of the Mediterranean states were relied on oar ships: the galleys and the galleasses. These vessels were performing good in short distances, while the fact that they could move considerably easily in case of lull weather, gave them a significant advantage. But in what price!
The men that consisted the moving power of the warships were fiercely tantalized oaring for days, covering vast distances. The exhaustion, combined with the awful living conditions and the poor food, caused huge losses in their ranks, which, according to some historic sources, could reach up to 80-85%!
The oarsmen of the Venetian galleys there were Muslim slaves, convicts, draftsmen from the overseas possessions, and also some mercenaries who, either chasing their fortune or been in need of the payment, exposed themselves in the conditions we described above.
Having in mind these very conditions, we can easily understand the reasons for which many of the oarsmen deserted, despite of the harsh punishment they faced. Even the mercenaries coulddesert their post on the bench and the coins that would fulfill their purse trying to save their health and life.
Such a case we detected in the following notaric paper from northern Corfu:

Recoupment payed by deserter (17th century)

1636, day 10th of August. Inside the house of Mr Ioannes Revis, in the village of St. Athanasios. Because Michelis Livadiotis from the above village had agreed to go with the galley of the Noble Venetian Mr Gianalivize Balbi, and received tornesia (coins) from the above Lord and then he left from this galley and today Sinior Capo Zorzis and other scapoli (marines) of the above galley came to find and arrest the above Michelis, and because they did not find him, they wanted to arrest the present Mr Andreas Mourmouris, father in law of the above Michelis, Mrs Eleni appeared and appealed to Sinior Capo to release the above Mr Andreas, and stated that if the above Michelis should have to pay recoupment to the above Lord, she would pay it. And today, willingly, the above and present Mrs Eleni and Mr Andreas, obliged together to give to the above Capo, in December 1636, as much olive oil, as the equivalent of Mr Michelis’ debt.
APC, Not. Vol. M246

Michelis Livadiotis, led by poverty, decided to embark with the galley of Sinior Balbi as an oarsman. This galley was probably private, either as privateer or part of the Venetian Navy, as both were common at the time, and was most probably engaged in the operations of the defense of Crete, which was under Ottoman attack since the 1620’s.
Michelis was exhausted by the hard work and little galeta that was available to eat. For tens, hundreds of miles he was sitting naked on his bench, oaring with three more men, who may were foreigners or convicts, or were too weak to oar forcing him to put an extra effort. He was oaring and thinking of his home island, Corfu, his wife he had left behind. And at some point he decided that money were not worth of any more sacrifice and deserted.

(The above article was written by Andreas Grammenos)