King empire

Remarkable book reveals the dark side of the Sun King

The “Sun King” Louis XIV (reigned 1643-1715) was not only one of the most cultivated kings of France, but one of the most cruel. He started wars, bombed towns and persecuted French Protestants after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. Moreover, as Meredith Martin and Gillian Weiss show in this remarkable publication, he used slaves to row his galleys.

In theory, there were no slaves in France: French soil made men free. Yet slaves – either bought in the Ottoman and North African markets around the eastern and southern Mediterranean, recruited from among criminals or, after 1685, Protestants – were employed in the king’s galleys. Their number increased from about 300 in 1664 to 2,000 in 1670. After 1700 they declined, until the galley corps, considered unsuitable for modern naval warfare, was abolished in 1748.

Slaves also became an integral part of the local economy of Marseille, the base of the French navy for the galleys of the Levant fleet. When the ships were not at sea, slaves, always chained, worked for Marseille merchants or kept shops on the quays. Others were personal servants or role models of artists. Louis’ great minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert had a Turkish servant named Mustapha, who later had the rare privilege of returning to his homeland. Indeed, so many galley slaves were Muslims that in 1723 fighting broke out in Marseilles between Sunnis and Shiites among them.

A 36-pound bronze cannon decorated with a Turk’s head by Jean Baubé (1680), which today stands outside the National Maritime Museum, Brest National Maritime Museum, Brest

Above all, Louis was a commercial and strategic ally of the Ottomans, and at times France relied on grain from the Ottoman Empire to save him from famine. Yet one of the duties of the king’s consuls in this empire was to provide his navy with slaves, both Christian and Muslim. Despite appeals from Moroccan ambassadors to Louis’s court, healthy Muslim slaves were considered too valuable for the French navy to be freed or traded for Christian slaves in Muslim countries. (Only 4.5% of Muslim slaves converted to Christianity, despite the prospect of being released from the galleys.)

Some of the convicts were Africans. At Versailles, in the summer of 1680, in an episode discovered by Martin and Weiss, 54 recently purchased slaves, dressed only in yellow shorts and showing skin, as one witness described it, “of such a shiny black that it looked like with varnish ”, were inspected by the king before rowing a model galley on the grand canal in the palace grounds.

Pierre Puget, A French royal galley seen from the stern (1668-69), a pen and a brush and black ink wash on vellum Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York

This book is well produced and documented, with many unpublished illustrations including a list of galériens (Ahmet de Smyrna, Moustapha de Bellegrade and others); contemporary engravings and drawings of galleys and their sculpted decoration; and views of Marseille. Symbols of sovereignty, in addition to a Catholic zeal for the “crusade” that Louis XIV did not actually possess – he encouraged the Ottoman attacks against the Habsburg monarchy – Muslim slaves were also represented, chained and turbaned, in a fresco on the ceiling of the castle of Versailles. Hall of Mirrors and in sculptural form at the feet of the king on the stems of his ships.

Martin and Weiss do not discuss Louis’ use of galley slaves in relation to other European monarchs, or in the context of what the Ottomans or Moroccans were doing.

And there is moralizing language: Madame Palatine, the king’s sister-in-law, was not a “war prize” as stated, but a beloved royal bride with a household almost as large as that of the queen. Nevertheless, it is a valuable correction to the adulation that can still be found in many books on Louis XIV. Cruelty and exploitation – also evident in the appalling death rate among the workers and soldiers who built Versailles and dug the park – were among the foundations of the Sun King’s power.

Meredith Martin and Gillian Weiss, The Sun King at sea: maritime art and slavery of the galleys in the France of Louis XIV, Getty Publications, 256 pages, 80 color illustrations + 34 black and white, £ 45 / $ 60 (hb), published January 4

• Philippe Manselthe last book of King of the world: the life of Louis XIV (Penguin 2019). He is co-founder of the Society for Court Studies