21

I’m reading Sword and Scimitar by Simon Scarrow and there’s this bit about rowers in galleys of the Knights of St. John (Malta). In the story, it is important the Knights' galley keeps silence so that they can surprise the Ottomans they are attacking just before dawn. Because of this, the rowers have corks in their mouths.

In order to ensure that none of them could shout a warning to the enemy as the galley glided towards its prey, the captains of the galleys on both sides had adopted the expedient of fitting a cork plug in the mouth of each man, held in place by leather thongs fastened by an iron shackle. It was horribly uncomfortable and suffocating once the men began to exert themselves at the oars. Thomas had seen men choke to death after some of the battles he had taken part in.

The book is fiction so I’m wondering if captains of galleys actually did this or if it’s just something the author made up to make the story more dramatic. Is there some reliable source that says this, like a book or article by a historian? I looked at Wikipedia 'Galley Slave'. It says galley slaves were treated brutally but it doesn’t say anything about corks in mouths.

31

Yes, they did.

This practice is mentioned in Robert C. Davis' (Professor of History at Ohio State University) Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast and Italy, 1500 - 1800:

to make sure that none of the slave oarsmen spoke out and gave the game away, all the rowers were gagged with "a morsel of cork that they carry for this purpose, hung about their necks like a reliquary sack."

One of Davis' sources for this is the first-hand account of João Mascarenhas, who was captured and became a slave rower on an Algerian galley in 1621.

John E. Rybolt of DePaul University in Vincent de Paul and the Galleys of France also mentions this:

Each rower was issued a large piece of cork attached by a cord around his neck. This plug (the tap en bouche or bâillon) kept them quiet when silence was important, so as to better hear commands or be unheard as the galley moved.

Vincent de Paul (1581-1660) was a French priest who claims to have been captured and sold into slavery, though the authenticity of his account of his enslavement has been questioned. However, there is no doubting that he had an in-depth knowledge of galley slaves as he was 'Royal Chaplain of the Galleys of France' and had extensive contact with galley slaves.


A couple of points to note:

The practice of putting a cork in the mouth while rowing would only have been deemed necessary when silence was essential. Also, the use of cork gags may have been phased out during the 17th century and / or was not practiced by all Mediterranean fleets; the condemned French Protestant Jean Marteilhe’s autobiography makes no mention of it and nor does Paul Bamford’s Fighting Ships and Prisons: The Mediterranean Galleys of France in the Age of Louis XIV in the 25-page chapter ‘Life Aboard’.

Also worth noting is that not all galley rowers were slaves, particularly on the Ottoman galleys which preferred paid oarsmen. Pieter Geerkens’ comment may be pertinent here – use of the cork may have been at the discretion of individual rowers, or it may been forced in the case of enslaved ones who would have a motive to compromise their own ship.

  • 8
    Something that's been on my mind for ages... yes, a gag does keep you from talking. But it doesn't keep you from shouting (as in, making a loud if unarticulate noise)...?!? I always considered this to be one of "those Holywood things"...? – DevSolar May 13 at 7:33
  • 11
    @DevSolar See how loud you can "shout" if you can hardly breathe through your mouth. But yes, the measure was likely less physically effective than psychologically. – JimmyB May 13 at 11:36
  • 2
    @JimmyB: Quite loud (and yes, I did put this to the test, because it's been on my mind). The only effect a gag seems to have is to take away the ability to articulate, and some resonant cavity (I guess that's where the part of "stuffing a cloth into someone's mouth" comes from). But you can still make quite some noise, that's why I was wondering. ;-) But yes, psychology might play into it. Also, making it impossible that some of the slaves don't "get" the command for silence, or forget about it and start chattering. – DevSolar May 13 at 12:42
  • 11
    @DevSolar keep in mind that the acoustics by which you perceive your own voice are probably the least affected by an obstruction in your mouth. You may need a (cooperative!) friend to help you put your concerns to the test to see the effect on the ability to project noise to a distant observer. – Will May 13 at 14:09
  • 8
    Is this the origin of the phrase "Put a cork in it", meaning basically "shut up"? That makes more sense now that I think of it... – Darrel Hoffman May 13 at 16:26

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.