By Jean Marteilhe abridged & introduced by Vincent McInerney tr. Oliver Goldsmith. Seaforth ISBN 978-1-848320703. £12.99. Compact hardback.210pp.
This is the first in a new series by Seaforth, Seafarers Voices, of abridged editions of classic tales, in a compact format.
Jean Marteilhe came from a well-connected Protestant Huguenot family in Bergerac, SW France. After the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which had given Huguenots freedom of worship for a century, there was a major crackdown. When Duke La Force came to Bergerac to convert or arrest Protestants in 1700, Jean’s family were imprisoned.Aged 16, Jean and a friend escaped and sought the safety of the Protestant Low Countries. After various escapades, and indeed actually crossing the border, he was arrested in Marienburg, nearly managed to talk his way out, but in the end could not avoid the "chain" gang to Dunkirk, the penalty for attempting to escape from France.
The galley slaves were chained 6 to a bench, and any offence met with the fearsome bastinado (whip). Deaths were frequent, and unremarked. Our hero had the benefit of some comfort money from wealthy
Huguenot merchants. Jean was clearly physically very tough, and determined not to renounce his faith, which would have earned immediate release.
There were 6 galleys at Dunkirk, and they seem to have spent their time patrolling the English coast firing cannon to cause alarm, but not much else. They could only operate in really calm weather. He recounts being caught in a storm off Dunkirk; in the winter they were laid up.
In 1708, however, the galley fleet sought to intercept a British convoy off the Thames escorted by HMS Nightingale. In a bloody battle, Nightingale was captured, Jean was seriously injured and his entire bench killed. To be under fire when chained to a bench seems especially horrific. Isouf the Turk, who acted for Jean as a faithful runner to the merchants who paid for the comforts for the Huguenot slaves, died next to him. Interestingly, Jean has very kind words for the loyalty and honesty of the Turks, not just Isouf.
In hospital Jean survives when most of the wounded die, again helped by his contacts, and returns to the galley.Unable to pull full weight but literate, he becomes a secretary to the commander, despite being a Huguenot.
In 1712 however, after the English occupy Dunkirk, and the Huguenot slaves expected release, they are smuggled out, and again face the dreaded “chain”, this time all the way to Marseille. After intervention by Queen Anne, Jean and all the Huguenots are eventually released. He lived to the ripe old age of 93.
The introduction provides a clear context to the story. The fluent translation was by Oliver Goldsmith, and the abridgement has roughly halved the original length and modernised spelling. It flows well, makes a gripping read, and is an almost unique tale.
Although quite a large part of the story takes place onshore, there is detailed description of the galley layout and working arrangements. Perhaps other members with more specialised knowledge of the period would like to add comments.
Seaforth are to be congratulated on this initiative and hopefully will find a wide market for these classic tales.
Reviewed by Jonathan Seagrave
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