In 1685, King Louis XIV banned Protestantism from France and over 1500 followers, called Huguenots, were condemned to the galleys because they refused to convert to Catholicism or tried to flee the country. A galley is a type of ship that is propelled mainly by rowing.
A galley slave was a slave rowing in a galley, either a criminal who was being punished or a prisoner of war.
Even common criminals such as petty thieves were sent to the galleys, but there were also smugglers and murderers. Sometimes, marginalized social groups such as Gypsies or paupers were forcibly enlisted. Deserters from the army were given a life sentence on the galleys if they were captured.
They were branded with the letters GAL to identify them and they were called the galériens.
Louis XIV’s galleys were beautiful and extravagant but the galley slaves paid the price. 450 rowers were packed onto the ship’s deck, which was less than 150 feet [45 m] long and 30 feet [9 m] wide. Space was so cramped that the men could not even bend their arms while pulling the oars. They lived in terrible conditions so even if they had a short sentence, most rowers would eventually die from the lack of food and sleep.
The King thought that they would abandon their religion as soon as they had experienced the galleys but they refused.