The story of the Debrecen galley slaves

I grew up in the Hungarian city of Debrecen, about 150 miles east of the capital Budapest, near the Romanian border. Every day going to school I walked past the Statue of the Galley Slaves erected in the garden behind the Great Reformed Church. To be frank, I didn’t know the story of the column which was commissioned over a hundred year ago by a wealthy widow to commemorate an almost forgotten tragic event. A couple of years ago the city redesigned this park. It looks nice and contemporary; yet I miss the “rustic” walkways of my childhood.

Statue of the Galley Slaves in Debrecen.

Debrecen is the center of Hungarian Protestantism and is also known as the “Calvinist Rome.” Geneva-based French theologian John Calvin broke from the Roman Catholic Church in 1550 and his teachings found fertile ground in Eastern Hungary. The Catholics vehemently opposed Calvin’s ideas and the Vatican struck back with the Counter-Reformation movement. In 1675 as part of a purge more than 40 Protestant ministers and teachers were arrested in Debrecen and transported to the Mediterranean to be sold as slaves in the triremes. Triremes were war and trading ships propelled by banks of oars needing hundreds of slave rowers to move the vessels.

Inscription on the statue.

Some Hungarians died during the horrendous ordeal, but on February 11, 1676 the Dutch Protestant admiral, Michiel de Ruyter freed the surviving Hungarian pastors from slavery. Altogether 26 men were rescued in the harbor of Naples during the daring mission. The Hungarians were given shelter in Switzerland, the Netherlands and Germany before returning to Debrecen.

Dutch admiral Michiel de Ruyter.

Almost 30 years ago the Catholic Church offered an official apology for the incident. In August 1991, Pope John Paul II visited Debrecen, and after taking part in an ecumenical service, he laid a wreath at the monument as a gesture of reconciliation and apology for the persecution carried out by the Vatican. Speaking at the Great Calvinist Church, John Paul said: “I am well aware that this meeting would not have been possible in former times. A Pope visiting Hungary would not have come to Debrecen. The citizens of Debrecen would not have desired his presence.”

He was absolutely correct. Two hundred years ago “Papists,” as Catholics were called that time, were often insulted and even attacked in the city. Today Debrecen has more than 200,000 people with a significant Catholic minority, but it is still predominantly Calvinist city and the center of the Hungarian Reformed Church.

György Lázár


  1. Charles Vamossy says:

    There is a book about this, in Hungarian language: “Negyven Predikator” by Gyorgy Moldova. link:

  2. Slavery does exist today in some part of the world.
    In some societies the conditions of the workers are no better.
    The so called “sex-slavery” and slavery to self-distroying habits is world wide.
    But at least the religious hate does not lead to murder masses to advance some religions.
    But do , to advance some other evils.

    Like the “Jack Webb’s” saying; “Only the names have been changed ,to protect the quilty ” .

    P.S. I lived about a year in Debrecen, yet I do not recall that monument.

  3. Váci Klebelsberg Kultúrkör says:

    You can visit Léva in north Hungary(currently “Levice” in Slovakia) there is a statue of “Czeglédi Péter” in the hungarian liceum. He was one the protestant ‘predicators’ sentemced to be a galley slave.
    In Léva there is a hungarian protestant gymnasium baptized ‘Czeglédi Péter’.

  4. Today we have the slavery again in Hungary, they are the Workers without rights to fight for better working conditions, thanks to Orbán.

  5. Mr. Adam,
    I thought you banned bendeguz from your site for good.
    You should have, we do not need Fidesz trolls to use the HFP for their lies and distortions and propaganda. Szazadveg was closed by the Diktator at once for one article. bendeguz did not comment on it surprised?

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