Two centuries ago, the Royal Navy considered sleeping on watch aboard ship a very serious offense because it endangered the ship, but they were reasonably lenient. For a first offense, a bucket of sea water was poured over the culprit's head, with much worse punishment for second and third offenses.
No one wanted to fall asleep the fourth time.
If he did, he'd be locked in a covered basket and hung below the bowsprit, and provided with only a mug of ale, loaf of bread and a sharp knife. A sentry made sure he didn't escape.
The prisoner had two choices: starve to death or cut himself free from the ship, fall into the sea and drown.
Such draconian measures were not the norm, but flogging was, because it was efficient, swift and did not incapacitate the offender for too long — enabling him to return to duty instead of being confined for a long period of time.
That punishment and others are all explained in the Admiralty Black Book, first compiled during the long reign of King Edward III (1327-1377).
The most common corporal punishment was being flogged with a cat-o'-nine-tails — used by both the U.S. Navy and the Royal Navy.
The “cat” was made of nine pieces of cord, with three knots in each, attached to a short piece of thick rope as a handle.
According to the U.S. Naval Institute, “The majority of naval officers — and probably most enlisted as well — believed that flogging was the only practical means of enforcing discipline on board ship.”
Not everyone agreed. “Reformers, on the contrary, maintained that seamen were rational beings capable of being persuaded to obedience by appeals to patriotism and pride,” the Institute noted. “Punishments that degraded men…were undemocratic and encouraged sullen compliance rather than ready obedience.”
The early British and American explorers who sailed the Pacific Northwest coast no doubt enforced discipline at sea with methods unacceptable today, but they are not remembered as sadistic commanders. First was Captain James Cook, who mapped the coast from Oregon to the Bering Strait.
A review of Allan Arlidge's book, “Captain Cook's Discipline,” notes that Captain Cook was “nearly always in control, nearly always fair-minded and respected, but also not tolerant of misbehaviour. He did his duty and expected others to do the same, and to follow commands to maintain good order at all times.”
During the course of nine years and nine months at sea, on three voyages of exploration in the Pacific, he ordered 1506 lashes be administered for offenses — including theft, being AWOL, drunkenness, rioting, insolence, disobedience, neglect of duty, mutiny, desertion, removing water from the ship's supply, and even “throwing an old chew of tobacco into the victuals cooking,” (earning the culprit 12 lashes).
Captain Cook was killed by natives at Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island of Hawaii in 1779.
Ten years later, another Royal Navy captain sailed into Pacific waters. His name was William Bligh aboard the ship HMS Bounty. He'd served under Captain Cook and was an able navigator.
Their mission was to transplant breadfruit trees from Tahiti to the West Indies as a new source of cheap food for the slaves.
Captain Bligh has been painted as the arch-villain of cruel punishment — a picture unendingly perpetuated by Hollywood in a succession of “Mutiny on the Bounty” movies and books.
Not quite so. He was a strict commander but not a sadistic tyrant. Aboard ship, he encouraged music and dancing and at first there were few floggings. After arriving at Tahiti however, they had to wait five months for the breadfruit trees to be ready for harvest and transportation.
During that time, it was party-time between the crew and local natives that caused an increasing lack of discipline. Bligh had to get tough to maintain order.
Fearing diseases, he was a stickler for personal and ship hygiene — as well as proper diet for the crew to keep them fit and prevent scurvy.
Tensions rose and there was plenty of blame for misconduct to go around.
Many crewmembers were upset at having to finally leave idyllic Tahiti and their accommodating women behind.
Not long after leaving, acting Lieutenant Fletcher Christian triggered a mutiny aboard the HMS Bounty, and set Bligh and 18 loyalists adrift in a small boat with only five days' rations.
In an incredible feat of seamanship, Bligh sailed his tiny and overcrowded boat 3,500 miles to Timor, eventually returning to England. He would go on to greater glory, while 10 of the mutineers were tracked down, tried and three hanged.
Fletcher Christian and others hid out on Pitcairn Island in the South Pacific where they scuttled the Bounty to prevent escape, with their descendants still living there to this day.
Flogging was the common punishment at sea, but there were other methods of enforcing discipline.
Thieves and those guilty of being AWOL or leaving the crew birth in unsanitary conditions were forced to “run the gauntlet” between two rows of crewmates hitting them with sticks or whips — while subalterns kept them moving at sword-point.
This form of punishment was also was used by some countries as a form of execution — as early as in ancient Greece.
The Royal Navy abolished the practice in 1806.
Birching was another punishment used on adults, as well as children at home, in schools, prisons and aboard ship. The instrument was a bundle of smooth twigs. Miscreant boys were usually thrashed on the bare buttocks, and adults on the back or shoulders.
At sea, the birch replaced the cat-o'-nine-tails after the 1860s when punishing young boys serving aboard ship.
One historical report said, “A hazel rod is particularly painful; a bundle of four or five hazel twigs was used in the 1960s and 1970s on the Isle of Man, the last jurisdiction in Europe to use birching as a judicial penalty.”
The island-nation of Trinidad and Tobago in the West Indies still uses birching for corporal punishment.
Caning is also still much in use today — especially in Muslim countries enforcing Sharia law. This was not a normal form of punishment at sea, and is outlawed in most European countries today.
For hundreds of years however, caning — usually with a finger-thick rattan rod about 4-feet long — was common corporal punishment by courts and schools in many countries.
Hangings at sea were another unpleasant affair.
During Queen Elizabeth I's reign, stealing a Navy ship was a sure trip to the yard-arm:
“If anye one practysed to steale awaye anye of her Majesty's shippes, the captaine was to cause him to be hanged by the heels untill his braines were beaten out against the shippe's sides, and then to be cutt down and lett fall intoe the sea.”
Mutiny brought similar punishment.
John McArthur told about hangings aboard the HMS Assurance in the North River, New York in 1806 in his book, “Principles and Practice of Naval and Military Courts Martial.”
“The crews of the respective ships are arranged on deck and, after hearing the Articles of War read, and being made acquainted with the crime for which the punishment is inflicted, wait with silent dread and expectation, the awful moment.
“At length a gun is fired, the sign to rouse attention, and at the same time the unhappy victim, who has violated the laws of his country, is run up by the neck to the yard-arm, the whole spectacle being intended as a warning…”
“Walking the plank” was execution practiced by pirates and other seafaring rogues — not by the USN or Royal Navy — when the captives were bound and forced to walk off a plank and drown in the sea.
Finally, there was keelhauling — a barbaric ordeal of tethering the man to be punished to a rope and dragging him under the ship's keel, with his flesh being shredded by sharp barnacles, while also facing the high risk of drowning.
The Royal Navy adopted this brutal punishment in the 11th century, followed by the Dutch between 1560 and 1853, and occasionally the French — but not the Americans.
Flogging in the U.S. Navy ended around 1851-1853, when Sen. Robert F. Stockton from California restricted flogging by legislation.
But it took Congress until 1862 to finally abolish the practice entirely.
Contact Syd Albright at email@example.com.
Happy side of Royal Navy life…
King Charles II (reigned 1660-1685) is credited with authorising the drinking of the Loyal Toast while seated after bumping his head on a low beam aboard ship while rising for a toast.
Since then, Royal Navy officers do not stand even when the National Anthem is played — except when the sovereign, a member of the Royal Family, or a foreign head of state is present. Also when foreign guests are present and the head of any foreign state is toasted first.
However, except for toasts to the King or Queen, all other toasts are done standing.
Lewis and Clark…
Flogging was not limited to the Navy. The Army used it during the Lewis and Clark Expedition, with records showing a number of floggings in the first two years of the journey (1804-1805).
One deserter amazingly survived running the gauntlet four times. One Indian chief who watched the ordeal of flogging was horrified and suggested it would be more humane to put the man to death.
According to historian Frances Hunter, “By the standards of the time, the U.S. Army's courts-martial were far more lenient than their British counterparts, which routinely assigned punishments of 500 to 1000 lashes for serious crimes.”
Did it do any good?
This writer endured twelve strokes with the cane during five and a half years at a boarding school in Sydney, Australia. The Aussies have since outlawed the practice, except in Queensland where it is still permitted in religious or independent schools.
Worldwide attention to caning occurred in 1994 when Dayton, Ohio student Michael P. Fay attending Singapore American School was caned by judicial authorities in Singapore for stealing signs and vandalizing several automobiles. His sentence of six strokes was reduced to four following pleas for clemency from President Bill Clinton and a list of senators. After the ordeal, Fay shook hands with the man who wielded the cane.
“Another form of punishment was flogging around the fleet. The offender was secured to an upright timber in a ship's boat, and when it pulled alongside each gangway a boatswain's mate entered the boat and inflicted a certain number of lashes. For added effect the boat was accompanied on its rounds of the fleet by other boats, each with a drummer in the bows beating a roll on his drum.
“Flogging was not abolished in the British forces until 1881 in response to strong public opinion.”
— Craig V. Fisher, HMS Richmond