Thursday, September 30, 2010

History: The Skin Off Your Back

As we've touched on more than once here at Triple P, discipline is a necessary component of affective seamanship. Be it a navy man of war, a privateering brig with a sound commission or a small pirate sloop, not much is going to get accomplished if each man Jack among us isn’t pulling his weight. It’s a simple fact that the lazy lubber picking his nose in the corner is just as despised by his mates as he is by his officers.

Enter flogging. Whether it be with a cane, the end of a rope or that nasty instrument of torture known as a cat o’ nine tails, smacking sailors around is as old as seafaring itself. I have run into descriptions of flogging aboard ship in one form or another in all times and places. Discretion is applied in most situations but the simple act of “starting” a seaman to encourage him to duty, which is to say literally hitting him with whatever is handy, was done by bosuns and masters without the slightest concern up until the dawn of the 19th century.

It is interesting to me that just as the true horrors of the Industrial Revolution were burgeoning by land, reformers turned their eyes to the sea. While women and children were working crippling hours in miserable conditions at mills and factories and while men were dying in construction, mines and tunnels, intellectuals were worrying about the occasional swat from a bosun’s rope or the twelve stripes given the deserter.

It was during Nelson’s era that people first questioned the need for corporal punishment aboard ship. Frederick Marryat, who served in the Royal Navy during this time, later wrote of his “fictional” character Bosun Chuck (still one of the best names in literature) carrying a “persuader” made of three rattan poles twisted together. He used it rather indiscriminately to get his sailors “off their arses and back to work”. These kinds of coincidental punishments caused outrage among the literati and aristocracy with more privileged Captains and Commodores writing indignantly about the “… highly improper practice of what is called starting the men”. By the end of the Napoleonic wars most Captains had banned the practice from their ships.

This left the formal punishment of flogging as the last resort when discipline problems arose. Many Captains ran “happy ships”, of course, with flogging an infrequent consequence of only the worst crimes not subject to pain of death – insubordination, theft or desertion for instance. There are many examples of such leadership in history and in literature. Commodore William Hoste, a favorite of Nelson’s, was the kind of Captain who led by example and rarely applied the lash. Across the pond and in the same era Commodore David Porter was also as famous for running a tight but happy ship as he was for his heroics during the War of 1812. As to literature, let us not forget Horatio Hornblower or his descendant John “Lucky Jack” Aubrey both of whom agonized over every flogging. In Captain Aubrey’s case, of course, the agony was redoubled because Dr. Stephen Maturin felt compelled to give him an earful each time.

On the opposite end were the tyrants, possibly the most radical example being Captain Hugh Pigot. Given a commission in the Royal Navy as much because of his family connections as any ability he might have had, his spit and polish tactics included unrestricted starting of the men and, in documented cases, lashings of up to 500 strokes that killed men outright. He even tossed sailors overboard in rough seas. His miserable leadership led to the gruesome Hemione mutiny and his own death at the hands of his men.

Flogging was done ritualistically aboard ship, with all healthy hands assembled, the surgeon on hand and officers dressed in uniform. Aboard navy ships, Marines were ready with rifles and bayonets to keep order. The criminal was stripped to the waist, “seized up” by his wrists and left standing at a main hatch or the rail, as in the illustration above from Edward Shippen’s Thirty Years at Sea; the Story of a Sailor’s Life. Writing of his own experiences in the U.S. Navy, Shippen describes the cat which:

… consisted of a wooden handle, about fifteen inches long, covered in cloth with nine tails of white line about as thick as a pack-cord, twenty inches long and the ends ‘whipped’ not knotted.

In this case “whipped” indicates frayed but many cats had one, three or even nine knots in each tail. Aboard pirates, the knots sometimes had metal hooks or pieces of glass protruding from them as well. Regardless of its make up, even a few strokes with a cat would draw blood. A large number of strokes would flay first the skin and then the muscle off the back. Patrick O’Brian writes of Stephen Maturin witnessing a 500 stroke flogging, the victim staggering away with the help of his mates, his entire back raw and blood squishing from his shoes with every step.

By 1850 the American Navy at least was ready to put a stop to the practice of flogging. On September 28th of that year the U.S. Congress abolished flogging. The problem with this high minded legislation was that they neglected to give any direction as to what form of discipline should stand as substitute for the now banned practice which had been on the books officially for 56 years. Of course, a white person could still merciless beat a black slave, a man could still beat his wife and child, to death if necessary, and that same child could still lose a limb in a factory. That was all above board. But twelve lashes in the Navy was a thing of the past. Another example, in my humble opinion, of “reform” completely ignoring the big picture. As my grandmother used to say, one thing at a time.

If you’re curious about the abolition of flogging in the U.S. Navy, pop over to this
post at the wonderful Naval History Blog and read more. If you’re just curious about flogging, well mate, I might not be able to help you there. But do keep in mind that we will return to this subject with a vengeance – including flogging around the fleet and the pirate practice of “sweating” captives – during Horror on the High Seas week in October. Something to look forward to.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Ah... rum, buggery and the lash... Well, the lash anyway. Always a good time. "The beatings will continue until morale improves"... I'm just glad there is no flogging allowed in the insurance industry. Although I think that “starting” in one form or another is still allowed, Pirate Queen.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! And not just the insurance industry, I assure you!