“…naval authorities sought to attain social control by normalizing flogging as a form of deterrent punishment….[captains] were permitted to flog at their own discretion.”1
Shipboard punishments were inflicted by captains who had absolute authority. Only a sentence of capital punishment wasn’t arbitrary. When capital punishment was possible a court martial was empaneled. Needless to relate junior officers didn’t oppose their captain and so it made no difference to the outcome.2 All punishments were collective experiences with sailors being forced to watch.
Royal Navy punishments were spectacular to make a point. The maximum number of strokes of a whip was 12 and was deemed insufficient. The ‘cat o nine tails’ was designed to multiply the maximum. Each stroke being in effect nine and the maximum punishment became a horrifying 108 strokes.
Pain wasn’t the only purpose of the ‘cat o nine tails’. Captains also induced fear into the watching sailors as they saw the victims’ backs become pulp. Every sailor knew that the only way to avoid a flogging was by obeying every whim of the captain.
This wasn’t sadism pure and simple. There was an essential operational aspect to it. Ships were vulnerable to mutiny and officers could be abandoned at sea like Captain Bligh3 or murdered. Absolute obedience was critical to the smooth running of the ships and making rough justice essential. Sadism could cow a crew but might also be counter-productive by provoking mutiny.
Flogging round the fleet
As can be expected ‘flogging round the fleet’ was tantamount to a death sentence. This sentence was imposed by a court martial. Sailors were flogged on their home ship when they reached port. They were then taken round to every Royal Navy ship in the port and flogged again. Despite being an almost impossible endurance test the victim was accompanied by a doctor to ensure that the punishment could safely proceed. Once again however, the doctor’s first responsibility was to the captain and not to his ‘patient’.
Running the gauntlet
Sailors sentenced to ‘run the gauntlet’ received two punishments. The first was a flogging. Then, once they’d recovered, they were further punished by their fellow sailors. Sailors were divided into two and using lengths of rope to beat the man as he went between them. This punishment was normally used when the victims of the crime were the sailors themselves. Theft was the most common crime in this category.
“The offender would then be forced at sword point to walk between two rows of men who all had lengths of knotted rope. Each man had to bash the criminal as hard as possible while he slowly walked past. To stop him from walking too fast, there was also an officer in front of him with a cutlass at his chest. After that, the criminal was flogged some more for good measure.”4 (my emphasis)
As this was a ‘democratic’ punishment a popular sailor would have a relatively easy time of it. Obviously, this cut both ways and it wasn’t unknown for sailors to die after a severe thrashing.
Hanging from the yardarm
Hanging on board ship didn’t rely on a drop to kill the victim Sailors had their arms tied behind their back with a rope round their neck. They were then hauled off their feet and death came from slow strangulation. Like all other punishments the crew had to watch. After an hour the victim was taken down and ‘buried’ at sea.
There were sadistic captains but the pressures they were under almost induced ferocity. Physical punishment was part and parcel of life in 18th century Britain with public executions. The Royal Navy’s punishments varied from normality only in that there were no juries. After the French Revolution punishments became fiercer.
In 1797 there were two fleet-wide mutinys, at Spithead and Nore.5 Henceforward the Royal Navy suppressed any actions which undermined discipline. Brutal sadistic captains still didn’t have free range but everything was more severe. There were more executions and floggings. This again mirrored what was happening on land. Naval punishments were harsh but not ‘off-the-scale’.
1 Underwood, Patrick, et al. “Threat, Deterrence, and Penal Severity: An Analysis of Flogging in the Royal Navy, 1740–1820.” Social Science History, vol. 42, no. 3, 2018, pp. 411–39, https://www.jstor.org/stable/90024188. Accessed 5 May 2022. p412
2 A court martial for senior officers was a very formal affair and properly conducted. Nonetheless the outcome was, more-or-less, a formality. The most famous is the court martial of Admiral Byng. Catalog Record: The trial of the Honourable Admiral John… | HathiTrust Digital Library
3 Biography of William Bligh, Captain of the HMS Bounty (thoughtco.com)
4 10 Punishments Of The Royal Navy During The Age Of Sail – Listverse