From Ocean Navigator #123 July/August 2002
18th and 19th centuries, was a difficult, yet critical, component of shipboard operation. Sailors who did not follow the orders of their officers without question or hesitation could lead to a ship's foundering in heavy weather, its loss to enemy action or, worse still, its capture. This strict code of discipline, however, made it possible for very young officers — Nelson had his first command at 20 years old, for example — to command crews that were often made up of impressed brigands, rogues and malcontents. Without it, chaos would have ensued.
The Georgian Code of Justice, otherwise known as the Bloody Code, was the framework for discipline and punishment within which most Royal Navy sailors of the day operated. They understood it well and knew the consequences for transgressions. In the Royal Navy, these were clearly spelled out by word of mouth, since not many sailors could read the Articles of War, a listing of all the offenses a sailor could be punished for and what those punishments might be. The possible sentences ran the gamut, from running the gauntlet, where the convicted is forced to run between a row of his shipmates while they whip him with knotted lines, to ducking at the yardarm, dropping a tethered crewman from the yard into the sea repeatedly and occasionally dragging him under the keel.
One of the more routine punishments involved flogging with the dreaded cat-o-nine tails. This was considered more humane and predictable than the punishments mentioned previously. In running the gauntlet, a man could either be badly bruised or beaten to death, and the ducking often resulted in an unintended drowning. The cat itself was of a relatively standard design, made of an 18-inch-long wood or rope baton, roughly one and a half inches wide. To this, nine tails of hemp (not leather) cord, each 24 inches long, were spliced. History is not completely clear on this point; however, it is said that this specification is for a cat. A thieves cat, reserved for punishing those who stole from their shipmates, would include three knots, beginning about 2 inches from the end of each cat's tail. Royal Navy cat-o-nine tails are identifiable by a small red thread woven into the center of each line. This was used to identify and deter theft of his or her majesty's royal cordage.
Before 1806, Royal Navy captains were not limited to the number of lashes they were allowed to mete out. From that date onward, however, 12 was the official limit. Unfortunately, this was an unenforced regulation, and it would not catch the attention of the admiralty for a captain to report a sentence of 72 lashes. Officially, a court martial could only prescribe lashes in excess of 12. The involvement of a court of officers was not necessarily a guarantee of a lighter sentence. George Melvin of HMS Antelope received 300 lashes for desertion. Some may have considered this merciful; the prescribed sentence for this offense was hanging.
The results of a flogging were heinous indeed. One description likened the victim's back to resembling roasted meat burnt nearly black before a scorching fire. More sadistic captains assigned right- and left-handed boatswains to alternately issue lashes, so the cuts could be evenly crisscrossed.
In its heyday, flogging was a punishment no crewman wanted to witness, much less receive. As legend has it, the cat-o-nine tails lived in a leather or baize bag. If the cat were to come out of that bag, it could mean only one thing: Some poor soul was to suffer terribly. Today, to let the cat out of the bag has its own, though usually less dire, consequences.
by Steve C. Antonio