Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Flogging and the Cat

This post is part of my series Race, Revolt, and Piracy, examining racial violence at sea in the eighteenth century.

Detail from Monsieur Sneaking Gallantly into Brest's Skulking Hole after receiving 
preliminary Salutation of British Jack Tar the 27 of July 1778, W. Richardson, 
1778, John Carter Brown Library.  
Edward Ward was no seaman, but he was witty. His satirical outline of the men who used the sea The Wooden World Dissected: In the Character of a Ship of War stayed in print for decades. One of the more memorable lines concerns the dread cat of nine tails:
Cerberus is not more dreadful to the dead, than this cat is to the living; but indeed she's never let loose, but by order of the commander, who many a times lashes a man out of the same itch of fancy that he cats a woman.[1]
In his book, Ward both reflected popular ideas of the Wooden World and informed them. Essentially, Ward amplified caricatures of sailors. When it comes to popular perceptions of sailors in the past (and to some degree, in the present), it is easy to fall into the idea of the Wooden World as 'rum, sodomy, and the lash.' I've addressed the difficulty of examining 'sodomy' afloat, and today I'll be exploring 'the lash.' Was it really so common as we assume, how was it administered, and what does the cat of nine tails say about the sailors of the British Atlantic world?

Sources from the time are clear: flogging was a constant and seamen feared flogging. What it says about the Wooden World is that despite the shared culture of common sailors aboard merchantmen, men of war, and guineamen (slavers), there were differences between them. The use of violence aboard these vessels can be explored using the cat of nine tails as a lens. Merchantmen disdained the cat, men of war allowed its limited use in a ritualized context, and guineamen embraced the cat.

Aboard Royal Navy vessels, the boatswain was responsible for discipline of the ship's company. Informally, and really at any moment, he could administer corporal punishment by way of his rattan or maybe a rope's end. When naval sailors were convicted of a court martial offence or had transgressed to a degree that earned the attention of the captain, they could and often were sentenced or ordered to be flogged by the more severe cat of nine tails.

Ashley Bowen, then an apprentice to a merchant sea captain, wrote in 1744 of a 'cat with 9 part of log line.'[2]

In 1751, Nathan Bailey may have been the first to academically define the cat of nine tails, and his dictionary was vague:
CAT o' nine Tails, is a Whip with nine Lashes.[3]
Francis Grose defined the cat as thus in his famous Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue:

CAT OF NINE TAILS, a scourge, composed of nine strings of whipcord, each string having nine knots.[4]
Dr. Alexander Falconbridge, a slave ship surgeon turned abolitionist, described the cats he observed on guineamen in his 1787 An Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa:
 An instrument of correction, which consists of a handle or stem, made of a rope three inches and a half in circumference, and about eighteen inches in length, at one of which are fastened nine branches, or tails, composed of log line, with three or more knots upon each branch.[5]
Detail from The Court Cotillion or the Premiers New Parl*****t Jig,
Terry, 1774, American Antiquarian Society.
The use of the cat was constant enough to become associated with British sailors, and with the Royal Navy, among the many cultures they encountered. When John Nicol sailed to China, he wrote that:
They are much alarmed at the appearance of a man-of-war ship, and they often say, 'Englishman too much cruel, too much fight.' There were some English seamen flogged for mutiny while we lay in the river. The Chinese wept like children for the men, saying, 'Hey, yaw, Englishman too much cruel, too much flog, too much flog.'[6]
Olauadah Equiano, after being kidnapped from modern day Ghana and sold into slavery, was terrified by the way English sailors treated each other on the Middle Passage:
One white man in particular I saw, when we were permitted to be on deck, flogged so unmercifully with a large rope near the foremast, that he died in consequence of it; and they tossed him over the side as they would have done a brute. This made me fear these people the more; and I expected nothing less than to be treated in the same manner.[7]
Equiano's introduction to the brutality of slavery, an institution even more defined by flogging, was accompanied by a sailor suffering the same abuse the enslaved could expect.

Captain James Cook also used flogging to instill fear in a foreign population. Gunner's mate John Marra remembered that when a cask was stolen from the Resolution's coopers in Tahiti, Cook demanded the thief be turned over to him.
It was judged necessary to punish him as a terror to others: he was therefoer tied up and severely whipt after the manner of the discipline of the navy for offences of the like nature; and this was done in presence of the Chiefs of the island, and a great concourse of the natives who attended the execution, and who looked with an evil eye upon those concerned in what they called a cruel punishment.[8]

Hogarth also played to these fears in his print The Idle Prentice Turn'd Away and Sent to Sea.
Detail from The Idle Prentice Turn'd Away and Sent to Sea,
William Hogarth, 1747, Yale University Lewis Walpole Library.
The Idle is being ridiculed by a pair of sailors. One points to a gallows at water's edge, the other dangles a cat of nine tails. They warn of a harsh and short life at sea for this profligate. Though prone to exaggeration and parody, Ward and Hogarth were right about the fear of flogging that sailors held. Many wrote of their experiences witnessing and being subjected to the lash. This was true on both merchant and naval vessels.

To be clear, when I say that flogging was a constant, I mean that it was ever present in maritime society and nearly every sailor experienced or witnessed abuse. I do not assert that every vessel was commanded by a vile masochist. Nearly every sailor's memoir includes a story of a brutal officer and some, like Robert Barker's The Unfortunate Shipwright, or Cruel Captain, are explicitly about unfair punishment at sea, but the majority of most sailor's memoirs relate events aboard ships where sailors were not beaten mercilessly and at the drop of a hat.

By way of example, A.G. Jamieson, in his paper 'Tyranny of the Lash? Punishment in the Royal Navy during the American War, 1776-1783,' examined the sloop Wolf 's punishment record:
There were only eighteen floggings in five and one-third years, giving a total of 276 lashes and an average of fifteen lashes per flogging. Thirteen of the floggings were of twelve lashes and five of twenty-four lashes each. Only fifteen individuals were subject to flogging. The fourteen men flogged in the period 1776-1780 amounted to 4.9% of all the seamen and marines who served with the ship in that period.[9]
Jamieson found that, in his admittedly small case study, only about 5.4% of ship's companies were subjected to corporal punishment during the American Revolutionary War.[10]

In a broader study, John D. Byrn Jr. examined seventy three Royal Navy vessels stationed in the Leeward Islands between 1784 and 1812 and found only nine percent of ship's companies suffered the lash. Put another way, 'If nine percent of the inhabitants of the lower decks of king's ships were flogged, ninety-one percent were not.'[11]

It is also worth remembering that corporal punishment and physical violence were common means of discipline throughout the British Atlantic world, and not particular to sailors. N.A.M. Roger reminds us:
The eighteenth century was an age in which personal violence was more common than it is now. Flogging was a frequent punishment for both children and adults, and even in the highest levels of society fights, brawls or duels were not unusual. People were more accustomed to settle affairs with a blow than now seems proper.[12]
When flogging did occur, the cat does not appear to have been used much on merchant vessels. Sailing aboard the Bonita in 1785, Samuel Kelly recalled that:
The master was well acquainted with our want of provisions, and as I had once received a good flogging with the bit of a large rope for asking for more meat for the crew, I was not very fond of risking a repetition.[14]
The rope's end was a popular form of punishment for both merchant and naval seafarers. Ashley Bowen suffered the rope's end many times from the cruel master of the merchantman Hawke:
We sailed about the first of May and before we got Halfway Rock astern I had a smart rope's ending from my master. O Dear my Mother![14]
What precisely the rope's end was composed of is hard to say; probably whatever was at hand. When merchant captain James Lowry was brought to trial for beating the sailor Kenneth Hossick to death, chief mate James Gadderar testified in 1752:
the Captain took a small rope of an inch or inch and quarter round, and began to beat him with the bite of it.[15]
The artist Samuel Wale later depicted Lowry raising a small segment of rope doubled over in his hand, creating a bend that would strike the unfortunate victim.
Detail from The Murder of Kenith Hossack by Captain Lowry,
Samuel Wale, date unknown, Yale Center for British Art.
Whether the difference between flogging with a rope's end and a cat of nine tails was known to the general public is unclear. R. Bennett's 1752 cartoon Captain James Lowry shows a cat of nine tails at his feet.
Detail from Captain James Lowry, R. Bennett, 1752, British Museum.
The cat of nine tails is mentioned at the Lowry trial in the testimony of sailor John Hunt. Tellingly, Hunt mentions the cat to say it is a man of war's instrument, and does not claim that it was present at the crime. This was Hunt's answer to the prosecutor's question of whether he had seen men whipped at sea in the past:
I have, but in a different manner : with a cat of nine tails in a man of war, and let loose directly; they are whipped between their shoulders, but this was almost likely to break a man's bones. I never saw a man flogged on board a merchantman in my life.[16]
Hunt viewed abuse on merchantmen as unexpected. This also appears to have been the case on the Hawke, where Ashley Bowen was beaten regularly by his captain. At least once, despite being a merchant ship, Bowen was beaten with a cat of nine tails. The crew were aggrieved by this treatment, and 'the Mate..said if I should die on the passage out he would be a witness against' the captain.[17]

Guineamen were more likely to use the cat against their sailors. James Field Stanfield sailed on a slave ship in the 1770's, and recounted the abuse the crew suffered in verse. His cruel captain applied salt to the wounds of sailors given the lash:
Now writhes his tortur'd frame! The scourges ply- / And from the lash  the quiv'ring mosels fly. / Invention next, from her exhaustless stores, / O'er the bare bones the venom lotion pours, / Whose acrid salts in searching conflict dart, / With pungent anguish barbing ev'ry smart.[18]
As quoted above, Equiano saw a white sailor flogged to death with a rope's end, and Dr. Falconbridge saw a sailor flogged with the cat 'and sometimes he was beat with a bamboo.'[19]

Perhaps it was the constant use of the cat against the enslaved men and women, packed and crowded into the Guineamen that broke down the ritualized naval barrier that usually prevented the use of the cat on merchant vessels. This, however, is a topic that deserves far more attention than I can give in this short post.

The line between naval and merchant flogging may appear arbitrary, but it seems to have been firm. This is illustrated in the case of the aforementioned Ashley Bowen. When the vile master of the Hawke boarded the warship Dorsetshire, he attempted to use naval discipline against his own merchant apprentice:
When on board, he asked Mr. Griffith to let the Boatswain's Mate bring me to a capstan bar in order to frighten me, which was done, and Captain Burrish, walking his quarterdeck, the people called out "flogging on board." Some left their stations and others, making uproars, Captain Burrish wished to know the meaning sent for Mr. Page, the First Leftenant, which said that Mr. Griffith was the author of it. Then Mr. Griffith was sent for and had a smart repremand for his conduct, and so I was released and sent out of the Dorsetshire. And as we came to Mahon, he said he would send me to school and he would never strike me more.[20]
Fear of flogging was powerful among seamen. While Bowen's cruel master failed to utilize that fear, there were many others who did not. Christopher Hawkins' shipmate, taking a disliking to Hawkins' American sympathies during the Revolutionary War, stabbed him with a fork:
He was immediately sentenced to receive two dozen lashes from the boatswain's mate for this outrage, and tied to a gun. He now began to beg my forgiveness. I interposed in his behalf with great anxiety, but to not purpose except saving one of the dozen. The dozen that he received was most horribly inflicted-the blood ran down to his heels. The boatswain's mate who administered his punishment was a hard hearted wretch and appeared destitute of human feelings-his names James Richardson. The witnessing of this punishment and the shrieks of the sufferer made me sick at the stomach.[21]
Even before being lashed (or, as he was tied to a gun, perhaps struck with a rattan across the backside), Hawkins' attacker immediately broke down. Terror was the point. Fear of flogging kept crews in line and motivated them. In an unusually cynical exploitation of that fear, Captain Cummings of the Blandford used flogging quicken his crew's pace. Decades later William Spavens still remembered:
I have known him call all hands to sway up the main top gallant yard, which ten men would have effected with ease; and if we were not all upon deck in five minutes, he would place a petty officer at every hatchway to stop those who remained below, and would order each man a dozen lashes at the gangway for his tardiness.[22]
Perhaps the most terrifying use of the cat was a flogging around the fleet. John Nicol, who personally witnessed this cruel punishment, shared a vivid memory:
One of our men was shipped through the fleet for stealing some dollars from a merchant ship he was assisting to bring into port. It was a dreadful sight: the unfortunate sufferer tied down on the boar and rowed from ship to ship, getting an equal number of lashes at the side of each vessel from a fresh man. The poor wretch, to deaden his sufferings, had drunk a whole bottle of rum a little before the time of punishment. When he had only two portions to get of his punishment, the captain of the ship perceived he was tipsy and immediately ordered the rest of the punishment to be delayed until he was sober. He was rowed back to the Surprise, his back swelled like a pillow, black and blue. Some sheets of thick paper were steeped in vinegar and laid to his back. Before he seemed insensible. Now his shrieks rent the air. When better he was sent to the ship, where his tortures were stopped and again renewed.[23]
Violence beget violence. Sailors subjected to the lash did their best to escape. If caught in their attempt to desert, they were again punished with a flogging. Samuel Kelly told of a flogging around the fleet brought on by this very dynamic:
I saw two seamen flogged through this fleet for desertion, a most cruel punishment, especially as the desertion is sometimes occasioned by severe and cruel treatment. These men were fixed to a kind of gallows in a boat, and exposed to the tropical sun whilst going through their punishment, and I was informed one of the men expired on the same day.[24]
Based on the evidence I have gathered above, the use of the cat of nine tails is best expressed as a spectrum of violence. Merchantmen were far from exempt from floggings, though the cat itself rarely appear. Naval vessels saw the constant use of the cat, sometimes for very minor infractions indeed, but only after a direct command from the commanding officer, and then administered in a ritual that justified that violence. On slavers the cat was used indiscriminately, perhaps a result of the breakdown of civilization among a tightly confined crew encouraged to use violence of all sorts without consequence.

This spectrum is only a theory, and one that certainly must have exceptions, but it is a framework I hope to test in the future when examining violence at sea.

[1] Ward, Edward, The Wooden World Dissected: In the Character of a Ship of War, seventh edition, London, 1760, page 46.
[2] Bowen, Ashley, The Autobiography of Ashley Bowen (1728-1813), edited by Daniel Vickers, Ontario: Broadview Editions, 2006, page 45.
[3] Bailey, Nathan, An Universal Etymological English Dictionary, 1751, R. Ware, Google Books, accessed January 18, 2018.
[4] Grose, Francis, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, London: S. Hooper, 1785, page 28, via Google Books, accessed January 3, 2018.
[5] Falconbridge, Alexander, An Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of AfricaLondon: J. Phillips, 1788, page 40, via Google Books, accessed January 3, 2018.
[6] Nicol, John, The Life and Adventures of John Nicol, Mariner, edited by Tim Flannery, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997, page 108-109.
[7] Equiano, Olaudah, The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings, edited by Vincent Carretta, New York: Penguin, 2003, page 57.
[8] Marra, John, Journal of the Resolution's voyage: in 1772, 1773, 1774, and 1775, London: F. Newbery, 1775, page 183.
[9] Jamieson, A.G., 'Tyranny of the Lash? Punishment in the Royal Navy during the American War, 1776-1783,' in The Northern Mariner, The Canadian Nautical Research Society, Volume 9, No. 1, 1999, page 55, accessed January 17, 2018, <>.
[10] Jamieson, 'Tyranny,' page 64.
[11] Byrn Jr., John D., Crime and Punishment in the Royal Navy: Discipline on the Leeward Islands Station, 1784-1812 (England), Louisiana State University Historical Dissertations and Theses, 1987, page 172, accessed January 18, 2018, <>.
[12]  Roger, N.A.M., The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy, New York: W.W. Norton, 1996, page 212.
[13] Kelly, Samuel, Samuel Kelly: An Eighteenth Century Seaman, Whose Days Have Been Few and Evil, edited by Crosbie Garstin, Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1925, page 123.
[14] Bowen, Autobiography, page 38.
[15] Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 7.2, 03 January 2018), February 1752, trial of James Lowrey (t17520218-1).
[16] Bowen, Autobiography, page 45.
[17] Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 7.2, 03 January 2018), February 1752, trial of James Lowrey (t17520218-1).
[18] Falconbridge, Account of the Slave Tradepage 40, via Google Books, accessed January 3, 2018.
[19] Stanfield, James Field, The Guinea Voyage. A Poem in Three Books, London: James Phillips, 1789, page 20. 
[20] Bowen, Autobiography, page 50-51.
[21] Hawkins, Christopher, The Adventures of Christopher Hawkins, edited by Charles I. Bushnell, New York: Privately Printed, 1864, page 36.
[22] Spavens, William, Memoirs of a Seafaring Life: The Narrative of William Spavens, edited by N.A.M. Rodger, County Somerset: The Bath Press, 2000, page 35.
[23] Nicol, Life and Adventures, page 50.
[24] Kelly, An Eighteenth Century Seamanpage 27.


  1. What does " Halfway Rock astern" mean? my actual email is:

  2. Could anyone inform me of the procedure on board Cook's Endeavour (1770) when a seaman was to be flogged with the cat ? What was the process ? By whom and how was it managed ? Who was present ? Any details you can give would be most appreciated. Need these detaiuls for a proposed film. Thank you. John MacDonald