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IN NELSON'S TIME
[From "Sea Life in Nelson's Time," BY JOHN MASEFIELD]
HE punishment most in use in the fleet was flogging on the bare back with the cat-o'-nine-tails.
The cat was a short, wooden stick, covered with red baize. The tails were of tough knotted cord, about two feet long. The thieves' cat, with which thieves were flogged, had longer and heavier tails, knotted throughout their length. Flogging was inflicted at the discretion of the captain. It was considered the only punishment likely to be effective with such men as manned the royal ships. It is now pretty certain that it was as useless as it was degrading. Lord Charles Beresford has said that, "in those days we had the cat and no discipline; now we have discipline and no cat." Another skilled observer has said that "it made a bad man worse, and broke a good man's heart.” It was perhaps the most cruel and ineffectual punishment ever inflicted. The system was radically bad, for many captains inflicted flogging for all manner of offences, without distinction. The thief was flogged, the drunkard was flogged, the laggard was flogged. The poor, wretched topman who got a ropeyarn into a buntline block was flogged. The very slightest transgression was visited with flogging. Those seamen who had any pride remaining in them went in daily fear of being flogged. Those who had been fogged were generally callous, careless whether they were flogged again, and indifferent to all that might happen to them. It was a terrible weapon in the hands of the officers. In many cases the officers abused the power, by the infliction of excessive punishment for trifling offences. The sailors liked a smart captain. They liked to be brought up to the mark, and if a captain showed himself a brave man, a good seaman, and a glutton for hard knocks, they would stand any punishment he chose. to inflict, knowing that such a one would not be unjust. They hated a slack captain, for a slack captain left them at the mercy of the underlings, and that, they said, was "hell afloat.” But worse than anything they hated a tyrant, a man who flogged his whole ship's company for little or no reason, or for the infringement of his own arbitrary rules. Such a man, who kept his crew in an agony of fear, hardly knowing whether to kill themselves or their tyrant, was dreaded by all. He was not uncommon in the service until the conclusion of the Great War. It was his kind who drove so many of our men into the American navy. It was his kind who did so much to cause the mutinies at the Nore and Spithead, the loss of the Hermione frigate, and (to some extent) the losses we sustained in the American War. Lastly, it was his kind who caused so many men to desert, in defiance of the stern laws against desertion. That kind of captain was the terror of the fleet. We do not know what percentage of captains gave the lash unmercifully. Jack Nastyface tells us that of the nine ships of the line he sailed aboard only two had humane commanders. These two received services of plate from the sailors under their command at the paying-off of their ships; the other
seven, we are to presume, ranged from the severe to the brutal.
After all, the cat was not essential to discipline. This was proved time and time again while it was most in
There were, of course, stubborn, brutal, and mutinous sailors. A fleet so manned could not lack such men. When such men were brought before Lord Nelson, he would say: "Send them to Collingwood. He will tame them, if no one else can." Lord Collingwood was the man who swore, by the god of war, that his men should salute a reefer's coat, even when it were merely hung to dry. Yet he didn't tame his men by cutting their backs into strips. He would have his whole ship's company in perfect order, working like machines, with absolute, unquestioning fidelity. But he seldom flogged more than one man a month, and punished really serious offences, such as drunkenness, inciting to mutiny, and theft, with six, nine, or at most a dozen, lashes. His system tamed the hardest cases in the fleet-good men, whom Lord St. Vincent would have flogged to death, or sent to the yard-arm. In conclusion we may quote one of those who saw the last days of flogging: “My firm conviction is that the bad man was very little the better; the good man very much the worse.
The good man felt the disgrace, and was branded for life. His self-esteem was permanently maimed, and he rarely held up his head or did his best again.” Such was the effect of the favourite punishment in the time of the consulship of Plancus.
Those who transgressed the rules of the ship or of the service during the day were put upon the report of the master-at-arms. The names were submitted by that officer to the first lieutenant, who passed them to
the captain every forenoon. Drunkards and mutinous subjects generally passed a night in irons under the half-deck, in the care of an armed marine, before coming up for sentence. Every forenoon, at about half-past ten, those who were on the report went below for their smartest clothes, in the hope that a neat appearance might mollify the captain. Those who were in irons got their messmates to bring them their clothes. At six bells, or eleven o'clock in the forenoon, the captain came on deck, with a paper bearing the names of all delinquents. He bade the lieutenant turn the hands aft to witness punishment. The lieutenant sent a midshipman to the boatswain's mates, and the order was piped and shouted. The marines fell in upon
, with their muskets and side-arms. The junior officers gathered to windward under the break of the poop. The captain and lieutenants stood on the weather quarterdeck. The ship's company fell in anyhow, on the booms, boats, and lee-side of the ship, directly forward of the main-mast. The doctor and purser fell in to leeward, under the break of the poop, with the boatswain's mates in a little gang in front of them. The captain's first order was “rig the gratings.” The carpenter and carpenter's mates at once dragged aft two of the wooden gratings which covered the hatches. One of these was placed flat upon the deck. The other was placed upright, and secured in that position against the ship's side or poop railings. When the gratings had been reported rigged the captain called forward the first offender on his list, and told him that he had transgressed the rules of the service, knowing the penalty. He asked the man if he had anything to say in extenuation. If he had nothing to say the order was "Strip.” The man flung off his shirt, and advanced bare-shouldered to the gratings, and extended his arms upon the upright. The captain then gave the order “Seize him up." The quartermasters advanced, with lengths of spun-yarn, with which they tied the man's hands to the grating. They then reported "Seized up, sir." At this point the captain produced a copy of the Articles of War, and read that Article which the offender had infringed. As he read he took off his hat, to show his respect for the King's commandments. Every man present did the same. While the Article was being read one of the boatswain's mates undid a red baize bag, and produced the red-handled cat, with which he was to execute punishment. At the order “Do your duty,” he advanced to the man at the grating, drew the cat tails through his fingers, flung his arm back, and commenced to flog, with his full strength, at the full sweep of his arm.
He was generally a powerful seaman, and he knew very well that any sign of favouritism would infallibly cause his disrating, if it did not subject him to the same torture. Some seamen could take a dozen, or, as they expressed it, "get a red checked shirt at the gangway,” without crying aloud. But the force of each blow was such that the recipient had the breath knocked clean out of him, "with an involuntary Ugh.” One blow was sufficient to take off the skin, and to draw blood whereever the knots fell. Six blows were enough to make the back perfectly raw. Twelve blows cut deeply into it, and left it a horrible red slough, sickening to look upon. Yet three dozen was a common punishment. Six dozen lashes were counted as nothing. Three hundred lashes were very frequently given.
Before a severe punishment the sufferer's messmates used to bring him their tots of grog, saved up from sup