...And Discipline

If life as a seaman were so bad, then why would anyone want to go “on the account”? Remember, then, that life on land was not much better. To be a pirate meant that there were no taxes to be paid, and no laws to be obeyed. That is not to say, however, that it was a free-for-all on board pirate ships. In order for a ship to function properly, there had to be some degree of discipline. For that reason, articles were drawn up at the beginning of each voyage and signed by the captain and every member of the crew.

Going “on the account” also avoided another danger: that of forced naval service. During the eighteenth century, the job of a navy seaman was not a desirable one. Therefore, the impress service was put into action to procure new recruits. The impress service employed “press gangs” to seize seamen anywhere from eighteen to fifty five years of age. They would often board merchant ships and take however many men they wanted, leaving barely enough to sail the ship.

Still other navy sailors were “quota men”. Each county had to supply a set number of men for naval service. Since volunteers were in short supply, those men convicted of misdemeanors were given the choice of prison or naval service. Inevitably they chose the navy. (Prisons of the time were far worse than most ships.)

Sailors often turned pirate to avoid the harshness of honest service. In naval or merchant service, the captain had complete control. He often ruled with an “iron fist”. Sailors could be flogged, keelhauled, or even hanged at the captain’s order. Hangings were legal in the navy, but rare, due to the need for workers on board a ship. Still other sailors were “ducked”, towed from the stern, or made to “kiss the gunner’s daughter”. To “kiss the gunner’s daughter” was to be bent over a cannon and caned. Thieves were made to “run the gauntlet”-that is, to walk between two lines of men and be hit with knotted ropes the whole way. Some captains forced their men to eat cockroaches, or broke their teeth off with bolts. Yet another punishment was “starting”. This practice was highly resented by sailors, until it was outlawed in 1809. Starting was the use of a piece of rope to hit men who were considered to be not working hard enough.

Flogging was the most common form of discipline used in the navy. A cat o’ nine tails was usually used. The cat was made of an inch thick, two-foot long rope handle with nine “tails” of quarter inch thick line. There is some debate over whether the cat was always knotted, or only knotted for the punishment of a thief. It was heavier than an army cat, and one lash with a navy cat equaled about four with an army cat. The reason for this is that the captain of a naval ship was only supposed to order one dozen lashes. This rule was often ignored, however, and as many as seventy-two lashes would be likely to go unnoticed.

The day the flogging was to take place, the offender was lashed to a piece of upturned grating, and the order was given “all hands on deck to witness punishment”. The officers were to stand to one side, and the marines lined up aft. The captain read the Articles of War, the cat was brought out of its red bag (hence the saying, “let the cat out of the bag”) and the order was given for twelve lashes. The flogging was done by the Bo'sun's mate, and if another dozen lashes were ordered, a second Bo'sun's mate was used. A variant of this was “flogging through the fleet” in which the offender was rowed to every ship in the fleet and given a number of lashes, so that the entire fleet could witness punishment.

In an experiment as to the effects of a flogging, pitch pine was used to test the strength of a cat o’ nine tails. The piece of pitch pine broke in half on what was meant to be only a practice swing. A three-quarter-inch by three-quarter-inch piece of the same length broke in three pieces, and the middle piece flew seven feet. A one-inch by one-inch piece of pitch pine broke with two blows. The effect on a human body has been said to resemble burnt meat.

Such harsh punishments and rash decisions were avoided on board a pirate ship. Pirates ran their ships democratically. This meant that the captain and other officers were elected, and rank had very few privileges. In fact, the captain had to share the great cabin with his crew, and the men were allowed to enter and leave it at all hours of the day and night. Punishments were voted on by the crew, as were almost all major decisions. The only time that the captain had complete control was during battle.

Flogging, in fact, was rarely used as punishment on board a pirate ship. This is probably due to its constant use in the Royal Navy. Marooning was a far more common punishment. To be marooned meant that the offender was left on a deserted island with only a bottle of water, a bottle of powder, three shot, and a pistol to fend for themselves. This was actually more barbaric than it sounds, because once on the island the sailor had to find food, water, and shelter, deal with disease, and possibly with hostile natives.

Effects of a Flogging

Some additional information on flogging through the fleet and keelhauling from Don CanhamLt. NYFD Ret. US NAVY 1951-1955 :

"I read about flogging through the fleet many years ago. That story said that the sailors all knew the poor bloke was going to die anyway, so they were vicious and vented all their frustrations on him. In some cases the floggings were so bad that the only thing left at the termination of the flogging through the fleet was the haNds of the unfortunate sailor, still manacled or tied into the ropes dragging him.

Keelhauling was another punishment in the Navy. That is where a "line" (rope) is passed under the ship. The hands of the sailor were tied to the end of the line. Another line was tied to his ankles. The order was given to "heelhaul" him. The sailors on the hand line would pull the sailor under the ship while the other sailors would feed out the ankle line. This would force the poor sailor under the ship and of course the kee. As bad as that was, (being underwater) the barnacles that were ever present attached to the underside of the ship would ter the man's back and anything else that was exposed to the barnacles to shreds." "Only one man was recorded as surviving a "keelhauling." That was because the sailors like the culprit and hated the captain. They loosened the ankle rope so that it wouldn't be taut while the hand's sailors pulled him quickly to the surface. If the captain really didn't want the man to survive, he would offer a tot of rum to the sailors when the culprit was under water. The sailors gladly took the rum, leaving the poor misbegotten soul to drown. They figured he was going to die anyway, so they might as well have some rum. It made the passing of their shipmate easier. And you thought you were having a bad "hair" day."

I just thought of another tradition of days gone by. "Did you ever hear of "Bowspritting?" The "bowsprit is the long spar that juts out from the prow of the ship. It is used for setting a "spritsail or a "jibsail" on a sailing vessel. The punishment of sailors who were caught stealing or some other misdemeanor that required punishment. Punishment as we know it today would be "cruel and unusual." When the suspect was caught or thought to be caught in the villainous act, he was brought before the Captain of the vessel. If the offense was serious enough to teach the other sailors a lesson, "bowspritting" could be the sentence. "Bowsprtitting was when a convicted sailor was secured to the bowsprit of the ship and left there. What would happen would be something like this; he would be denied food and water, he would be dashed against the waves as the ship continued on its way. This punishment was in full view of the rest of the sailors on the ship. Eventually the sailor who was "bowspritted would die and his body would be reduced to bones from the constant thrashing of the waves and water that would pound him unmercifully. When the Captain decided that the punishment was set in the minds of the sailors, he would order the rigging to be cut away, and the remains dropped into the sea. There was no funeral service. That is why sailors rarely stole from one another, even on long tedious voyages. Now you know the power of the captain of the ship. Not so today, is it?
Thanks to Don for the information!!


Home Port
Hosting by WebRing.