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A Flogging at Sea, 1839
Until the middle of the nineteenth century, flogging was the most common form of punishment used to maintain discipline aboard ship whether the vessel was military or merchant. Flogging was a whipping using a cat-o'nine-tails - a diabolical device designed especially for its task. The cat-o'nine-tails consisted of nine lengths of cord with each length containing up to three knots. The cords were attached to a handle often made of a short piece of thick rope. The knotted cords would rip into a victim's skin with each lash causing excruciating pain. Repeated blows often left the victim unconscious. The number of lashes meted out to a victim depended on the offense committed and the Captainís discretion. Typically, they would range between 5 and 100.

Flogging at sea was brought to the attention of the general public in 1840 through the publication of a number of books that highlighted the practice. The most notable of these was Two Years Before the Mast written by Richard Henry Dana. Dana had dropped out of Harvard for medical reasons and spent two years as a crewman aboard a freighter plying the Pacific. His popular book recounted his experience including the use of flogging. Although Dana abhorred the practice, he did not condemn it.

In 1850 Herman Melville (author of Moby Dick) published a novel entitled White-Jacket that described life aboard a US Navy Man-of-War. Melville devoted a portion of his book to a description of flogging and condemned it as inhuman. Melville's description and condemnation outraged the general public. In reaction, Congress outlawed flogging aboard US Navy ships in September 1850.

"Swinging the rope over his head, and bending his body so as to give it full force, the captain brought it down upon the poor fellow's back. Once, twice - six times."

Richard Henry Dana describes a flogging at sea:

"John, the Swede, was sitting in the boat alongside, and Russell and myself were standing by the main hatchway, waiting for the captain, who was down in the hold, where the crew were at work, when we heard his voice raised in violent dispute with somebody, whether it was with the mate or one of the crew I could not tell; and then came blows and scuffling. I ran to the side and beckoned to John, who came up, and we leaned down the hatchway; and though we could see no one, yet we knew that the captain had the advantage, for his voice was loud and clear.

'You see your condition! You see your condition! Will you ever give me any more of your jaw?'

No answer, and then came wrestling and heaving, as though the man was trying to turn him. 'You may as well keep still, for I have got you," said the captain. Then came the question, "Will you ever give me any more of your jaw?'

'I never gave you any, sir,' said Sam; for it was his voice that we heard, though low and half choked.'

'That's not what I ask you. Will you ever be impudent to me again?'

'I never have been,' said Sam.

'Answer my question, or I'll make a spread eagle of you! I'll flog you, by G-d.'

'I'm no Negro slave,' said Sam.

'Then I'll make you one," said the captain; and he came to the hatchway, and sprang on deck, threw off his coat, and rolling up his sleeves, called out to the mate: "Seize that man up, Mr. A-! Seize him up! Make a spread eagle of him! I'll teach you all who is master aboard!'

The crew and officers followed the captain up the hatchway, and after repeated orders the mate laid hold of Sam, who made no resistance, and carried him to the gangway.

'What are you going to flog that man for, sir?' said John, the Swede, to the captain.

Upon hearing this, the captain turned upon him, but knowing him to be quick and resolute, he ordered the steward to bring the irons, and calling upon Russell to help him, went up to John.

'Let me alone,' said John. 'I'm willing to be put in irons. You need not use any force'; and putting out his hands, the captain slipped the irons on, and sent him aft to the quarter-deck. Sam by this time was seized up, as it is called, that is, placed against the shrouds, with his wrists made fast to the shrouds, his jacket off, and his back exposed. The captain stood on the break of the deck, a few feet from him, and a little raised, so as to have a good swing at him, and held in his hand the bight of a thick, strong rope. The officers stood round, and the crew grouped together in the waist.

Swinging the rope over his head, and bending his body so as to give it full force, the captain brought it down upon the poor fellow's back. Once, twice - six times. "Will you ever give me any more of your jaw?" The man writhed with pain, but said not a word. Three times more. This was too much, and he muttered something which I could not hear; this brought as many more as the man could stand; when the captain ordered him to be cut down, and go forward.

'Now for you,' said the captain, making up to John and taking his irons off. As soon as he was loose, he ran forward to the forecastle. 'Bring that man aft,' shouted the captain. The second mate, who had been a shipmate of John's stood still in the waist, and the mate walked slowly forward; but our third officer, anxious to show his zeal, sprang forward over the windlass, and laid hold of John; but he soon threw him from him.

At this moment I would have given worlds for the power to help the poor fellow, but it was all in vain. The captain stood on the quarter-deck, bare-headed, his eyes flashing with rage, and his face as red as blood, swinging the rope, and calling out to his officers, 'Drag him aft! - Lay hold of him! I'll sweeten him!' etc., etc.

The mate now went forward and told John quietly to go aft, and he, seeing resistance in vain, threw the blackguard third mate from him; said he would go aft of himself, that they should not drag him; and went up to the gangway and held out his hands; but as soon as the captain began to make him fast, the indignity was too much, and he began to resist; but the mate and Russell holding him, he was soon seized up.

When he was made fast, he turned to the captain, who stood turning up his sleeves and getting ready for the blow, and asked him what he was to be flogged for. 'Have I ever refused my duty, sir? Have you ever known me to hang back, or to be insolent, or not to know my work?'

'No," said the captain, 'it is not that I flog you for; I flog you for your interference - for asking questions.'

'Can't a man ask a question here without being flogged?'

'No,' shouted the captain; 'nobody shall open his mouth aboard this vessel, but ,myself'; and began laying the blows upon his back, Swinging half round before each blow, to give it full effect. As he went on his passion increased and he danced about the deck calling out as he swung the rope: 'If you want to know what I flog you for, I'll tell you. It's because I like to do it! - because I like to do it! It suits me! That's what I do it for!'

The man writhed under the pain, until he could endure it no longer, when he called out, with an exclamation more common among foreigners than with us - 'Oh, Jesus Christ, oh, Jesus Christ!'

'Don't call on Jesus Christ,' shouted the captain. 'He can't help you. Call on Captain T -. He's the man! He can help you! Jesus Christ can't help you now!'

At these words, which I never shall forget, my blood ran cold. I could look on no longer. Disgusted, sick, and horror-struck, I turned away and leaned over the rail, and looked down into the water. A few rapid thoughts of my own situation, and of the prospect of future revenge, crossed my mind; but the falling of the blows and the cries of the man called me back at once.

At length they ceased, and turning round, I found that the mate, at a signal from the captain, had cut him down. Almost doubled up with pain, the man walked forward and went down into the forecastle. Everyone else stood still at his post, while the captain, swelling with rage and with the importance of his achievement, walked the quarter-deck. . .

    This eyewitness account appears in: Dana, Richard Henry, Two years before the mast (1840); Vale, James E. Rocks and Shoals: Order and Discipline in the Old Navy 1800-1861 (1980).

How To Cite This Article:
"A Flogging at Sea, 1839", EyeWitness to History, (2008).