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Corporal Punishment

Published Sources
In Cook’s day Admiralty regulations dictated that the maximum corporal punishment that a captain on his own authority could inflict on any man at sea was a dozen lashes.

The punishment was administered as the culmination of a solemn ritual. All seamen beyond those engaged in essential duties would be summoned on deck facing a raised and specially rigged deck hatch cover before the quarterdeck. They would be brought to order and the man to be flogged would then be marched before the assembled crew by officer of their watch, accompanied by two or more marines and a drummer. The charges against him would be read aloud by one of the officers assembled on the quarterdeck, and the offender tied face first spread-eagled to the rigging on the hatch cover. He was then vigorously lashed across the upper back by the boatswain, or his mate, with a knotted rope or whip made up of several knotted ends spliced to a rope or wooden handle called a ‘Cat O Nine Tails’.

After the offender had received his dozen lashes, the ship’s surgeon or surgeon’s mate examined him, and treated any resulting lacerations with a salve containing mercuric oxide.

While a routine part of shipboard life, flogging need to be understood in the context of eighteenth-century attitudes to violence generally as well as the social dynamics of naval life.

Most Eighteenth-century Britons experienced far more physical violence and cruelty during the course of their lives than their modern counterparts. Some in patrician circles that heeded the warnings of the moral philosopher John Locke that corporal punishment should only be sparingly inflicted on children, as violence would predispose them to be contemptuous of authority. However, at all levels of society greater store was placed in the proverbial wisdom that ‘Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him.’

Children were flogged for simple transgressions. Of the small minority who attended school, knowledge was more often than not acquired ‘at the expense of many tears and some blood’, as historian Edward Gibbon recalled of his years at Westminster School in the late 1740s. By common law men were legally entitled to give their wives and servants of both sexes ‘moderate correction’. Masters could beat apprentices. And men were quick to settle disputes with their peers violently, even within patrician circles where real or imagined affronts to personal honour were not uncommonly settled by duelling.

Violent punishment was a fact of life at sea, but it was nowhere near as frequent as is commonly thought. Brutality in commissioned and warranted officers was rarely tolerated because of the detrimental effects it had upon morale and thus the ability of seamen to concentrate on the difficult and often dangerous business of working the ship.

Captains generally did not order men to suffer the formal and relatively severe punishment of flogging without coolly judging how seriously the offence threatened the discipline and safety, and whether his reasoning would be accepted below deck. Complicating matters, staging a flogging was not only time-consuming but also required that a man receive no less 12 lashes. By its vicious theatricality a flogging could thus diminish the authority of captain if seamen considered the punishment had been unjustly ordered. As a result, a moral economy operated in which both officers and seamen often regarded on the spot enforcement of discipline with a knotted rope as preferable to the socially disruptive spectacle of a flogging.


Prepared by: Turnbull, P.
Created: 28 October 2001
Modified: 28 February 2004

Published by South Seas, 1 February 2004
Comments, questions, corrections and additions: Paul.Turnbull@jcu.edu.au
Prepared by: Paul Turnbull
Updated: 28 June 2004
To cite this page use: http://nla.gov.au/nla.cs-ss-biogs-P000102

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