Discipline in the Royal Navy was clearly codified in the Articles of War, first issued in 1653, later revised in 1749 and again in 1757. In this writ, based on the ancient sea laws of the islands of Rhodes in the Mediterranean and Oléron in the Bay of Biscay, maritime crimes and their related penalties are defined in minute detail. The Articles served as the Magna Carta, Constitution and Ten Commandments for the average Jack Tar, guiding him through the rocks and shoals of Royal Navy discipline. The Articles were annunciated publicly at every ship’s commissioning, when church was “rigged” on Sunday and when an offender’s punishment was read to the ship’s company.
In the 36 articles, whose categorized offenses range from Article 10’s, “yielding or crying for quarter,” to the commission of, “buggery and sodomy with man or beast” detailed in Article 29, the punishment of death is mentioned 22 times, with these two articles being no exception. Perhaps most telling, or chilling, is the terminology used in the final article, 36, “All other crimes not capital committed by any person in the fleet, which are not mentioned in this act, or for which no punishment is hereby directed to be inflicted, shall be punished by the laws and customs in such cases used at sea.” Thus, the captain of one of His Majesty’s ships, at sea or on station in some far-flung quarter of the Empire, could use his discretion and creativity when meting out disciplinary measures.
In addition to execution by hanging, which was reserved for enlisted ranks, or by shooting, this being the hallowed privilege of officers, an average sailor may have found himself being flogged, or worse yet, flogged round the fleet, for a given offense. The latter flogging involved rowing the condemned in a ship’s boat from man-o-war to man-o-war in a fleet anchorage, while lashed between thwarts to an upturned grate. At each ship a fresh boatswain’s mate —sometimes alternating left- and right-handed so the cat could be administered more evenly — would come aboard to issue 12 more lashes.
Perhaps among the most onerous of unofficial punishments — it was never ordered by a Royal court martial — was keelhauling. Invented by the Dutch navy and adopted by other navies in the 15th century, it involved rigging blocks and tackle from opposite ends of the main yard, conveying lines athwartships beneath the hull. The convicted would then be lashed to these lines by the hands and feet with lead or iron weight attached to the latter.
The punishment would begin by having the offender hauled aloft smartly by a dozen or more men of the deck crew, until his hand lashings were two-blocked at the yard. He would then be dropped into the sea and hauled beneath the ship, emerging on the opposite side, being brought up again to the other side of the yardarm. The process would repeat after a short delay and “continued until the culprit is almost suffocated for want of air, benumbed with cold or stunned with blows his head receives by striking the ship’s bottom,” as described in Capt. Nathanial Boteler’s charming 1634 tome, A Dialogicall Discourse.
As if this punishment were not severe enough, Boteler’s observations go on to detail, each time the unfortunate soul was towed beneath the keel, “a cannon was fired, which is done as well to astonish him so much the more with the thunder of the shot, as to give warning unto all others of the fleet to look out and be wary by his harms.”
It is important to note that the weighting of the condemned man’s feet was a critical and comparatively merciful component of the keelhauling evolution. Contrary to popular belief, the aim of the punishment was not to grate the man’s flesh across the ship’s barnacle-encrusted or copper-sheeted bottom. Instead ballasting could spell the difference between the fatal and near-fatal experience of hundreds of septic wounds versus a simpler but infinitely more survivable near-drowning. For any contemporary sailor who has sustained a wound as the result of a scrape with a barnacle knows, this type of laceration nearly always festers.
Keelhauling fell out of favor by the early 18th century, having been supplanted by the cat-‘o-nine tails, although it continued to be practiced by the Dutch until 1813. Keelraking, a variation of keelhauling, reputedly involved the same procedure as keelhauling; however, instead of transporting the seaman in a submarine fashion from port to starboard or vice versa, keelraking had him towed from bow to stern. There is little evidence, however, that this variation of the punishment was ever actually used.
Although the Royal and U.S. navies share much in common in the way of discipline, ship design and tactics, both then and now, the U.S. Navy never condoned, or apparently practiced, keelhauling as a form of punishment.
Steve C. D’Antonio