An Introduction to Punishment in Aubrey’s Royal Navy

V0041675 A sailor is stripped to the waist, tied to a ladder and bein Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images A sailor is stripped to the waist, tied to a ladder and being flogged with a cat-o'-nine-tails while four sailors are waiting for their turn to flog him. Wood engraving by W.R. after: W. R.Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Discipline in the Royal Navy of Nelson’s time is often seen as a harsh and unbending code of ‘starting’, flogging and hanging. But to take punishment out of the context of the times is to miss the comparison between life on land and life at sea during the Georgian period.

The Georgian code of justice was known, with good reason, as the bloody code. On land a man could be given a long jail sentence or transported for life for relatively minor offenses, he could be hanged for stealing as little as a handkerchief. Newgate prison routinely kept its prisoners 20 to a cell measuring twenty feet by fifteen.

At sea the rules that the men obeyed were known as The Articles of War. A man could only be hanged for mutiny, treason or desertion. Sodomy was also a capital offense, but few men were prosecuted or hanged for it, and it seems likely that it was a rare occurrence on a war ship (the open living space of the men providing few opportunities for privacy).

At sea discipline was relatively easy to maintain. The sailors knew that their lives depended on working together to stop the ship from foundering or being taken by the enemy. This may partly explain why it was possible for a 20 year old to command a ship of experienced seamen: Nelson was not quite 21 when he was made a post captain, and he was not an exception. As long as the captain didn’t endanger their safety the crew were willing to work for him. In port the job was harder, and frequently senior officers would think twice before going below decks.


‘Starting’ a man was to hit him across the back with a rattan cane or short length of rope, usually done by the bosun’s mate. It was used as a quick punishment for a man not thought to be pulling his weight or moving fast enough once an order was given. The practice of starting was greatly resented by the men, its use was arbitrary and very dependent on the captain. The Admiralty banned its use in 1809, after the court martial of Captain Robert Corbett. In fact most captains had already ceased the practice by then.


In theory a captain could only order a maximum of 12 lashes; any more was supposed to be dealt with by a court martial. This rule was routinely broken quite openly, with captains writing in their journals the number of lashes awarded for each flogging. Up to 72 lashes would be unlikely to attract the attention of the Admiralty.

The men accepted this; the punishments handed out by court martial tended to be much more severe, possibly as a deterrent to asking for a court martial. George Melvin of the Antelope received 300 lashes for desertion from a court martial. The limit on captains was removed in 1806. The new regulations stated that a captain was not to order punishment ‘without sufficient cause, nor even with greater severity than the offence shall really deserve.’ As a punishment flogging seems to have been fairly ineffective, even as a deterrent, with the same man frequently being flogged for the same offense time and again. A harsh or sadistic captain could make the crew’s life a misery, and such ships tended to see a rise in desertions.

Flogging itself was carried out by the bosun’s mate with a cat of nine tails. The punishment was generally carried out the day after the offense, and the bosun’s mate made a new cat for each flogging. The cat itself was heavier than the version used in the army, made of a rope handle about two feet long and an inch in diameter to which the nine tails of line were attached. The line was a quarter inch diameter and about two feet long. The whole thing weighed just under a pound. Once finished it was put into a red baize bag until needed.

The flogging began with the order for all hands to muster aft to witness punishment. The offender was generally lashed to an upturned grating. The officers stood to one side in full dress uniform and the marines lined up aft. The captain would read out the Article of War that the offender had broken and then the order would be given to lay on the dozen lashes. If more than a dozen had been ordered then a second bosun’s mate would lay on the next twelve.

The force of the blows can be shown by the fact that a standard cat of nine tails was easily capable, when wielded by an average man, of breaking a one inch by one inch length of knot free pine in half. The effect on the victims back was said to resemble scorched and blackened meat.

The severest form of flogging was a flogging round the fleet. The number of lashes was divided by the number of ships in port and the offender was rowed between ships for each ship’s company to witness the punishment.

The acceptance of flogging by the sailors to maintain discipline is hard to measure. In the Great Mutinies at the Nore and Spithead, flogging was not mentioned in the sailors list of complaints. In fact whilst the ships were under control of the mutineers, they ordered floggings to be carried out. But Samuel Leech in his memoirs spends much time railing against the injustice of flogging.


A seaman could only be hanged for mutiny, treason or desertion. Hangings, possibly due to the shortage of men, were rare events. A mutineer would be hanged from the Yard arm of the ship. If he was well liked his crew mates might be able to haul him up fast enough to break his neck. Occasionally a man would jump overboard to avoid the slow strangulation of the noose (Richard Parker, the Nore mutineer, jumped rather than strangle).

Other Punishments

For a thief the favored punishment was to to run the gauntlet. Thieves were particularly unpopular with the men, who had nowhere to lock up their possessions. The offender was walked slowly through two lines of men who were armed with ropes with a knot in the end. They would then beat the man as he passed down the line. Major theft was punished by flogging, and only for this offense was the cat knotted, three at three inch intervals.

If the ship’s boys were caught up to trouble they might be made to ‘kiss the gunner’s daughter’. They were bent over a cannon and caned on the backside. The gunner was the officer in charge of the boys’ welfare. A man could also be seized up to the shrouds, that is tied up in the rigging and left to the mercy of the weather, for however long the officer who ordered the punishment felt the man should remain there.

Courtesy of Broadside.

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