Flogging was the practical pinnacle of a graduated scale of punishments inflicted by the Royal Navy. There were a dozen lesser but imaginatively unpleasant punishments which the Navy regarded as proportional to various offenses. For example, a sailor could be “started,” or struck across the shoulders with a rattan cane, if a petty officer or officer felt that the man was not working hard enough. Traditional punishments maintained good order in the community “before the mast”: liars could be lashed in the rigging overnight or in foul weather; the noisy could be gagged with a pump-bolt; blasphemers could be made to wear a cangue; thieves could be made to run the gauntlet. A grave offense could be punished by “flogging through the fleet,” a multi-day spectacle in which the malefactor was successively scourged while lashed up in a boat that was rowed alongside each ship in the harbor. While technically a sailor could be hanged for violating the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 11th, 13th, 14th, 15th, 17th, 19th, 20th, 21st, 22nd, 23rd, 24th, 25th, 26th, 27th, 28th, 29th, 32nd, or 39th Articles of War, as a practical matter seamen were simply in too short supply to kill. A flogging, however, unforgettably punished the behavior and made a grave impression on all who woefully witnessed it.
“Snell has confessed to desertion,” Lieutenant Didcot called out from the quarter-deck, “has been found guilty, and has been sentenced to two dozen lashes. Master-at-arms, carry out the sentence!”
The two marine drummers beat out a slow and solemn rhythm as the master-at-arms drew from a red baize bag the first of the four cat-o’-nine-tails he had made the evening before. The tails were lengths of line nearly as thick as one’s little finger, the nine of them fastened to the rope just thicker than one’s thumb which formed the handle, the juncture wrapped in whip-cord. Half tails, half handle, the cat was four feet long and weighed a pound. The tails in his left hand and the handle in his right, the master-at-arms walked behind Snell and stood just to the prisoner’s left, feet spread wide.
The drumming stopped and not a sound was heard for a moment except the faint slap of the waves against the hull of Armagh as it pushed through the calm Atlantic, and the faint creaking of the yards as the wind applied its pressure to the sails with ever-varying force. The crew was utterly silent, but then the silence was broken by the whizzing of the nine tails through the air as the master-at-arms swung the cat, followed immediately by a thwack and a sharp cry as the pinioned Snell bore a blow that, had he been standing free and upright, would have knocked him to the deck.
The master-at-arms drew the cat up and struck the second blow, which Snell took with only a sharp exhalation from his burning lungs. There was no need to call out “one, two, three, four,” for every officer and man on Armagh silently kept count. On the eleventh blow, Snell cried out loudly and sobbed, snot and tears flying from his face with the twelfth.
The ship’s company looked on sullenly. None of them knew Snell, so there was no friendly sympathy, but all of them had at one time or another considered deserting, so there was ample empathy. Those who had never been flogged felt the skin above their shoulder-blades crawl as they unavoidably imagined the cat falling against their own backs. They well imagined the abject terror that came with the utter helplessness of being bound to the capstan and awaiting the lash. They could in a tenth part feel what Snell had felt, being brought aboard Armagh with his hands yet free, knowing that he would be shackled, knowing that he faced a flogging, yet knowing that there was nowhere to which to flee except into the cold sea and death beneath it. They shared Snell’s humiliation, the deep shame of a man being used in this manner by another man, for they shared that humiliation insofar as they were all in jeopardy of harsh justice or mere caprice. And those men of Armagh who had been flogged on other ships on other voyages, they felt all this and more, the specifics of their horrific memories rising forcefully to the surface, the scars on their backs throbbing.
Want to know more? There is a full discussion of the Royal Navy’s range of punishments in Dudley Pope’s Life in Nelson’s Navy (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1981) and an even fuller discussion in N. A. M. Rodger, The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy (New York: W. W. Norton, 1986), pp. 205-218. Herman Melville describes a flogging on a fictionalized version of U.S.S. United States in chapter 33 of his autobiographical novel White-Jacket and devotes chapters 34 through 36 to a denunciation of the punishment; see http:dave.pluckerbooks.com:81/works/melvilleh/whitejacket.chapter33.html