Customs of the Navy

Chapter 6 - Laws of the Sea and Punishments

"... the law relating to the Government of the Navy, whereon, under the good Providence of God, the wealth, safety and strength of the Kingdon chiefly depend..."

-- Preamble to the Naval Discipline Act of 1866.

All forms of society require rules governing conduct of the members, and this is especially true within the narrow confines of a ship at sea, which by its very nature is separate and to some extent independent of other authority. Laws governing the relationship to man to man in service at sea had to be formulated or established by custom, and forms of retribution were necessary in order to enforce these laws. There is, therefore a very close relationship between laws and punishments, and we must think of both in considering the broad term discipline.

The first laws of the sea written in English, from which the Naval Discipline Act of 1956 (governing U.K. and Dominion naval forces, except those of Canada) and the National Defence Act of Canada have been developed, were recorded in the 13th century -- the Ordonances or Usages of the Sea of Richard I, the Lion-Hearted;

Richard by the grace of God, King of England, Duke of Normandy. and earl (etc., etc.). To all his men going by sea to Jerusalem, greeting. Know ye, that by the common council of all good men, we have made the underwritten ordonances:

He who kills a man on shipboard, shall be bound to the dead man, and thrown into the sea; if the man is killed on shore, the slayer shall be bound to the dead body and buried with it.

Anyone convicted by lawful witness of having drawn his knife to strike another, or who shall have drawn blood of him, he is to lose his hand. Ih he shall have only struck with the palm of his hand, without drawing blood, he shall be thrice ducked in the sea.

Anyone who shall reproach, abuse or curse his companion, shall for everytime he is convicted thereof, give him so many ounces of silver.

Anyone convicted of theft shall be shorn like a champion(Footnote 1) ; boiling pitch shall be poured on his head and he shall be set ashore at the first land the ship touches.

At Chinon, France

A development from these laws in the early part of the 15th century (not before 1422) was the Black Book of the Admiralty, in which was recorded all laws relating to seafaring under the British flag.

"Know all men that We, with the aid of upright councels, have laid down these ordinances:

"Whoever shall commit murder aboard ship shall be tied to the corpse and thrown into the sea.

"If a murder be commited on land the murderer shall be tied to the corpse and buried alive.

"If any man be convicted of drawing a knife for the purpose of stabbing another, or shall have stabbed another so that blood shall flow, he shall lose a hand.

"If any man strike another with his hand, he shall be ducked three times into the sea.

"If any man defame, villify, or swear at his fellow, he shall pay him as many ounces of silver as times he has reviled him.

If a robber be convicted of theft, boiling pitch shall be poured over his head and a shower of feathers be shaken over to mark him, and he shall be cast ashore at the first land at which the Fleet shall touch."

These laws further stated that "All other faults committed at sea shall be punished according to the customs used at sea.

The punishment listed in the Admiralty Black Book for sleeping on watch, a very serious offence because it endangered the ship, was at first humiliating and for repeated offences brutal. A bucket of sea-water was poured over the head of a first offender. A second time the offender's hands were tied over his head and a bucket of water was poured down each sleeve. For a third offence the man was tied to the mast with heavy gun chambers secured to his arms, and the captain could order as much additional pain to be inflicted as he wished. The fourth offence was inevitably fatal; the offender was slung in a covered basket hung below the bowsprit. Within this prison he had a loaf of bread, a mug of ale and a sharp knife. An armed sentry ensured that he did not return aboard if he managed to escape from the basket. Two alternatives remained -- starve to death or cut himself adrift to drown in the sea.

The Articles of War, a purely naval code of discipline, stem from this source. These were first written in 1661 in the reign of Charles II. The punishments listed were brutal but the principle has remained to present times: "For the good of all, and to prevent unrest and confusion."

The King's Rules and Admiralty Instructions (K.R. & A.I., now Q.R. & A.I.) which made their first appearance in 1731, contain general regulations, including discipline, governing the naval service. In the R.C.N. similar regulations are embodied in the Queen's Regulations and Orders for the Royal Canadian Navy, short title Q.R.C.N. The 43 articles in the Laws or Roll (Rule) of Oleron in the Bay of Biscay, like the maritime codes of the Republic of Rhodes (Lex Rhodia), Rome and other Mediterranean states from which they were developed, are largely concerned with merchant shipping or commercial practice. That these laws were for the good of all is shown by the fact that the opinion of the crew was required in particular circumstances:

"If a ship is in Haven and stays to await her time, and the time comes for departure, the Master is to take counsel with his companions and say to them - 'Sirs, you have this weather.' There will be some who will say 'The weather is not good' and some who will say the weather is 'fine and good'. The Master is bound to agree with the better part of his companions, and if he does otherwise he is bound to replace the ship and the goods if they are lost, and this is the judgement in this case."

Under the Laws of Oleron the master and crew of a ship which was stranded through negligence of her pilot were authorised, without fear of retribution, to behead the pilot. This seems harsh, but one should realise that pilots were not above working in league with salvagers and wreckers ashore.

The expression Captain's Cloak refers only symbolically to a voluminous garmet. It implies that any act could be considered an offence "to the prejudice of good order and discipline". The last paragraph of the quotation from the Laws of Oleron and section 118 of the National Defence Act are both in this category.

A punishment which was particularly harsh and usually fatal was keel-hauling, awarded for serious offences, and discontinued in the Royal Navy about 1720. It was still practised in the Dutch and French navies until 1750.

A Stout line was rove through a block on the lower yardarm on each side of the ship. One end was secured under the arms and around the chest of the offender whose wrists were secured behind his back. From the other yard the line went under the ship, as a bottom line, and was secured around the man's ankles. On the word of the captain the boatswain ordered the man hoisted off the deck and clear of the bulwarks; slack was taken down on the bottom line, and as it was hauled in the line around the man's chest was slacked away. In this way he was hauled under the ship, and came up on the other side feet first. With both lines taut the man was slung in such a way that his stomach, chest and face were dragged across the barnacles of the keel, and in addition he was at least partially drowned.

An incidental feature of this cruel punishment is that the longer the ship was out of port after docking the less was a man's chance of living through the ordeal of being keel-hauled. As if this treatment were not enough it was the practice to fire a gun, usually unshotted, above the man as he was hauled up out of the sea, "in order to astonish and confound him". Perhaps this is the true origin of the Rogue's Salute previously mentioned.

Execution by hanging at the yardarm was the normal punishment for mutiny in the fleet. The last execution was carried out in 1860 (during the Second Chinese War) on a marine who attempted to murder his captain. Yardarm execution as carried out in the navy is well described by Nordoff and Hall in Mutiny on the Bounty. As a capital punishment it was by no means instantaneous as is said to be with the case with our modern Canadian practice. The prisoner's hands and feet were tied, and with the noose about his neck a dozen or so men, usually boats' bowmen (the worst scoundrels in the ship) manned the whip and hoisted him to the block of an upper yard, to die there by slow strangulation.

The most common type of punishment, inflicted for almost any crime at the discretion of the captain, was flogging with a cat-o'-nine-tails (Footnote 2). This was carried out "according to the customs of the service", namely at the gangway. At the time of Trafalgar a man who was to be flogged was given twenty-four hours in which to make his own cat. He was kept in leg-irons on the upper deck while awaiting his punishment. When the cat was made the boatswain cut out all but the best nine tails. If the tak was not completed in time the punishment was increased.

With heads uncovered to show respect for the law, the ship's company heard read the Article of War the offender had contravened. The prisoner was then brought forward, asked if he had anything to say in mitigation of punishment, then removed his shirt and had his hands secured to the rigging or a grating above his head. At the order "Boatswain's mate, do your duty" a sturdy seaman stepped forward with the cat -- a short rope or wodden handle, often red in colour, to which was attached nine waxed cords of equal length, each with a small knot in the end. With this the man was lashed on the bare back with a full sweep of the arm. After each dozen lashes a fresh boatswain's mate stepped forward to continue the punishment. Each blow of the cat tore back the skin and subsequent cuts bit right into the flesh so that after several dozen lashes had been inflicted the man's back resembled raw meat. After each stroke the cords were drawn through the boatswain's mates fingers to remove the clotting blood. Left-handed boatswain's mates were especially popular with sadistic captains because they would cross the cuts and so mangle the flesh even more.

After the man was cut down he was taken to the sick berth, there to have salt rubbed into his wounds. This was done not so much to increase the pain as for its antiseptic qualities.

At one time men were literally flogged to death with a hundred lashes or more. The figure three hundred has been mentioned in history, and in the time of Czar Nicholas II a common punishment in Russia was one-thousand lashes; Peter the Great had limited the number in the Russian army to two-hundred. As late as the early 17th century a thousand lashes was a punishment for mutiny and other serious offences in the British forces; this was more prolonged than hanging but just as fatal.

From 1750 into the 19th century twelve lashes were the maximum authorised for any one offence. The famous admirals Jervis (Lord St. Vincent) and Collingwood rarely exceeded this maximum except in the case of a double offence. It is recorded that they punished fewer men than captains who awarded more than the maximum. Nelson usually sentenced men to less than a dozen lashes, occasionally as many as eighteen, and rarely twenty-four. In ships of the line, with companies of up to 550 men, the more merciful captains punished about sixteen men a year, while some others punished over fifty. Not taken into account in the records were unofficial punishments, which were quite prevalent, and which will be mentioned later in this chapter.

Until the end of the 18th century the punishment for theft, a hateful crime against one man or many in a ship at sea, was for the thief to run the gauntlet (or gantlope). The offender first received a dozen lashes in the normal manner with a thieves' cat, with knots throughout the length of the cords, and while still stripped to the waist passed through two lines of all the ship's company, to be flogged with short lengths of rope. Lest he move too fast to benefit fully from this ordeal the master-at-arms marched backwards a pace ahead of him with the point of his cutlass against the thief's chest. And to prevent him stopping a ship's corporal followed him in a similar manner. On completion of the course the thief was given a further dozen lashes.

In the 19th century it was the practice to plunge a thief three times into the sea from the bowsprit and then to cast him ashore; the latter part of the punishment was parallel to the civil practice of the time, which was called outlawry.

The usual punishment up to 1735 for attempting to escape or for striking an officer was flogging around the fleet. The offender was secured to an upright timber in a ship's boat, and when it pulled alongside each gangway a boatswain's mate entered the boat and inflicted a certain number of lashes. For added effect the boat was accompanied on its rounds of the fleet by other boats, each with a drummer in the bows beating a roll on his drum.

The Naval Discipline Act of 1866 limited corporal punishment to 48 lashes. The form of sentence by a court-martial was that "the court, having found that the charge against the accused is proved, adjudges him the said... to receive... lashes according to the customs of the Navy."

Flogging was abolished in the British forces by the Army Act of 1881, in response to strong public opinion. It was said that flogging "made a bad man worse, and broke a good man's heart."

In the mutinies of 1797 - 1798 Lord St. Vincent (Admiral John Jervis) hanged twelve men. Other fleets and squadrons, after twenty mutinous uprisings had fifty-five executions and many floggings about the fleet; St. Vincent, we are told, intensely disliked the latter punishment.

Until suppressed in 1811 it was a common practice for boatswains' mates to carry and use on their men colts or starters, small whips somewhat like knouts or knotted ropes, which they carried concealed in their hats. The boatswain's mark of authority was the bamboo cane or rattan he always carried, and with which he summarily executed punishment. A punishment awarded by messdeck court martial for cooks who spoiled a meal was to be cobbed and firked, that is beaten with stockings full of sand or bung staves of a cask. This practice was officially disallowed after 1811.

Other forms of punishment, in an attempt to make a punishment fit each crime, were usually harsh and often ingenious. In the 19th century it was ordered that "cruel and unusual punishments are to be avoided". Before that time, in addition to the various punishments mentioned in detail, the following were commonly practiced: ducking from the yardarm -- a more dramatic variation of washing in cold brine; the bilboes -- stocks to which painful pressure was applied; and hanging by the arms in the rigging. Discontinued in the 17th century were gagging and scraping of the tongue for swearing or blasphemy; or boring the tongue with a red hot iron, presumably for repeated or aggravated offences. Cell punishment was instituted in 1847, and a few years later came the first set of numbered minor punishments. A form of corporal punishment, i.e. "birching or caning on the bare breach" (K.R. & A.I.) remained until recent years as a punishment for boys. Birching was suspended in the service in 1906, but caning is still administered occasionally as a punishment for boys, cadets and midshipmen.

The term court martial probably dates from the early 14th century, from Edward III's Court of Chivalry. Due to shortages of men courts martial in the 17th century, in ordering the punishment of execution, would not only specify that only one or more of a group were to die and leave the victims to cast lots or throw dice, but often used to determine which would die although all might be equally guilty.


1. This was done to a champion or prize-fighter so his opponent could not seize his hair.

2. A sealed pattern of a cat-o'-nine-tails may be seen in the Canadian Maritime Museum, Halifax Nova Scotia.

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