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Under the lash

26 May 2009 by stepheng

A wooden staff in a display case

The hastener

I was never caned at school but was threatened with it on one occasion for failing to whiten my pumps for PE. Another time the class bully – a hefty blonde – flicked ink at me. I told the teacher who sent Muriel to the female deputy head for two strokes on each hand. Muriel was as nice as pie to me after that.

Life for the ordinary seaman on sailing ships was hard with poor food, atrocious living conditions and frequently diabolical weather. There was also very harsh discipline to make sure crew members literally “toed the line” – believed by many to be a seafaring expression referring to the lines created by deck planks.

Captains ordered wrongdoers to be flogged. This involved the culprit being whipped on the back, usually with a cat o’ nine tails – a whip with nine thongs or tails. Very young seafarers were flogged with a lighter model with just five tails known as a boy’s cat. It was administered on the bare backside while the culprit was “kissing the gunner’s daughter” (bending over a cannon). The cane was also used but rarely on the hand, as this could hinder the victim when hauling ropes or doing other work.

One of the most feared punishments in the Royal Navy was being flogged around the fleet. The total amount of lashes was divided by the number of ships in port. The offender was rowed between each ship for the crews to witness his punishment. The gravest offences – such as sedition and mutiny – could attract a sentence of hundreds of lashes. However, a surgeon was present and could stop the flogging if it endangered the culprit’s life. A tally was kept of how many lashes were still to be carried out. Once the wounds had healed, the floggings would be resumed. As a result, sentences often took months or years to complete.

The ultimate punishment was execution by being hanged from the yardarm, again witnessed by the crew.

Apart from formal punishments, crew members were often thumped and hit as a matter of course.

In Merseyside Maritime Museum’s Life at Sea gallery there is a hastener from about 1877. These were applied by bo’suns (boatswains – junior officers) to keep crews in order. This hastener on display was used on the iron ship Eulomene of Liverpool. It is made of cane with the end formed into a Turk’s head knot. It is more than 18 inches long and as thick as a man’s thumb.

A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. A paperback – Mersey Maritime Tales (£3.99) – is available from the museum, newsagents, bookshops or from the Mersey Shop website (£1.50 p&p UK).

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