Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The U.S. Navy Outlaws Flogging, 28 September 1850

Punishment on board ship, from the Journal of a Cruise on the USS Cyane, 1842-43, by William H. Myers, Gunner, NH001905

"Seize that man up, Mr. A-! Seize him up! Make a spread eagle of him! I'll teach you all who is master aboard!' - Two Years Before the Mast, Richard Henry Dana, Jr.

Young Richard Henry Dana, Jr. did not intend to write an American classic. Yet the horrible descriptions of life aboard an American Navy vessel during the early nineteenth century did much to pique the interest of the general public about the institution of flogging at sea. As a student entering Harvard University, he contracted measles. Searching for other options, Dana dropped out of school and enlisted as a common sailor in the U.S. Navy. Dana traveled around Cape Horn on the brig Pilgrim, keeping a diary during the entire voyage. When he returned two years later, he penned Two Years Before the Mast with the intention to detail how poorly common sailors were treated. The institution of flogging, or punishing by striking with a cat-o’-nine tails, was highlighted as a particularly cruel form of punishment. The publication quickly became a best seller:
"Swinging the rope over his head, and bending his body so as to give it full force, the captain brought it down upon the poor fellow's back. Once, twice - six times." – Two Years Before the Mast, Richard Henry Dana, Jr.
Flogging was not unique to the U.S. Navy. Historical accounts from other navies around the world detail the horror displayed through corporal punishment during the age of sail. Royal Navy sailor Aaron Thomas remarks of one instance of such corporal punishment in a journal kept between 1798-99 aboard HMS Lapwing:
“At 10 AM Thomsons arms was lashed; the Ships Company formed a Lane all around the Waiste of the Ship, every man being provided with a Nettle, 2 Marines faced him with each a Bayonet pointed at the Theife, a Cord was thrown over the prisoners body, the ends of which were held behind by Two Quartermasters, Things being thus ordered he run the Gauntlet, every man striking him as he passed; the noise of which I thought at the time, resembled Reapers at work, when cuting Corn. After passing once round, he fainted and & droped down. -- The Surgeon threw some Hartshorn in his face, and he was ordered into Irons, to receive more punishment when his back recovers." (reprinted courtesy of University of Miami Libraries)
Sixteen years after the Dana’s publication, Herman Melville, best known for Moby Dick, published White-Jacket, or The World in a Man-of-War.
A Cat-o'-nine tails - The tool of flogging
White-Jacket, much like Dana’s work, detailed shipboard life during the Age of Sail. One of the best chapters of the book concerned descriptions of the “inhuman practice” of flogging:
“And here, though the subject of punishment in the Navy has been canvassed in previous chapters, and though the thing is every way a most unpleasant and grievous one to enlarge upon, and though I painfully nerve myself to it while I write, a feeling of duty compels me to enter upon a branch of the subject till now undiscussed. I would not be like the man, who, seeing an outcast perishing by the roadside, turned about to his friend, saying, "Let us cross the way; my soul so sickens at this sight, that I cannot endure it." – “Flogging Through the Fleet,” in White-Jacket
If Two Years Before the Mast was the start of flogging’s downfall, White-Jacket proved to be the final swing. The general public once again responded in outrage. Many naval officers steeped in tradition took offense to Melville’s writings, publishing remarks in newspapers and pamphlets. One such possible publication, A Plea in Favor of Maintaining Flogging in the Navy, intended to restore the practice of flogging back into the U.S. Navy. The effort proved fruitless. The winds of change were too strong for the “old guard.” On 28 September 1850, Congress abolished the practice with an appropriation bill signed by President Millard Filmore.

In 1855, Congress passed a law establishing better disciplinary measures for the Navy and a system of summary courts martial for minor offenses. Whatever punishment doled out to sailors, it was far more humane than flogging.


Capt. Dan said...

Mr. Dana did ship out as a common sailor, but not on a U.S. Navy or any other ship of war.

The Pilgrim, his first ship, was a merchantman as was the Alert, his second ship.

Matthew T. Eng said...


I apologize for the error about the U.S. Navy. Regardless, within the maritime world, Dana's piece as well as Melville's details the campaign against the institution of flogging, merchant or Navy. Dana goes so far as to compare it to slavery. For more information on the naval campaign against flogging (which includes both Melville and Dana), please see Myra C. Glenn, "The Naval Reform Campaign Against Flogging: A Case Study in Changing Attitudes Toward Corporal Punishment, 1830-1850," American Quarterly 35, no. 4 (Autumn 1983): 408-425.