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Chapter 34


There are incidental considerations touching this matter of
flogging, which exaggerate the evil into a great enormity. Many
illustrations might be given, but let us be content with a few.

One of the arguments advanced by officers of the Navy in favour
of corporal punishment is this: it can be inflicted in a moment;
it consumes no valuable time; and when the prisoner's shirt is
put on, _that_ is the last of it. Whereas, if another punishment
were substituted, it would probably occasion a great waste of
time and trouble, besides thereby begetting in the sailor an
undue idea of his importance.

Absurd, or worse than absurd, as it may appear, all this is true;
and if you start from the same premises with these officers, you,
must admit that they advance an irresistible argument. But in
accordance with this principle, captains in the Navy, to a
certain extent, inflict the scourge--which is ever at hand--for
nearly all degrees of transgression. In offences not cognisable
by a court-martial, little, if any, discrimination is shown. It
is of a piece with the penal laws that prevailed in England some
sixty years ago, when one hundred and sixty different offences
were declared by the statute-book to be capital, and the servant-
maid who but pilfered a watch was hung beside the murderer of a

It is one of the most common punishments for very trivial
offences in the Navy, to "stop" a seaman's _grog_ for a day or a
week. And as most seamen so cling to their _grog_, the loss of it
is generally deemed by them a very serious penalty. You will
sometimes hear them say, "I would rather have my wind _stopped_
than _my grog!_"

But there are some sober seamen that would much rather draw the
money for it, instead of the grog itself, as provided by law; but
they are too often deterred from this by the thought of receiving
a scourging for some inconsiderable offence, as a substitute for
the stopping of their spirits. This is a most serious obstacle to
the cause of temperance in the Navy. But, in many cases, even the
reluctant drawing of his grog cannot exempt a prudent seaman from
ignominy; for besides the formal administering of the "_cat_" at
the gangway for petty offences, he is liable to the "colt," or
rope's-end, a bit of _ratlin-stuff_, indiscriminately applied--
without stripping the victim--at any time, and in any part of the
ship, at the merest wink from the Captain. By an express order of
that officer, most boatswain's mates carry the "colt" coiled in
their hats, in readiness to be administered at a minute's warning
upon any offender. This was the custom in the Neversink. And
until so recent a period as the administration of President Polk,
when the historian Bancroft, Secretary of the Navy, officially
interposed, it was an almost universal thing for the officers of
the watch, at their own discretion, to inflict chastisement upon
a sailor, and this, too, in the face of the ordinance restricting
the power of flogging solely to Captains and Courts Martial. Nor
was it a thing unknown for a Lieutenant, in a sudden outburst of
passion, perhaps inflamed by brandy, or smarting under the sense
of being disliked or hated by the seamen, to order a whole watch
of two hundred and fifty men, at dead of night, to undergo the
indignity of the "colt."

It is believed that, even at the present day, there are instances
of Commanders still violating the law, by delegating the power of
the colt to subordinates. At all events, it is certain that, almost
to a man, the Lieutenants in the Navy bitterly rail against the
officiousness of Bancroft, in so materially abridging their usurped
functions by snatching the colt from their hands. At the time, they
predicted that this rash and most ill-judged interference of the
Secretary would end in the breaking up of all discipline in the Navy.
But it has not so proved. These officers _now_ predict that, if the
"cat" be abolished, the same unfulfilled prediction would be verified.

Concerning the license with which many captains violate the express
laws laid down by Congress for the government of the Navy, a glaring
instance may be quoted. For upward of forty years there has been on
the American Statute-book a law prohibiting a captain from inflicting,
on his own authority, more than twelve lashes at one time. If more are
to be given, the sentence must be passed by a Court-martial. Yet, for
nearly half a century, this law has been frequently, and with almost
perfect impunity, set at naught: though of late, through the exertions
of Bancroft and others, it has been much better observed than formerly;
indeed, at the present day, it is generally respected. Still, while
the Neversink was lying in a South American port, on the cruise now
written of, the seamen belonging to another American frigate informed
us that their captain sometimes inflicted, upon his own authority,
eighteen and twenty lashes. It is worth while to state that this
frigate was vastly admired by the shore ladies for her wonderfully
neat appearance. One of her forecastle-men told me that he had used up
three jack-knives (charged to him on the books of the purser) in
scraping the belaying-pins and the combings of the hatchways.

It is singular that while the Lieutenants of the watch in American
men-of-war so long usurped the power of inflicting corporal punishment
with the _colt_, few or no similar abuses were known in the English
Navy. And though the captain of an English armed ship is authorised
to inflict, at his own discretion, _more_ than a dozen lashes
(I think three dozen), yet it is to be doubted whether, upon the
whole, there is as much flogging at present in the English Navy as in
the American. The chivalric Virginian, John Randolph of Roanoke,
declared, in his place in Congress, that on board of the American
man-of-war that carried him out Ambassador to Russia he had witnessed
more flogging than had taken place on his own plantation of five
hundred African slaves in ten years. Certain it is, from what I
have personally seen, that the English officers, as a general thing,
seem to be less disliked by their crews than the American officers
by theirs. The reason probably is, that many of them, from their
station in life, have been more accustomed to social command;
hence, quarter-deck authority sits more naturally on them. A coarse,
vulgar man, who happens to rise to high naval rank by the exhibition
of talents not incompatible with vulgarity, invariably proves a tyrant
to his crew. It is a thing that American men-of-war's-men have often
observed, that the Lieutenants from the Southern States, the descendants
of the old Virginians, are much less severe, and much more gentle and
gentlemanly in command, than the Northern officers, as a class.

According to the present laws and usages of the Navy, a seaman,
for the most trivial alleged offences, of which he may be
entirely innocent, must, without a trial, undergo a penalty the
traces whereof he carries to the grave; for to a man-of-war's-
man's experienced eye the marks of a naval scourging with the
"_cat_" are through life discernible. And with these marks on his
back, this image of his Creator must rise at the Last Day. Yet so
untouchable is true dignity, that there are cases wherein to be
flogged at the gangway is no dishonour; though, to abase and hurl
down the last pride of some sailor who has piqued him, be some-
times the secret motive, with some malicious officer, in
procuring him to be condemned to the lash. But this feeling of
the innate dignity remaining untouched, though outwardly the body
be scarred for the whole term of the natural life, is one of the
hushed things, buried among the holiest privacies of the soul; a
thing between a man's God and himself; and for ever undiscernible
by our fellow-men, who account _that_ a degradation which seems
so to the corporal eye. But what torments must that seaman
undergo who, while his back bleeds at the gangway, bleeds
agonized drops of shame from his soul! Are we not justified in
immeasurably denouncing this thing? Join hands with me, then;
and, in the name of that Being in whose image the flogged sailor
is made, let us demand of Legislators, by what right they dare
profane what God himself accounts sacred.

Is it lawful for you to scourge a man that is a Roman? asks the
intrepid Apostle, well knowing, as a Roman citizen, that it was
not. And now, eighteen hundred years after, is it lawful for you,
my countrymen, to scourge a man that is an American? to scourge
him round the world in your frigates?

It is to no purpose that you apologetically appeal to the general
depravity of the man-of-war's-man. Depravity in the oppressed is
no apology for the oppressor; but rather an additional stigma to
him, as being, in a large degree, the effect, and not the cause
and justification of oppression.

Herman Melville