Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 36

FLOGGING NOT NECESSARY.


But White-Jacket is ready to come down from the lofty mast-head of an
eternal principle, and fight you--Commodores and Captains of the navy
--on your own quarter-deck, with your own weapons, at your own paces.

Exempt yourselves from the lash, you take Bible oaths to it that
it is indispensable for others; you swear that, without the lash,
no armed ship can be kept in suitable discipline. Be it proved to
you, officers, and stamped upon your foreheads, that herein you
are utterly wrong.

"Send them to Collingwood," said Lord Nelson, "and _he_ will
bring them to order." This was the language of that renowned
Admiral, when his officers reported to him certain seamen of the
fleet as wholly ungovernable. "Send them to Collingwood." And who
was Collingwood, that, after these navy rebels had been
imprisoned and scourged without being brought to order,
Collingwood could convert them to docility?

Who Admiral Colllngwood was, as an historical hero, history
herself will tell you; nor, in whatever triumphal hall they may
be hanging, will the captured flags of Trafalgar fail to rustle
at the mention of that name. But what Collingwood was as a
disciplinarian on board the ships he commanded perhaps needs to
be said. He was an officer, then, who held in abhorrence all
corporal punishment; who, though seeing more active service than
any sea-officer of his time, yet, for years together, governed
his men without inflicting the lash.

But these seaman of his must have been most exemplary saints to
have proved docile under so lenient a sway. Were they saints?
Answer, ye jails and alms-houses throughout the length and
breadth of Great Britain, which, in Collingwood's time, were
swept clean of the last lingering villain and pauper to man his
majesty's fleets.

Still more, _that_ was a period when the uttermost resources of
England were taxed to the quick; when the masts of her multiplied
fleets almost transplanted her forests, all standing to the sea;
when British press-gangs not only boarded foreign ships on the
high seas, and boarded foreign pier-heads, but boarded their own
merchantmen at the mouth of the Thames, and boarded the very
fire-sides along its banks; when Englishmen were knocked down and
dragged into the navy, like cattle into the slaughter-house, with
every mortal provocation to a mad desperation against the service
that thus ran their unwilling heads into the muzzles of the
enemy's cannon. _This_ was the time, and _these_ the men that
Collingwood governed without the lash.

I know it has been said that Lord Collingwood began by inflicting
severe punishments, and afterward ruling his sailors by the mere
memory of a by-gone terror, which he could at pleasure revive;
and that his sailors knew this, and hence their good behaviour
under a lenient sway. But, granting the quoted assertion to be
true, how comes it that many American Captains, who, after
inflicting as severe punishment as ever Collingwood could have
authorized--how comes it that _they_, also, have not been able to
maintain good order without subsequent floggings, after once
showing to the crew with what terrible attributes they were
invested? But it is notorious, and a thing that I myself, in
several instances, _know_ to have been the case, that in the
American navy, where corporal punishment has been most severe, it
has also been most frequent.

But it is incredible that, with such crews as Lord Collingwood's
--composed, in part, of the most desperate characters, the rakings
of the jails--it is incredible that such a set of men could have
been governed by the mere _memory_ of the lash. Some other
influence must have been brought to bear; mainly, no doubt, the
influence wrought by a powerful brain, and a determined, intrepid
spirit over a miscellaneous rabble.

It is well known that Lord Nelson himself, in point of policy,
was averse to flogging; and that, too, when he had witnessed the
mutinous effects of government abuses in the navy--unknown in our
times--and which, to the terror of all England, developed
themselves at the great mutiny of the Nore: an outbreak that for
several weeks jeopardised the very existence of the British navy.

But we may press this thing nearly two centuries further back,
for it is a matter of historical doubt whether, in Robert Blake's
time, Cromwell's great admiral, such a thing as flogging was
known at the gangways of his victorious fleets. And as in this
matter we cannot go further back than to Blake, so we cannot
advance further than to our own time, which shows Commodore
Stockton, during the recent war with Mexico, governing the
American squadron in the Pacific without employing the scourge.

But if of three famous English Admirals one has abhorred
flogging, another almost governed his ships without it, and to
the third it may be supposed to have been unknown, while an
American Commander has, within the present year almost, been
enabled to sustain the good discipline of an entire squadron in
time of war without having an instrument of scourging on board,
what inevitable inferences must be drawn, and how disastrous to
the mental character of all advocates of navy flogging, who may
happen to be navy officers themselves.

It cannot have escaped the discernment of any observer of
mankind, that, in the presence of its conventional inferiors,
conscious imbecility in power often seeks to carry off that
imbecility by assumptions of lordly severity. The amount of
flogging on board an American man-of-war is, in many cases, in
exact proportion to the professional and intellectual incapacity
of her officers to command. Thus, in these cases, the law that
authorises flogging does but put a scourge into the hand of a
fool. In most calamitous instances this has been shown.

It is a matter of record, that some English ships of war have
fallen a prey to the enemy through the insubordination of the
crew, induced by the witless cruelty of their officers; officers
so armed by the law that they could inflict that cruelty without
restraint. Nor have there been wanting instances where the seamen
have ran away with their ships, as in the case of the Hermione and
Danae, and forever rid themselves of the outrageous inflictions of
their officers by sacrificing their lives to their fury.

Events like these aroused the attention of the British public at the
time. But it was a tender theme, the public agitation of which the
government was anxious to suppress. Nevertheless, whenever the thing
was privately discussed, these terrific mutinies, together with the
then prevailing insubordination of the men in the navy, were almost
universally attributed to the exasperating system of flogging. And the
necessity for flogging was generally believed to be directly referable
to the impressment of such crowds of dissatisfied men. And in high
quarters it was held that if, by any mode, the English fleet could be
manned without resource to coercive measures, then the necessity of
flogging would cease.

"If we abolish either impressment or flogging, the abolition of the
other will follow as a matter of course." This was the language of
the _Edinburgh Review_, at a still later period, 1824.

If, then, the necessity of flogging in the British armed marine
was solely attributed to the impressment of the seamen, what
faintest shadow of reason is there for the continuance of this
barbarity in the American service, which is wholly freed from the
reproach of impressment?

It is true that, during a long period of non-impressment, and
even down to the present day, flogging has been, and still is,
the law of the English navy. But in things of this kind England
should be nothing to us, except an example to be shunned. Nor
should wise legislators wholly govern themselves by precedents,
and conclude that, since scourging has so long prevailed, some
virtue must reside in it. Not so. The world has arrived at a
period which renders it the part of Wisdom to pay homage to the
prospective precedents of the Future in preference to those of
the Past. The Past is dead, and has no resurrection; but the
Future is endowed with such a life, that it lives to us even in
anticipation. The Past is, in many things, the foe of mankind;
the Future is, in all things, our friend. In the Past is no hope;
the Future is both hope and fruition. The Past is the text-book
of tyrants; the Future the Bible of the Free. Those who are
solely governed by the Past stand like Lot's wife, crystallised
in the act of looking backward, and forever incapable of looking
before.

Let us leave the Past, then, to dictate laws to immovable China;
let us abandon it to the Chinese Legitimists of Europe. But for
us, we will have another captain to rule over us--that captain
who ever marches at the head of his troop and beckons them
forward, not lingering in the rear, and impeding their march with
lumbering baggage-wagons of old precedents. _This_ is the Past.

But in many things we Americans are driven to a rejection of the
maxims of the Past, seeing that, ere long, the van of the nations
must, of right, belong to ourselves. There are occasions when it
is for America to make precedents, and not to obey them. We
should, if possible, prove a teacher to posterity, instead of
being the pupil of by-gone generations. More shall come after us
than have gone before; the world is not yet middle-aged.

Escaped from the house of bondage, Israel of old did not follow
after the ways of the Egyptians. To her was given an express
dispensation; to her were given new things under the sun. And we
Americans are the peculiar, chosen people--the Israel of our
time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world. Seventy
years ago we escaped from thrall; and, besides our first
birthright--embracing one continent of earth--God has given to
us, for a future inheritance, the broad domains of the political
pagans, that shall yet come and lie down under the shade of our
ark, without bloody hands being lifted. God has predestinated,
mankind expects, great things from our race; and great things we
feel in our souls. The rest of the nations must soon be in our
rear. We are the pioneers of the world; the advance-guard, sent
on through the wilderness of untried things, to break a new path
in the New World that is ours. In our youth is our strength; in
our inexperience, our wisdom. At a period when other nations have
but lisped, our deep voice is heard afar. Long enough, have we
been skeptics with regard to ourselves, and doubted whether,
indeed, the political Messiah had come. But he has come in us, if
we would but give utterance to his promptings. And let us always
remember that with ourselves, almost for the first time in the
history of earth, national selfishness is unbounded philanthropy;
for we can not do a good to America but we give alms to the world.

Herman Melville