Being a sailor back then could be brutal to say the least.
In 2019, the U.S. Navy stopped allowing officers to punish sailors by limiting their meals to bread and water. The Navy adopted this punishment in its early days from the British Royal Navy and continued using it long after the Royal Navy stopped using it in 1891. One modern-day U.S. skipper imposed the punishment so often for minor offenses that his ship earned the nickname “U.S.S. Bread and Water.”
A modern version of this punishment might mean three days in the brig with nothing to eat but bread and water. A couple centuries ago, it might have meant 30 days shackled in the brig with only those two provisions. Though it seems cruel and unusual today, naval ships once viewed bread-and-water punishment as more humane compared to the other traditional penalties sailors faced at sea.
For minor infractions, a sailor might have to climb the mast and stay there for a set period of time in the cold wind. This could be quite uncomfortable and isolating, but was also known as the best time for a sailor to get a little reading done.
Worse than mast-heading was caning, a punishment in which you hit a sailor across his backside with a solid cane. Yet like bread-and-water punishments, caning was once a less serious consequence for misbehavior on the high seas.
In fact, caning was mostly a punishment for minors in the 19th and early 20th centuries, a time when boys as young as 12 could join the British Royal Navy. Offenders received six to 12 strokes with a thick three-and-a-half-foot cane; sometimes in private, sometimes in front of the other boys on the ship.
A boy might be caned for minor offenses, like skipping out on roll call. But if committed a more serious offense, his punishment could be a public birching. This usually meant 12 to 24 strokes with a bundle of birch sticks.
“These instruments of correction were usually hung up in the steam of the ship’s galley to make them supple enough to have knots tied in them, though there are also reports of birches being soaked in vinegar or saltwater before being used,” writes Christopher McKee in Sober Men and True: Sailor Lives in the Royal Navy, 1900-1945.
Neither caning nor birching compared to flogging, a common adult punishment that could kill a man. Until the mid-1800s, sailors who committed major or minor offenses were often tied to the mast and whipped with a cat ‘o nine tails in front of the crew. (The U.S. Congress outlawed this in 1862.)
The knots in the cat ‘o nine tails ripped flesh from sailors’ backs, causing wounds that could become infected. To prevent this, officers often rubbed salt into the cuts after the flogging was over—a practice that caused further pain.
Between the mid-1600s and the mid-1800s, one of the worst punishment a sailor could receive was keelhauling. “Keelhaul” comes from the the Dutch kielhalen, which means “to haul under the keel of a ship,” according to Merriam-Webster. As the name suggests, it involved throwing someone over one side of the ship and dragging him underneath the ship to the other side.
This punishment was much, much rarer than flogging. But like flogging, it could endanger a man’s life.
For very serious infractions, the most common severe punishment was death by hanging. Sailors bound the condemned man by his hands and feet and put a noose around his neck. The noose’s rope went up over the horizontal yard-arm that stretched across the mast, and the condemned man’s fellow sailors slowly pulled his body into the air until he died from strangulation.
Walking the Plank
Perhaps the most well-known pirate punishment on the high seas is blindfolding a sailor and making him “walk the plank.” But although the practice has been dramatized in books and movies, it’s likely rare that anyone ever actually did it.