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Keelhauling is a famous naval punishment under which the offender would by dragged beneath the hull of the ship. This would have been encrusted with shellfish such as barnacles which would - at the very least - have caused some nasty lacerations. Some claim it was usually lethal either due to drowning or severe trauma.

We are told it was used primarily by the Dutch navy and to a lesser extent by the English. It has also become associated with pirates in the West Indies.

On investigation, though, there seems to be very little evidence that it actually happened. I can only find vague references to "ship's records" but no firm copy of those records. This lack of hard evidence may the reason why there's also no agreement on how frequent or how serious the punishment was.

Is there any firm records of this punishment actually occuring? If so, do they shed any light on how often it was used, and whether it tended to be severe and/or fatal?

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It would seem that by the mid-18th Century, the act of keel-hauling was considered (by the British public, at least) to be a Dutch punishment. A contemporary dictionary gives the following definition:

Keel-Hauling, a punishment inflicted for various offences in the Dutch Navy. It is performed by plunging the delinquent repeatedly under the ship's bottom on one side, and hoisting him up on the other, after having passed under the keel. The blocks, or pullies, by which is is suspended, are fastened to the opposite extremities of the main-yard, and a weight of lead or iron is hung upon his legs to sink him to a competent depth. By this apparatus he is drawn close up to the yard-arm, and thence let fall suddenly into the sea, where, passing under the ship's bottom, he is hoisted up on the opposite side of the vessel. As this extraordinary sentence is executed the a serenity of temper peculiar to the Dutch, the culprit is allowed sufficient intervals to recover the sense of pain, of which indeed he is frequently deprived during the operation. In truth, a temporary insensibility to his sufferings ought by no means to be construed into a disrespect of his judges, when we consider that this punishment is supposed to have peculiar propriety in the depth of winter, whilst the flakes of ice are floating on the stream; and that it is continued till the culprit is almost suffocated for want of air, benumbed with the cold of water, or stunned with the blows his head received by striking the ship's bottom.

An Universal Dictionary of the Marine, W. Falconer (1784)

Interestingly, this seems to suggest that the act was (a) repeated more than once for a given punishment and (b) was not directly, or intentionally, fatal.

A footnote in "The Life and Works of Sir Henry Mainwaring" (from a work by Boteler) suggests that keel-hauling might have evolved from the punishment of ducking:

Ducking 'at the main yard arm is, when a malefactor by having a rope fastened under his arms and about his middle, and under his breech, is thus hoised up to the end of the yard ; from whence he is again violently let fall into the sea, sometimes twice, sometimes three several times one after another ; and if the offence be very foul, he is also drawn under the very keel of the ship, and whilst he is under the water a great gun is given fire right over his head.'

Dialogical Discourse of Marine affairs, Nathaniel Boteler (1685)

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    Fascinating - your reference is at least contemporary. And if correct it does answer one of the curious things I'd always felt about this practice. If it was - as is often claimed - a "death sentence", why was it not simply carried out until the offender was dead? This makes it sound like a severe form of corporal rather than capital punishment, which seems more plausible. – Bob Tway May 31 '17 at 9:27
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    "not intentionally fatal" ... dunno, it still looks like an "execution with a sporting chance" ;) – rackandboneman May 31 '17 at 21:21
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    I get the impression that keel-hauling was akin to flogging round the fleet. A very showy, dramatic punishment conceived as much as a lesson to the assembled crew(s) as to the one receiving it. Neither was intended as a death sentence but both, given the state of medical care, carried a considerable risk of great harm or even death. – Steve Bird May 31 '17 at 22:09
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The earliest evidence for keel-hauling that I'm aware of is actually from ancient Rhodes (~800BC) in the Lex Rhodia. There are also depictions of the practice known from ancient Greece (one is included as the frontispiece of Henry Omerod's Piracy in the Ancient World).

As the Wikipedia page notes, the Dutch Navy introduced the punishment in an ordinance dated 1560, although it may have already been used prior to that date. They didn't actually abolish the practice until 1853. The keel-hauling of the ship's surgeon of Admiral Jan van Nes in the late 1600s was commemorated in a painting by Lieve Verschuier now held at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Records of punishments meted out during a voyage would be recorded by the individual ship's Captains. As far as I'm aware, no serious analysis has yet been carried out on the surviving records. I believe these are held at the National Archives of the Netherlands, but are not available online (and would - obviously - be written in Dutch).

The Royal Navy certainly did use it as a punishment, but I don't know how widespread the practice was. I've only seen a couple of instances (both were fatal). Again, instances of keel-hauling would be recorded in the individual ship's logs, together with the punishments meted out for other infractions. Many of these are held at the National Archives in Kew, as Captain's logs, Supplementary Logs, or Ships logs. Most of these would need to be viewed in person as they are not yet available online. (It will probably make for part of an interesting PhD research project for an aspiring historian some day).

  • @user2448131 Sorry about that. I used the wrong link - I meant to link to Ashburner's book. I've corrected it. The link to Henry Omerod's book on Piracy in the Ancient World is the purchase page on the publisher's website. You can see the image on the cover of the paperback version on Amazon. – sempaiscuba May 30 '17 at 13:51
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    ...an aspiring historian with a strong stomach, that is. – T.E.D. May 30 '17 at 15:52
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    @user2448131 I read Ashburner a long time ago, when studying about maritime law in the Ancient world. I remember a tutor going on at length about punishments for piracy in the ancient world (from memory, I think keel-hauling was a punishment reserved for the crime of piracy in ancient Rhodes). I know that other civilisations had similarly brutal punishments for captured pirates, but I can't recall any of the other references we used, so can't check if any mentioned keel-hauling specifically. – sempaiscuba May 30 '17 at 16:51
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    Link to Omerod. – justCal May 30 '17 at 17:00
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    @user2448131 that's typical of what I've found myself. I did do a little research before posting the question & every reference dries up somewhere down the chain. It all seems based on supposition: I can't even find concrete evidence of what happened in that famous painting. Seems it really would make a good PhD subject! – Bob Tway May 30 '17 at 22:13
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According to this source (wiki) a keelhauling could take place over either the length or the width of a ship. A keelhauling over the length would be fatal, either through drowning, or through lacerations brought by contact with the ship.

A keelhauling across the width (typically about one third of a ship's length) was a "lesser" punishment that might give the victim a fighting chance to survive. For instance, the dimensions of a sloop (a small ship) was something like 39 feet long and 14 feet width. It's much easier to imagine someone surviving over 14 feet than 39 feet.

The practice existed, because there are documented instances, as another poster pointed out. For all that, the lack of records suggests that it was rare. It was administered for only the most egregious offenses, such as mutiny or extreme cowardice. More common forms of execution were hanging, or shooting, or in the case of pirates, forcing the victim to "walk the plank." To estimate the frequency of keelhauling, one can start with the more common forms of execution (not so frequent in themselves) and work "downwards" from there.

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I was interested enough in my own question to reach out to a naval historian at Oxford University, Nicholas Rodger, to see if he could shed any light on the subject. His answer was, indeed, illuminating and confirmed my supposition. I'm reproducing it here, largely verbatim, for general interest.

Several 17th-century English writers like Monson (Naval Tracts ed. Oppenheim III,436) and Boteler (Dialogues ed. Perrin pp.11-25) thought keel-hauling had once been practiced in English ships – before their time, but they were vague about the date. I know no authentic evidence for it at all.

It was an official (though rare) punishment in the Dutch navy (Bruijn, Dutch Navy p.140), it is claimed as a custom among pirates, and the French occasionally used la cale, which seems to have been just ducking from the yardarm. William Spavens, who served in Dutch ships, describes ‘this barbarous custom’, apparently from life (Narrative, Folio Soc edn p.110), but he describes it - in line with Falconer - as essentially a prolonged ducking.

My instinct would be to receive stories of barbarous cruelties with extreme scepticism, except relating to the Russian navy or to pirates, when they may well be true.

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