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Crime & Punishment

In 1652 the Admiralty introduced a naval code of conduct, the Articles of War. This was produced following a heavy defeat by the Dutch at the Battle of Dungeness, which was attributed to the 'baseness of spirit' displayed by its captains and admirals in the battle.

These Articles of War, revised in 1749 and again in 1757, had the joint aim of preventing indiscipline and cowardice of officers serving in the Royal Navy and establishing a disciplinary code that was not dependent on the inclinations of individual captains, and which could be uniformly applied consistently and fairly. 

Enforced by court martial, which could only be convened by a captain who decided whether an offence was punishable, the Articles of War made provision for certain offences, such as profane swearing, drunkenness, uncleanliness, striking an officer, disobeying orders, to be punished as decided by a court martial, while more serious offences, such as murder, could result in a death sentence. These Articles were used as the framework for the Naval Disciplinary acts enacted in 1661 and 1749. However, althought the Articles of War were wide-ranging, they did not cover every possible disciplinary offence or expected behaviour. The Articles were thus supplemented bu Sailing and Fighting Instructions, first issues in 1673 - the Royal Navy's first publications of this kind - by James, Duke of York (later James II), which stressed the importance of maintaining the line in battle. Revised in 1691, it formed the basis of British naval tactics up to 1783. Further guidance was offered by the Regulations and Instructions Relating to His MAjesty's Service at Sea, which between its introduction in 1731 and 1806 was updated 13 times before a new set of regulations was instituted. 

These regulations and instructions, but especially the Articles of War, formed the basis of the Royal Navy's own law and justice system, independent to the law of the land, and was used for its own governance and enforced by those who served in it. The Articles of War were therefore read to a ship's crew - mainly for the benefit of those who were illiterate - when a ship was first commissioned; in place of or at the end of the weekly onboard church service; and when an offender was about to be flogged. A printed copy was also left out prominently displayed for all to see. All of this served as an unequivocal reminder to those serving of what was required in terms of conduct and the associated punishments for any misdemeanour committed. 

Punishments at sea

Any transgressions of these laws were usually dealt with swiftly and often brutally with diverse punishments depending on the severity of the offence. The speed and severity of the penal system served to prevent skulking from affecting general morale, to ensure seamen knew what to expect, and also to avoid the need to keep offenders in confinement - something that was simply not possible on long voyages. In short, the threat of punishment was viewed as necessary in maintaining order and discipline on board Royal Navy ships. 

The different types of punishments available to a captain were out of necessity efficient, quick to administer and not disruptive to a ship's routine and operation. For instance, for petty offences, such as swearing or quarrelling, the captain could reprimand a miscreant by  temporarily withdrawing privileges, such as the issue of grog (drink consisting of water and rum), cutting rations or putting men in confinement in irons, for days or even months at a time. Younger crew members up to the age of 18, such as the boys who assisted the older seamen and carried powder to the guns on a ship during battle (nicknamed 'powder monkeys'), or midshipmen (young men training to become officers), were often reprimanded by caning. This involved them being secured by a rope while bening over a gun carriage and caned with their trousers down. This was traditionally referred to as 'kissing the gunner's daughter'. Depending on the type of misbehaviour they could receive up to a maximum of 12 strokes instantaneously or as a result of a more official hearing. Another punishment for young offenders was to be 'mast headed', whereby offenders were ordered to the top of the mast in inclement weather conditions. 

Minor offences, such as laziness, committed by older seamen could be punished arbituarily by the boatswain's mate 'starting' with a rope's end. In cases of theft - a hated crime as it broke the rules of trust between shipmates - the offender, would have to 'run the gauntlet'. The criminal is placed with his naked back in a large tub that had a seat fixed within it. His hands would be tied down by his sides. The tub would be secured on a grating and drawn round the decks by the boys, the master-at-arms with his drawn sword pointing to the prisoner's chest. After the boatswain has given a dozen lashes, the gauntlet would begin. The ship's crew would be arrange round the decks in two rows, so that the prisoner passes between them, and each man is provided with a three yarn knettle (three ropes yarns tightly laid together and knotted). Then each member of the crew must cut the offender, or could be accused of being implicated in the theft. 

The most common form of punishment was flogging. Admiralty regulations stipulated that captains were allowed to authorise floggings of up to 12 lashes without recourse to a court martial. This rule was often overlooked, however, and some captains authorised floggings of up to 72 lashes without a court of enquiry. Offenders in such circumstances would have their wrists lashed to an upright grating near the gangway on the quarterdeck and be flogged on their bare back by the boatswain with a cat-o'-nine-tails (a whip formed of nine pieces of rope knotted at the ends). This took place in full view of the assembled ship's company and, like 'running the gauntlet', the ritual public humiliation involved was intended to act as a deterrent to others. 

Insolent men were sometimes punished by gagging. The offender would be placed in a sitting position, with both his legs put in irons, and his hands secured behind him, his mouth is then forced open and an iron bolt put across, well secured behind his head. A sentinel is placed over him with his drawn bayonet, and in this situation remains, until the Captain may think proper to release him, or until he is nearly exhausted. 

Other types of punishments included 'ducking', whereby a seaman weighed down by a cannon shot was plunged into the sea from the yardarm. Men were also 'spread eagled' on the mizzenmast rigging, or forced to carry a 'wooden collar' (a yoke bearing the weight of multiple cannon balls) or the 'capstan bar' (a heavy beam of wood) for several hours. 

Trial by court martial

More serious crimes that potentially could result in a mandatory death sentence or lesser but still severe punishments were dealt with by court martial, as were crimes committed by commissioned or warrant officers; they could not be punished arbitrarily by the captain and, if found guilty, were usually dismissed from the service. Whatever the rank of the offender, the decision to hold a court martial was not taken or entered into lightly. 

Once reported by the captain, the decision to proceed (or not) with a court martial rested with the commander-in-chief of the station in which the alleged offence had taken place. From a personal perspective a captain might be reluctant to focus attention on misdemeanours that took place on board his ship for fear of questioning by his peers of his reputation and ability, and because of uncertainty about how a case might be judged; decisions could sometimes be clouded by personal jealousies or character clashes or by the inability of officers who were not experienced or legally minded enough to deal with such matters. Also not clear was the type of punishment, if any, that might be meted out, since most of the Articles of War were followed by the caveat that a punishment will be given 'as the court martial shall be judged to deserve' and at the discretion of the officers representing the adjudicating panel. Furthermore, arranging a court martial was a time-and labour- intensive process, particularly if a ship was in the middle of a long voyage far from land and a suitable naval base or establishment. 

Having received confirmation from the commander-in-chief, a court martial could only be held if a quorum of at least five and up to 13 senior officers (captains or admirals) could be assembled to decide whether a reported offence contrary to the Articles of War was proven, and what punishment, if any, should be imposed. This in itself could in some cases take months to organise and impact significantly on naval operations, particularly when the accused, the person bringing the charge and any other witnesses, who may have moved to other ships, also had to be summoned. 

Given the impact that a court martial had on resources and operations it is somewhat surprising that some were ever brought at all. One such seemingly petty case, Commodore Horatio Nelson in 1797 presided over a court martial of Lieutenant Nicholas Meager of HMS Dromedary who was charged by the ship's master, George Casey, because he took 'me by the nose and pulled with all his strength' in full view of everyone on deck. 

The ultimate punishment

The most severe punishment that could be meted out by court martial was the death sentence. For officers, this was execution by firing squad, and for seamen by hanging. The sentencing of officers in this way was uncommon but there were some controversial examples, which not only led to direct charges for the Articles of War, but also had tragic repercussions for succeeding officers. 

Second Lieutenant Baker Phillips, aged 26, was in 1744 serving on board HMS Anglesea, whose captain Jacob Alton, had bee ordered t patrol the English Channel for French ships. On 29th March 1745, HMS Anglesea was approached by a ship. This was mistakenly believed to be HMS Augusta, so Elton proceeded to his quarters for dinner. Unbeknown to Elton, however, the approaching vessel was actually the French ship Apollon. In the ensuing confusion, Elton rashly ordered HMS Anglesea's retreat by shortening the foresail - an action that resulted in the ships being blown to one side and the gun decks being flooded. Taking advantage, the Apollon poured a broadside into the distressed HMS Anglesea, killing both Elton and the master. This left Baker Phillips, as the most senior officer, in command. After further French broadsides caused 60 more crew to be killed or wounded, and with HMS Anglesea listing and unable to return fire, Phillips duly surrendered his ship. After the event, Phillips was subsequently court martialled in 1745 for his conduct and charged under article 10 of the Articles of War which stipulated that:

'Every Flag Officer, Captain and Commander in the Fleet, who, upon signal or order of fight, or sight of any ship or ships which it may be his duty to engage, or who, upon likelihood of engagement, shall not make the necessary preparations for fight, and shall not in his own person, and according to his place, encourage the inferior officers and men to fight courageously, shall suffer death, or such other punishment, as from the nature and degree of the offence a court-martial shall deem him to deserve; and if any person in the fleet shall treacherously or cowardly yield or cry for quarter, every person so offending, and being convicted thereof by the sentence of a court martial, shall suffer death.'

In failing to prepare his ship to engage, not encouraging the inferior officers and common men to fight courageously, and for surrendering, Phillips was sentenced by the court martial panel of officers to death by firing squad. However, due to the circumstances and because of Phillips's age and inexperience, they recommended he be shown mercy - a recommendation for clemency that was controversially overturned. The general view of the matter in Parliament was that a higher-ranking officer such as a captain or admiral would have avoided execution and that Phillips had been made a scapegoat for the failings of his captain. The ensuing political fall-out of this case was so great that it eventually resulted in the amendment of the Articles of War, whereby any senior ranking officer who surrendered or did not do their utmost in such circumstances would face execution. 

Aside from the death penalty, one of the most severe punishments for seamen that could be ordered by a court martial was 'flogging round the fleet', during which as many as 1,000 lashes could be given. One unfortunate recipient of this punishment was Thomas Young, a deserter, who was sentenced in 1778 'receive 300 lashes on his bare back with a cat of nine tails alongside such of His Majesties ships and vessels in port at such times and in such proportions as shall be directed by the commanding officer of the said ships and vessels for the time being.

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