The cat-o'-nine-tails or cat was the British Royal Navy's authorized equivalent of the Everything2 Death Borg up until 1881. Like the EDB it had a single purpose--to punish miscreants in public--and assure that inappropriate behavior was minimized.

The cat was made of nine pieces of cord, each about a foot-and-a-half long, attached to a thick rope which served as a handle. Each length of cord had three knots near its striking end. The cat was kept in a red baize bag, and when the "cat was let out of the bag," sailors were flogged on the bare back for transgressing the Articles of War.

You've seen this in movies, of course. In Real Life, according to Patrick O'Brian, masterful author of twenty novels on the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, the process was ruthlessly efficient and commonplace.

Punishment always took place at six bells in the forenoon watch (eleven A.M.). Some ships set aside special days for flogging, others punished on a daily basis. The boatswain's mates piped 'All hands to witness punishment,' and the crew moved aft where the Marines were stationed with their muskets and all the officers were present in full-dress uniforms, wearing their swords.

"The master-at-arms brought his charges before the captain and the misconduct of which they were accused (usually drunkenness) was publicly stated. If the man had anything to say for himself he might do so, and if any of his particular officers saw fit they might put in a word for him.

"Having considered the case, the captain gave his decision--acquittal, reprimand or punishment. This might be extra duties or stoppage of grog, but often it was flogging.

"'Strip,' the captain would say, and the seaman's shirt came off.

"'Seize him up,' and the quartermasters tied his hands to a grating rigged for the purpose upright against the break of the poop, reporting, 'Seized up, sir.'

"Then the captain read the Articles of War that covered the offence, he and all the others taking off their hats as he did so. He said, 'Do your duty,' and a boatswain's mate, taking the cat-of-nine-tails out of a red baize bag, laid on the number of strokes awarded. Some hands screamed, but the regular man-of-war's man would take a dozen in silence."

--Patrick O'Brian, Men-of-War, Life in Nelson's Navy, W.W. Norton and Company, 1995.

It was a brutal business in a brutal era, and one that women were not allowed to witness. Many captains, including Nelson and Collingwood abhorred the practice and almost never let the cat out of the bag.

Others, such as the monstrous Captain Hugh Pigot of the H.M.S. Hermione rigged the grating every day, and instead of six, or nine, or at the most twelve strokes, would sentence the men to hundreds of lashes.

Captain Pigot, it should be noted, was eventually hacked to pieces by his crew off the Spanish Main. They also killed most of the other officers and eventually turned the Hermione over to the Spaniards.

Brutes like Pigot were the exception, however, for good officers--the real-life counterparts to O'Brian's fictional Jack Aubrey--knew that a happy ship, a ship whose well-trained, well-conditioned men would follow their officers anywhere, was the essential tool of His Majesty's foreign policy. And for centuries the Royal Navy was the most efficient war machine on earth.

A whip with nine lashes. Originally called cat, probably because of its ability to 'scratch' the victims.

It was believed that the whip should have exactly nine lashes, because being punished by a 'trinity of trinities' can be seen as pious, sacred and more efficacious.

However, whips with a lesser number of tails certainly existed. For example, a criminal called John Lilburn was scourged in 1637 with a whip having only three lashes, but to compensate, each tail had twenty knots, and the culprit was struck with the whip every three paces between the Fleet and the Old Palace Yard of London.

During the reign of James II, Titus Oates received as many as 17000 lashes from a whip with nine tails (ouch!) on his way to Tyburn, according to a contemporary report.

The cat o'nine tails was once used by the British Army and Navy to punish offenders, but has since fallen into disfavour, just like some other forms of corporal punishment (see execution, lynching, dismemberment etc).

See also American Old Navy discipline.

In French a cat o' nine tails is called a martinet, and the origins of the word serve to highlight both the similarities and the differences between the intertwined histories of France and England.

When I was little my mother threatened to use a martinet on me. It was of course not even an empty threat but a joke, made with obvious sarcastic tone. But I was a little boy, I didn't pick up the tone and the threat went far beyond its humorous intent and scared me into submission. The main reason for my fear was that I had no idea what a martinet was.

The word seemed to combine marteau, hammer, with the diminizing suffix -inet, evoking a tiny hammer which I imagined precisely hitting strategic areas of my body for optimized amounts of pain. It was many years later that I learned that a martinet was really a whip with several lashes, a vicious punishment to which I would have largely preferred the dreaded mini-hammer of my childhood.

However, even after the threat of the device was cleared from my mind, the word still intrigued me. Most words have obvious etymology which holds a key to their meaning, the meaning of words being both the foundation and principle of all human understanding. How could the word martinet, which must point to a sort of hammer, instead mean a sort of whip?

The word comes from the 17th century and the key to its meaning is the case. The 17th century is known in France as le grand siècle, the grand century, because it was during that era that France returned to its rightful usual place as Europe's first power, not just politically, but also intellectually. A lot of the aspects of what is universally recognized as one of the richest cultures of humanity were created or solidified over this century, under the patronage of its idle nobility: cuisine, fashion, ballet, modern poetry, literature, theatre and other arts. The reason many of those English words are French is because the 17th century was also the century when French definitively replaced Latin as the universal language of the European elite.

And as always, cultural prosperity is only achieved behind the shield of political superiority, and this was notably thanks to Louis XIV's military reforms.

During the 16th and most of the 17th centuries the regal armies of Europe's rulers were almost entirely mercenary. Unconcerned with the outcome of the conflict or anybody's property or interests, their troops pillaged the land they lived off, ignoring all the rules of chivalry or restraint to which national or aristocratic troops were at least supposed to abide. Captains of companies, as they were called, were businessmen, contracting their work to the highest bidders, often changing sides during a battle if they deemed it profitable.

Louis XIV decided to turn his mercenary army into a national army of professionals, which obviously posed a serious human resources problem: how to submit people to whom venality is an integral part of their trade to the incorruptibility which national service requires? During his sweeping administrative reforms, Louis had created the civilian rank of intendant général, trusted inspectors he could and did deploy to investigate any aspect of his administration and make sure it functioned properly. There would be an intendant général appointed for everything from taxes to the postal service.

The first intendant général for the King's army was a civil servant by the name of Jean Martinet (there we are!), who had no choice but to enforce discipline frequently and ruthlessly. He had corrupt officers publicly whipped with a whip with several lashes and knotted ends, which came to be named after him.

And this is where the comparison between the cat o' nine tails and the martinet becomes interesting. Both were used as tools of military discipline and draw their odd names from military jargon, but one came from the navy while the other came from the army, just as England predominantly fought on sea and France on land. On the French side, the martinet being named after a civil servant is quite a commentary on France's millenial and ruthless bureaucracy.

But beyond those common points and differences, the similar origins show a similar necessary worldview. Countries were only ever built with swords, swords which were wielded by their kings. Having a strong military for their country was (is) not just an affair of politics but of survival. These kings enrolled their hapless subjects into war to become this sword. Since they were largely involuntary conscripts the machine had to resort to ruthless ways to maintain discipline, such as flogging with a special kind of whip specially designed to induce more destruction and pain.

Whether you call it cat o' nine tails or martinet, this tool is the perfect example of how objects are designed by their purpose. Of how human machinery creates its own cogs to run better, smoothly, ruthlessly.


I am informed by wertperch that in English a martinet means a tyrant while smartalix points out "that martinet is also a term for a mean nitpicking officer to this day." Interesting. See what I said about French being a universal language?

Cat" o' nine" tails`.

See under Cat.


© Webster 1913.

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