Well, I’ll be keelhauled

Picture of a man being keelhauledKeelhauling was apparently invented by the Dutch. As I explained in an earlier post, torture was a part of life and if you were out at sea you didn’t have access to the accoutrements available in the better class of dungeon so you made do with what was to hand. An inventive lot, the Dutch.

The process of keelhauling is pretty much as it sounds. A rope is passed under the keel of the moving ship. One end of the rope is tied around the victim’s arms, held above his head, the other around his body. He is then thrown into the water and towed from one side of the ship underneath the keel, to the other. Mike Dash* explains that when this punishment was first conceived, the process almost always resulted in death, either because the victim was cut to pieces on the barnacles and other growth on the wooden hull, his head was smashed in on the way around, or he drowned because he was submerged for too long.

The solution was a special harness made from lead and leather, to which the prisoner was strapped. The metal protected him from the barnacles and by using a flag on the rig and varying the length of the ropes those administering the procedure could be sure the rig was pulled across the beam of the ship and not along its length. All Dutch ships carried these harnesses, purpose built to carry out a punishment the victim would never forget.

Pelsaert sentenced a number of the men convicted of crimes on Batavia’s Graveyard to keelhauling and the punishment was carried out at the islands. Each man was supposed to have been keelhauled three times but for most, once was enough – any more and the victim could well drown. Most people in these times couldn’t swim and were terrified of the water, which would render the process even more frightening.

Having survived the keelhauling, they then each received one hundred lashes before the mast. They would have been very sore boys for a long time.

Harsh as this treatment sounds, it was still better than they would have received in the dungeons at Fort Batavia.

* Mike Dash “Batavia’s Graveyard”, Orion Books, 2002

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  1. Pingback: Debunking myths about the days of sail | Greta van der Rol

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