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Maritime Image of the Day: “Keelhauling”

PortandTerminal.com, December 13, 2019

Halifax, Nova Scotia – Today’s “Maritime Image of the Day” is titled “Keelhauling” and is an engraved depiction of the practice from 1898.

Among several extreme methods of punishment on the sea during Age of Sail, none managed to be so brutal and unforgiving as the practice of Keelhauling. 

The process of Keelhauling involves a convicted sailor who is stripped and tied so that he cannot swim, with chains or cannonball being tied to his body (usually legs).

He was then fastened with two ropes. One from his back to the yard-arm (the widest point of the horizontal structure of the main mast), and other that went from sailor all the way under the ship to the other side of yard-arm.

When sailor was dropped in the water the weight will pull him under the waves, but to prevent him going too much under the crew (sometimes the entire crew of the ship) would pull on the second rope, forcing the sailors to move under the ship and scrape along the hull, eventually raising him up on the other side of the ship.

It’s said that if you were to be sentenced to keelhauling you would pray that you drowned before you reached the sharp barnacles under the ship which would rip the flesh from your bones.

The keelhauling of the ship’s surgeon of admiral Jan van Nes Lieve Pietersz. Verschuier. 1660 to 1686.

The most concrete records that depict the official use of keelhauling as punishment seems to come from the Dutch. For example, a painting titled The Keelhauling of the Ship’s Surgeon of Admiral Jan van Nes by Lieve Pietersz sits in the Rijksmuseum Museum in Amsterdam and is dated from somewhere between 1660-1686.

It’s reported that any use of keelhauling by the British was discontinued around 1720, while the Dutch didn’t officially ban it as a method of torture until 1750.

There is an account though of two Egyptian sailors being keelhauled as late as 1882 in Parliamentary Papers from Great Britain’s House of Commons.

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