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Keelhauling, in Living Color


The Keelhauling of the Ship’s Surgeon of Admiral Jan van Nes. Lieve Pietersz Verschuier. 1660 – 1686. Note the enormous crowd gathered for the punishment. (Rijksmuseum.)

As is the case with much pirate history, a great deal of it is wrong, often either anachronistic or culturally mis-associated, or not specifically associated with piracy per se, but with the maritime in general. And so it is with keelhauling, a Dutch practice at first, to which the French later added their mark. It had little to do with piracy, though, although this hasn’t stopped it from being including in discussions about pirates and piracy, nor included in pirate fiction and film, most notably and recently in the fourth season of Black Sails. (Full disclosure: I was the historical consultant to Black Sails for all four seasons.)

The original Dutch practice, as described in “A Relation of Two Several Voyages Made into the East-Indies” by Christopher Frick and Christopher Schewitzer, 1700:

“He that strikes an Officer, or Master of the Ship, is without hopes of pardon to be thrown into the Sea fasten’d by a Rope, with which he is thrown in on one side of the Ship, and drawn up again on the other, and so three times together he is drawn round the Keel of the Ship, in the doing of which, if they should chance not to allow Rope enough to let him sink below the Keel, the Malefactor might have his brains knockt out. This Punishment is called Keel-halen, which may be call’d in English “Keel-drawing.” But the Provost hath this Priviledge more than the other, that if any one strikes him on Shoar, he forfeits his hand, if on Board, then he is certainly Keel-draw’d.”

There are several notations of keelhauling and other punishments in the journal of Dutch Admiral Maarten Harpertszoon Tromp in 1639. Typically the keelhauled seaman was drawn three times beneath the ship, apparently not too tightly for he was usually whipped on his “wet bum” with a rope’s end afterwards. For lesser offenses, ducking from the yardarm was employed. In some cases, a seaman convicted of serious offenses might be ducked, keelhauled, whipped, lose his wages, and be discharged. In the case of infirmity due to age or illness, the physical punishments might be stayed, and the seaman discharged instead.


Detail of the victim, from the painting above. The keelhauling line has been rove through a block at the end of the mainyard, and would be similarly rigged on the opposite side. (Rijksmuseum.)


From An Universal Etymological English Dictionary, edited by Nathan Bailey, 1765.

A mid-1850s century French version, described by a former midshipman in the British navy and published in Onward magazine, November 1869, was conducted slightly differently:


The writer continues with a description of what he witnessed:


Terrible indeed!


Copyright Benerson Little 2017. Last updated May 3, 2017.


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