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  • Print publication year: 2008
  • Online publication date: June 2012

1 - On the High Seas


I perceived that the pennant was up for punishment. … I took it for granted that some aggravated offence, such as theft or mutiny, had been committed. … [Boatswain's mates took turns with the “cat.”] … The tails of this terrific weapon were three feet long, nine in number, and each of them about the size of that line which covers the springs of a traveling-carriage. … The last dozen being finished, the sum total was reported by the master-at-arms, “five-dozen!”

“Five dozen!” repeated Captain G – ; “that will do – cast him off. And now sir,” said he to the fainting wretch, “I hope this will be a warning to you, that the next time you wish to empty your beastly mouth, you will not spit on my quarter-deck.”

Captain Marryatt, Frank Mildmay: The Naval Officer (1829)

All Britons love the British sailor.

Lord Shaftesbury, in Parliament, 1873

The shocking scene imagined by Marryatt was set on a naval ship, during the Napoleonic wars, but captures the cruel possibilities of all life at sea before the Victorian era, where there was little check short of mutiny on the authority of merchant captains as well. An early testing ground of the “rule of law” beyond the United Kingdom was in the rapidly growing merchant fleet. Private ships flying the Union Jack constituted a liminal zone between Britain and her Empire.