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Sunday, July 15, 2018

Was James Cook a flogging captain?


Somehow, I missed this story in our local paper, the Dominion Post, or I would have searched out this book much earlier.  I already knew that Captain James Cook, very involved with his self-image, and how he appeared to his superiors, was inclined to fudge certain items in his journals.

For instance, he altered the date of Tupaia's death on the voyage of the Endeavour, to make it seem impossible that this Polynesian genius, priest, and star navigator could have died from complications from scurvy.  Determined to go down in history as the first captain to circumnavigate the world without losing a single man from scurvy (a feat that Captain Samuel Wallis of the 1766 voyage of the Dolphin had already accomplished), it did not serve his purposes to leave any hint that Tupaia might have suffered mortally from that dreadful disease of the sea.

However, until I found Captain Cook's Discipline, I did not know that Cook also veiled the number of floggings on board his ships, by merely noting that "nothing remarkable" had happened on flogging days.

It took a review by a member of the Captain Cook Society to send me in search of the book.  And a worthwhile quest it was indeed.  Privately published by its author, Allan Arlidge, it reflects thirty years of searching through logs and journals kept on Cook's three discovery voyages to list and describe the punishments carried out on board and on shore.

Historians have described the eighteenth century as "the flogging century," and pointed out that flogging was carried out so often that it was indeed "nothing remarkable."  But is this true?  Did some captains discipline more harshly than others?

Let's look at Bligh, for instance.  The usual story of the mutiny on the Bounty blames the uprising on the brutal behavior of the captain.  And this is what happened during the 18 months between departure from England and the mutiny in the south Pacific.

On voyage:
Matthew Quintall, 24 lashes, for insolence and contempt
John Williams, 6 lashes, for carelessness while casting the lead
At Tahiti:
Alexander Smith (John Adams), 12 lashes for allowing the cutter’s gudgeon to be stolen while he was on watch
Matthew Thompson, 12 lashes, for insolence and disobedience
William Muspratt, assistant cook, 12 lashes for neglect of duty
Robert Lamb, butcher, 12 lashes for allowing his cleaver to be stolen
Charles Churchill, 12 lashes x 2 for desertion
William Muspratt, 24 lashes x 2 for desertion
John Millward, 24 lashes x 2 for desertion

That's ten floggings -- a total of 198 lashes -- in 18 months.

According to Mr Arlidge's fascinating account and the listing in an appendix:

On Cook’s Endeavour voyage (37 months), there were seventeen instances of flogging — 330 lashes.
On the first Resolution voyage (36 months), there were thirty-two instances of flogging — 546 lashes.
On the second Resolution voyage (36 months), there were forty-nine instances of flogging — 618 lashes.

It is remarkable that instances of discipline increased so drastically each voyage.  Many historians believe it is evidence of Cook's poor health and deteriorating temper.  

Finally, let's look at Samuel Wallis, the captain who was the first European to discover Tahiti, and who brought his men home scurvy-free on the Dolphin.

On Wallis’s Dolphin, during the discovery voyage (20 months), there were four instances of flogging — one for quarreling, two for refusing to obey orders, and one for cheating a Tahitian — a total of 48 lashes.  There were two instances of “running the gauntlet,” where the seaman was punished by his own shipmates -- once for fighting, and the second time for throwing his messmates' dinner overboard -- by making the fellow run between two lines of men wielding "nettles" which were light lines usually used for tying up canvas.

Remarkably, too, Wallis never ordered more than 12 lashes at a time, which was the limit posed by the Admiralty when there was not a courtmartial.  Obviously, it was an easy rule to ignore, when the ship was on the other side of the world from England, and there were no other captains to stage a court hearing.  But Wallis chose not to ignore it.

There were other extremes, of course.  Hugh Pigott of the Hermione , who was notorious for flogging the last man down the mast, logged over a thousand lashes per year.  A sadist, and probably a psychopath, he was slaughtered by his own men.  A lesser known sadist was Captain Howes Norris of the Fairhaven whaler Sharon, who was chopped up by Pacific Islanders who were terrified of being beaten to death, which had been the fate of Norris's young black steward.

I thoroughly recommend Captain Cook's Discipline as superb piece of research and a readable, and thought-provoking account.  You can buy it directly from the author by emailing


Cliff Thornton said...

It may be unfair to highlight Wallis's low level of flogging without putting his voyage into context. His voyage was one of the first to operate with three-watches a day, plus other regimes to keep the crew healthy. Robert Molyneux, one of Wallis's crew recorded in his journal the effect that this treatment had on the men. "So sensible were they of the favour, that they all, to a man, exerted themselves to the utmost on every occasion." I am not surprised that floggings were so infrequent.

World of the Written Word said...

Good comment, and thank you for making it. All three -- Cook, Wallis, and Bligh -- should be considered in the context of the voyage.

I do feel that Wallis was unusually humane for a man of his era, though. He was a good housekeeper, like Cook, keeping his ship clear of typhus, but he did react differently when faced with the same problem of tropical illness after making port at Batavia. He was also recorded as clothing men who arrived on board in rags, at his own expense. His men wrote a commendation at the end of the voyage, and then, of course, there is the famous Richardson "poetical essay" that lauded him as a hero. His patience was certainly tried, especially in Tahiti, but he didn't resort to flogging for relief.

As for Bligh, I do wonder how he kept the men under control during the open boat voyage of the Bounty launch. By lashing them with his tongue, I suppose, but it is a mystery. There was an amusing mistake in the otherwise very good BBC documentary about that voyage. It was claimed that the bread was rationed out according to the size of a musket ball, when of course it was by the weight. Still not much for a starving man. How did he keep them at work?

Anonymous said...

Well, after the mutiny, I suppose he and his remaining crew were all in the same boat.

World of the Written Word said...