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On the Measures of Punishment of the Seamen of Russian Sailing Fleet Warships Early in the 18th Century

Army and Navy of any country in the world has a system of penalties and punishments aimed at the maintenance of military discipline. In the18th century these measures were exceptionally harsh on the ships of sailing fleets: the seamen were in extreme conditions from day to day while they risked their lives, and grave punishments were designed to make them perform their duties as required.

As to the measures of punishment put into effect on the Azov Fleet warships one can read in the «Military Instructions and Articles of the Russian Navy», dated 1710. Under the Regulations they were classified as follows: confinement, financial penalties, corporal punishments and death penalty.

For all the diversity of military offenses, which one could be subject to punishment for, more often than not, it was rather mild. The confinement was the most wide-spread measure. To harden this measure the defaulter could be shackled («put in irons») or put on the ration of bread and water. In this way an end was to be put to the manifestations of «hazing», whereby the senior seamen would grab the new recruits' food and things, to the cases of unauthorized leaving the ship and coming-back before the sundown (in case the seaman failed to report himself before the sunset, this would be looked upon as a next-to-defection offense and would subject the defaulter to a harsher punishment.

Many offenses, involving damage of marine equipment, led to the payment of fines, deductions from men’s pay or to the necessity of material damage compensation. Most often these measures were applied when an officer was involved in the case. However, in the event of a major offence the senior officers of the ship were not exempt from corporal punishment at all, and they were also under the threat of a death penalty just like a common sailor.

Putting to death aboard the ship was not as frequent as it might seem to our contemporaries: each crewmember was a high-skilled specialist, who could not be readily replaced while at sea. The level of minimum training even of a common sailor usually took several months for he was expected to know the purpose of all rigging elements and to be efficient in their skillful handling. Additionally, the rate of mortality on warships due to battle casualties and adverse conditions onboard was pretty high at all times, therefore the Navy was continuously short on qualified personnel. «One’s life could be taken away» only for particularly grave offences, such as defection, attempt on somebody’s life, sedition and other like offences.

Corporal punishments were administered in sailing fleet most actively. Depending on the offence gravity, these were administered equally in respect of common sailors and senior officers of the ship. The most wide-spread measures were whipping before the mast, bathing from the sailyard (a tied-up man would be plunged into water with his head downwards) and underkeel passing.

Keelhauling was quite a specific measure in practice. The condemned man would be tied to a rope passed below the underwater body of the vessel across its side. From the other side of the ship several men would haul at the rope to pass their crewmate under keel. If the sailors hauled hard enough, the man could meet his death after bumping against the keel, if the pull not very hard, the condemned crewmate ran a risk of drowning. This kind of punishment was rather severe, therefore it was not surprising that, for example, in case of a self-willed discontinuation of watch-keeping one was subjected to a three-time keelhauling and whipping before the mast by all crewmembers.

A threat to use blank weapons was penalized in a special way. One who was caught in this act, might be nailed to the mast by his crime instrument, and the defaulter was to tear out the blade and thus would cut his hand.

The punishments administered on warships early in the 18th century were various. Some of them strike us with their severity, however only such measures permitted the discipline to be maintained on board the ship and the required crew interaction, on which the fate of the whole vessel depended on, to be attained.