In this series of columns we will take a look at words associated with and originated in warfare. Many of these words have found their way into our everyday vocabulary with a different meaning or vice-versa. For the first episode we will look at the grim business of different methods of punishments.
A scene we can easily depict when reading the words is one not put into practice all that often: walking the plank. Pirates sometimes used this harsh punishment but more often marooned those they punished. The word marooning is derived from the term maroon, a word for a fugitive slave.The punishment was meted out by the fellow crew who set the their victim (or victims) on a deserted island, often no more than a sand bar at low tide. He would be usually given some food and water, and a loaded pistol so he could commit suicide if he desired. The outcome of marooning was usually fatal although not so in the case of Alexander Selkirk and famous pirate captain Edward England. In some cases, like that of Alexander Selkirk, who was worried about the unseaworthy condition of his ship, marooning was voluntary, and thus took place under somewhat more favorable circumstances. He later stood model for Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe.
In its glory days the Dutch navy practiced a rather strange method of punishment. Keelhauling, literally meaning "to drag along the keel" was a form of corporal punishment not meant to kill the victim, although when not done right the sailor could drown as a result of being underwater for too long a time.
When a sailor was keelhauled, he would be stripped and tied so that he could not swim. Usually a weight was attached to his legs to pull him away from the ship. The offender was tied to a rope that looped beneath the vessel, thrown overboard on one side of the ship, and dragged under the ship's keel to the other side of the ship.
If the offender was pulled underneath the ship quickly he would suffer severe cuts, bruises and other injuries from the barnacles on the ship's hull. If pulled to slow he would not hit the hull but might drown.
Keelhauling first appeared in 1560, when a Dutch ordinance outlined the practice and the offenses for which it could be used legally permitting its use as a punishment. Other maritime powers including the Britain Royal navy adopted the practice as well. There are also many associations with pirate lore. The Dutch navy did not abolish its practice until 1853.
Today keelhauling is only performed metaphorically altough the term is still occasional used by watersport-enthusiasts. It refers to the spinnaker sheets (parts of the sail) getting stuck under the hull. The social networking site, Facebook, has an English (Pirate) translation that uses 'keelhaul' to mean 'remove' or 'cancel'.
After the Second World War, between August 14, 1946 and May 9, 1947 the allied armies in Northern Italy carried out Operation Keelhaul. The operation's intentions to repatriate Russian captives to the Soviet Union. The term has been later applied as well to other Allied acts of often forced repatriation of former residents of the USSR after the ending of the war. While the original naval-punishment was not intended to kill the offender many of the captives and refugees repatriated during Operation Keelhaul lost their lives through summary execution or during their times in the Siberian camps after returning to their country.
The Spanish horse was a cruel but not widespread torture device. I have seen one in the Netherlands but have also seen a picture of a similar device on a picture from the American Civil War.
Basically, the punished soldier stands over a pointed (but not sharp) beam on his toes. His groin area is exposed to the board and becomes uncomfortable as he shifts from getting tired. This causes his private parts to grate across the board. His hands will be tied to make sure he can't support himself. On occasion wheels were fitted underneath the Spanish horse and it was dragged through town. If that was not cruel enough additional weight could be tied to the offender's feet to make aggaivated his suffering and eventually cut him in two.The Spanish horse was not often used to execute offenders in this way however.
The name Spanish horse comes from the Eighty Years War period or Dutch war of independence. When a deserter was punished with this somewhat less painfully devices in the American Civil War he was said to be 'riding the horse'.
In case of a mutiny Roman generals punished the unit which had performed this unforgivable act by executing every tenth legionair. From the latin verb decimare, to kill every tenth men, our word to decimate was derived. Which in the nineteenth century aquired its more general meaning of 'to destroy a large number of the enemy'.
Sometimes we link a punishment to a certain period in history. The humiliation of tar and feathers is something we know from the American Wild West but in fact this punishment goes back far in history. During the third crusade, in 1189 King Richard the Lionhearted issued a decree in an attempt to twart the increasing large number of thefts taking place during the long journey to Jeruzalem. "Any robber traveling with Crusaders shall be shorn like a hired fighter, and boiling tar shall be poured over his head, and feathers from a pillow shall be shaken out over his head." After Richard I's decree this form of punishment became widespread although you of course wonder how they acquired the tar needed.
During the American Revolution it again became a widespread practice as Colonists used it against the Loyalists. These days we only use it in a figurative manner when we it is used to refer to a severe and disgracefully punishment.