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Sailors and pirates alike fear many things when out in the sea, and try to avoid certain horrific punishments like the old whip. But then and now, nothing strikes as much terror and horror in the hearts and minds of sailors and pirates like the thought of being meted the most horrific, brutal and sadistic sea torture technique ever ‘invented’ - the unforgiving keelhauling.
The practice of keelhauling was developed very early in the history of naval travel, but managed to survive and remain in use from 9th century BC all the way to mid 19th century. It continues to capture the imagination of many up to modern times with its infamy and terror that it lingers as a part of popular culture long after its practice has been stopped. As early as the 1800s, from literature in the form of novels to other entertainment platforms as theater and film, the idea of keelhauling endured as a fascinating topic for writers, producers and directors alike.
Whether the one being punished or the ones meting out the punishment, keelhauling is never for the weak and the faint of heart. Keelhauling is a brutal form of corporal punishment that involves the need to drag the offender underwater from one side of a ship to the other. An offender or sailor being keelhauled is usually stripped and tied so that he would not be able to swim. Many times, a weight was attached to his legs to pull him away from the ship.The offender is attached to a rope that ran underwater from one side of the ship to the other, and he would be brutally pulled from one side of the ship to another.
An offender or sailor would be lucky if he did not drown. And even if he survives the process without getting killed from drowning, he would surely not come out of the ordeal unscathed. The poor offender or sailor would usually suffer from severe injuries, mostly caused by the extremely sharp barnacles on the underside of the ship, known as the keel. The practice could easily leave deep and severe scars on the body of the offender or sailor.
Keelhauling in the past was often associated as punishment for captured pirates, but it was, in fact, more commonly used by the navy. Navy sailors, after all, were used to be regarded as nothing more than as “property”, and that the captain of the ship exercise control over them, and gets to decide who lives or dies. Keelhauling is one of the most terrifying forms of severe discipline or punishment on ships used to prevent theft and mutiny. There were times, though, that it achieved the opposite effect. Sailors were at times kidnapped and forced to work on ships, with the threat of severe punishments as keelhauling serving as the “motivation” to get them to work hard.
Keelhauling is no longer being practiced in these modern times, as the current system of maritime justice adheres to far more humane methods. But sometimes, people on board still get to issue threats of keelhauling as punishment, only in jest. The practice of keelhauling may have stopped, but it seems that whether for the sheer terror of it, its legend has persisted in the captive imaginations of many sailors.