Hangings, floggings and keeping the crew in line

MUTINY is not what it used to be. In the 18th century, at the time of Nelson, Hornblower and Jack Aubrey, it was the custom to read the Articles of War to the company of every ship in the Royal Navy each Sunday at church parade.

Article 18 was explicit: "If any person in or belonging to the fleet shall make or endeavour to make any mutinous assembly upon any pretence whatsoever, every person offending herein, and being convicted thereof by the sentence of the court martial, shall suffer death."

Despite this ultimate sanction, there were mutinies, the most famous being that on HMS Bounty in 1789.

In fact, only 11 of the Bounty’s 42 crew mutinied against its captain, William Bligh. The cause of the unrest was the undoubted charms of the local Tahitian maidens; three crew tried to desert.

Rather than hang the three men, as the Articles of War allowed, Bligh had them flogged.

Fletcher Christian then led the mutiny, largely because he wanted to get back to the girl he had married on Tahiti.

Bligh always receives a bad press, but at the subsequent trial, he got several mutineers off, although three were hanged.

Other areas of 18th-century discipline were also severe. One study of Royal Navy log books between 1765 and 1793 has found that 22 per cent of sailors received the lash, and that the average number of lashes per flogging was five.

The captain with the harshest record was George Vancouver, who had 45 per cent of his crew flogged, averaging 21 strokes per flogging.

Captain Bligh of the Bounty flogged only 19 per cent of his crew, each receiving an average of only 1.5 lashes.

These days, Captain Bligh would have been ordered off his boat for upsetting the crew.