Keel Hauling

Once again in my seeming quest to read every scrap of nautical fiction ever written, I have come across this old canard.

The only factual references I can find to keel hauling say it originated with the Dutch back in the 15th century. That was before Columbus, when people were still being burned at the stake! Yet it keeps popping up in fiction that takes place in the 18th (Mutiny on the Bounty) and 19th (Treasure Island centurys.

I’m sure some of those scurvy pirates did it to amuse themselves, but is there any reliable record of a keel hauling being used as discipline (or execution) in any navy since the end of the middle ages?

Well, I might as well put a link to Cecil’s info on keelhauling. ( )

Which isn’t to say it wasn’t done after 1853, but I can’t find any testimonials yet.

I think the key term in Cecil’s brief mention of keel hauling is “formally abolished”. Was it used at all in the 200 years before that?

Ah, a subject near and dear to my heart! Too bad it’s been done away with. Lashings were also a great motivational tool. I jest, of course, but sometimes…

By the way, most think the torturous part of a keel hauling was the lack of oxygen beneath the hull of the ship. Rather the most painful was the barnacles attached to the hull which sliced open the hapless tar’s skin.

…and salt water in the open wounds…


… and sharks and lawyers circling in the waters, attracted by the scent of blood…

…and a partridge in a… oh, um, nevermind.

I’m no expert, but whilst re-reading Treasure Island recently, I decided to look up keelhauling. I went to the Royal Navy web site where they have a mini-dictionary of navy slang,

The information I found says keelhauling was used until the middle of the eighteenth century.

By the way, it seems that an additional part of keelhauling was firing a gun to scare the poor sailor out of his wits.

When keel-hauling was a recognised punishment, a single gun was fired over the head of the malefactor as he was about to emerge from the water, `which is done as well to astonish him the more with the thunder thereof, which much troubles him, as to give warning unto all others to look out and beware of his harm’.

I haven’t found any other sources yet describing which countries/navies made it a practice. If anyone has any information, I would be curious to know.

Actually, this site says that it was not used by pirates but was a Royal Navy thing to do.

Does anybody know of a primary source account (ship’s log, court record, eyewitness) of an actual keel hauling?

I suspect that all the cites and links people have given me are based on “policy” and “common knowledge”. If keel hauling has ever been practiced in the last 300 years, you’d expect there to be at least a few eyewitness accounts or records of such a thing.

I can’t speak to keelhauling, but the original question betrays a certain lack of historical sophistication. I don’t have the precise date to hand, unfortunately, but the last burning in England was in the 18th century – possibly 1726.

John W. Kennedy
“Compact is becoming contract; man only earns and pays.”
– Charles Williams

My only reason for using witch burning as an example was to make a destinction between the levels of state-condoned cruelty in the 15th century as opposed to that in the days of Capt. Bligh and Long John Silver.

Again, I ask if there is any evidence at all that this practice(keel-hauling, not witch burning) that is repeatedly used by historical novelists, actually ever occurred within the period of which they write. (say, 1775-1900)

Another suggestion:

I’ve heard good things about this book, but haven’t had a chance to look for it yet. Maybe it would have the answer to your question?

Every Man Will Do His Duty: The Story of the Age of Nelson in Firsthand Accounts
edited by Dean King and John Hattendorf

You can find a short review at

Jacques Kilchoer
Workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains.

That’s a great book JRK. I bought and read it before the ink was dry. It’s first hand accounts like those in that book that lead me to think that fiction writers have greatly exagerated the cruelty and hardship suffered by the average tar.

Thank you for the recommendation! I will go read the book myself.

I apologize for that extra-long link that made the thread window so large. I’ll be more careful next time.

I can’t think of a good place to find first-hand accounts. My local library doesn’t have any ship’s logs from the 18th century in their stacks, shiver its timbers!

The only renowned library in my neighborhood is the Huntington Libary (in Pasadena, California). They might have some old documents, but I don’t think you can get a library card and check out their Guttenberg Bible. I wonder how they determine who has access to their collection? It’s probably on a recommendation only basis, or if you give them a large donation.

As far as novels being exaggerated, I’m sure that’s true. Ask any U.S. law officer how often they’ve fired their gun in their career, and then count the number of shots Danny Glover and Mel Gibson let off in a single Lethal Weapon movie. I think you will notice a slight difference.

Jacques Kilchoer
Workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains.

If you’re looking for a great book about life in the Royal Navy during the Georgian era, find a copy of The Wooden World by N.A.M. Rodger.