He that pisseth between decks

The salted beef and pork that were the staples of the seaman’s diet came out of barrels dry and hard at best, putrid and maggoty at worst. Sailors closed their eyes before eating the “mouldy and stinking” ship’s biscuits to avoid seeing the maggots and weevils wiggling through them. After a few weeks at sea, the fresh-water supply turned green and reeking.

Legally speaking, merchant captains were only supposed to employ “moderate” discipline on their crews. Not so in the Royal Navy, where captains were under standing orders to mete out brutal punishments. Petty officers whacked slow-moving crewmen across the shoulders with rattan canes. A crewman caught stealing small objects was made to “run the gauntlet,” forced to walk between parallel lines of crewmen as they lashed his bare back. Major thefts resulted in a full-on flogging with a knotted cat-o’-nine-tails, as also befell “he that pisseth between decks.” The commission of serious crimes resulted in potentially fatal floggings of seventy-two to three hundred lashings, or outright hanging.

-Colin Woodard, The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down (Harcourt, $15)

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