The manner, in which crime was punished in the Royal Navy, during the Georgian period, has often been the subject to great controversy and debate. When answering this question, it is important to consider contemporary sources so as to develop an accurate analysis. After examining various sources, it seems clear that the use of physical punishment was indeed necessary so as to constitute power over the seamen, particularly with limited alternatives available. It also becomes apparent that the Royal Navy’s reputation for flogging has been exaggerated, as N. Rodger observes, the violence used, ‘by the standards of Eighteenth Century.... were generally acceptable and even enlightened’.
When assessing whether physical punishment was necessary or not, the potential crimes themselves should be assessed. As D. Pope argues, ‘one of the worst crimes in a ship is theft’, this is supported by J.M Powell’s letter to his father, where thievery is frequently mentioned. Other prevalent problems consist of, drunken behaviour, physical attacks and idleness to name a few. In regards to the necessity of physical punishment, as D. Pope continues to say, ‘the spectacle aspect was regarded as most important’ so as to illustrate the repercussions of crime. N. Rodger presents an alternative to why physical punishment was required, stating that the ‘Captain had no instructions as to how else he might deal with them’. Sources such as Captain Corbet’s appeal suggest that the contemporaneous opinion was that fear prevented crime, and thus in regards to punishment, ‘the more severe in appearance the better’.
When questioning the severity of the punishment administered, it becomes apparent that this was unquestionably a subjective process. As N. Rodger states, ‘In practise officers did vary greatly in the degree of violence which they employed’, this is supported by Captain Corbet’s appeal when he states that ‘severity must depend upon circumstance’. This was primarily due to the fact that the Navy ‘lacked a developed legal code’ and thus those that dispensed punishments were unsure of the correct protocol. Captains were however, not allowed to give more than twelve lashes at a time. The problem was that due to the public nature, time to assemble and inconvenience of punishments, twelve lashes would normally always be given out, so as to not be seen as a misuse of time.
It seems clear that the notoriety of the Royal Navy has been somewhat embellished. As D. Pope remarks, an offence committed at sea may result in a flogging, however ‘his brother on land’ may ‘spend a year in jail or be transported for life’ he claims that this ‘provides some much-needed perspective on discipline in the Navy’. Whilst this may be true, contemporary sources clearly demonstrate that unnecessary violence did occur, perhaps best shown by John Smiths appeal to the court. This seems to illustrate that due to the subjective nature of punishment within the Navy the degree of violence ‘did vary...