Cat o' nine tails

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Traditionally, a Cat o' nine tails (with several variants on punctuation) is a whip consisting of nine knotted cords fastened to a handle.

These days, the term "cat o'nine tails" tends to be more liberally used in BDSM to describe almost any kind of multi-tailed whip, or flogger. These whips are usually made of soft leather and have much less potential for injury than the historical punishment tool that could flay a person's back within a dozen strokes.

The "real world" "'cat" is (occasionally still) used for severe flogging.

Description and History

The naval "cat", also known as the captain's daughter (in principle it was only used under his authority), was about 13 oz. in weight and composed of a baton (handle) and nine thongs.

The instrument traditionally has nine thongs as a result of the manner in which rope is braided. Thinner rope is made from three strands of yarn braided together, and thicker rope from three strands of thinner rope braided together. To make a cat o' nine tails, a rope would simply be unraveled into three small ropes, and each of those would then be unraveled in turn.

During the period of the Napoleonic wars, the naval cat's handle was made of rope about two feet long and about an inch in diameter, and was traditionally covered with red baize cloth. The "tails" or thongs were made of cord about a quarter inch in diameter and typically two feet long. When inflicting punishment for theft, which was considered a particularly offensive crime on board ship, the thongs were each knotted three times to cause additional pain. A new cat was made for each flogging by a bosun's mate and kept in a red baize bag until use. In Trafalgar time, it was made by the condemned sailor during 24 in leg irons. The nine strongest falls were kept, and extra lashes were administered if any of the selected falls were found to be sub-standard. If several dozen lashes were awarded, each could be administered by a fresh bosun's mate - a left-handed one could be included to assure extra painful crisscrossing of the wounds. One dozen was usually awarded as a highly sensitizing 'prelude' to running the gauntlet.

In some cases a cat with a wooden handle was used, and steel balls or barbs of wire were added to the tips of the thongs to maximize the potential flogging injury.

All formal punishments -ordered by captain or court martial- were given ceremoniously on deck, the crew being summoned to "witness punishment" (though usually adults and boys separate) and drama enhanced by drum roll and a whole routine. Informal 'daily' canings etc. were often left unrecorded.

Contrary to popular belief, the standard cat was not the most feared implement; being made of rope, it was rather less painful than a leather whip or a wooden birch-rod, while the modes of application (number and inensity of lashes, anatomical target, baring etc.) of any implement can be more important than its intrinsic potential.

  • For summary punishment of Royal Navy boys, a lighter model was made, the reduced cat, also known as boy's cat, boy's pussy or just pussy, that had only five tails of smooth whip cord. If condemned by court martial, however, even boys would suffer the claw of the 'adult' cat.

While adult sailors received their lashes on the back, they were administered to boys on the bare posterior, usually while "kissing the gunner's daughter" (i.e. bending over a gun), just as boys' lighter 'daily' chastisement was usually over their (often naked) rear-end (mainly with a cane -this could be applied to the hand, but captains generally refused such impractical disablement-, a rope's end et cetera). Bare-bottom discipline was a tradition of the English upper and middle classes, who frequented public schools, so midshipmen (trainee officers, usually from "good families", getting a cheaper equivalent education) were not spared, at best sometimes allowed to receive their lashes inside a cabin. Still it is reported that the "infantile" humiliation of bare stern punishment was believed essential for optimal deterrance, cocky miscreants might brave the pain of the adult cat in the macho spirit of "taking it like a man", even as a "badge of honor". On board training ships, where most of the crew were boys, the cat was never introduced, but their bare bottoms risked, as in other naval establishments on land, the sting of the birch, another favorite in public schools.

  • The British army had a similar whip, though much lighter in construction; made of a drumstick with attached strings. The flogger was usually a drummer rather than a strong bosun's mate. Flogging with the cat o' nine tails fell into disuse around 1870. Naturally it was also used elsewhere in the Commonwealth, e.g in Canada (a dominion in 1867) until 1881 (this [[1]] 1812 drawing shows a drummer apparently lashing the buttocks of a naked soldier who is tied with spread legs on an A-frame made from lances)
  • The cat-o'-nine-tails was also notoriously used on adult convicts in prisons; a 1951 memorandum ([[2]] on CorPun- possibly confirming earlier practice) ordered all UK male prisons to use only cats o' nine tails (and birches) from a national stock at Wandsworth prison, where they were to be 'thorourgly' tested before being supplied in triplicate to a prison whenever a procedure was pending for use as prison discipline
  • Especially harsh floggings were given with it in secondary penal colonies of early colonial Australia, particularly at such places as Norfolk Island (apparently this has 9 leather thongs each with a lead weight, meant as the utter deterrent for hardened life-convicts), Port Arthur and Moreton Bay (now Brisbane).
  • Contrary to common belief, the cat is not entirely out of use is post-colonial societies, not even in all modern non-Islamic Commonwealth countries : in the Caribbean, Antigua and Barbuda reinstated flogging on the bare back in 1990, the Bahamas in 1991, Barbados in 1993, Trinidad in 1993 (as well as birching, an option for the courts) and Jamaica in 1994 (flogging was banned again by the jamaican Court of Appeal in 1998 [3]).
  • Regardless if they are called cat (or cat of x tails) variations exist, such as the 'whip' used on adult Egyptian prisoners (banned in 2001; boys were caned) having a cord on a cludgle branching into 7 tails, each with six nots
  • Sometimes the term cat is used rather incorrectly to describe various other punitive flogging devices with multiple tails in any number (so it is better to call them just cat), even one made from 80 twigs (so rather a limp birch) to flog a sick Iranian (in stead of 80 lashes normally applicable under shariah).

In more recent years the term cat o' nine tails is -even more imprecisely- used to describe almost any kind of multi-tailed whip, particularly those found in modern BDSM. These whips are usually made of soft leather and have much less potential for injury; such miniature version is also known as ball whip because it is used for male genitorture (otherwise often performed with a pencil)

Fiction

  • In the Known Space series of science-fiction books, the alien race called Outsiders are always described as resembling a "cat o' nine tails with a fattened handle."

See also

Sources and References and further reading

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