Black Sails – Torture, Discipline & The Royal Navy

On this weeks Black Sails, Jack Rackham and Anne Bonny, along with the rest of Blackbeard’s crew, were captured. In route to Port Royal, they are subjected to brutal fights killing several of them. Rogers’ orders are specific; deliver the 42 pirates in the hold to Port Royal. However, once he departs, the lieutenant in charge quickly alters the deal, setting up an execution line by bludgeoning with Jack forced to pick the victims. With Black Sails being a show that strives to keep things real, how common was ship torture of prisoners and why did it happen?

To the first question, how common?, the answer may surprise you. VERY. Royal Navy ships were the most dreaded places on earth for many men and boys. If you were not born of a prominent family then you were destined to live under the heel of another. You were given no respect and were looked on as a lower form of life. Therefore, if you found yourself on ship, especially as a prisoner, you had no rights and no one would speak up for you. Soldiers, angry from a battle, frustrated at the mission at hand or just plain bored, would often beat on or torture their prisoners…just because.

Food was not something that was going to be a small favor to be thankful for. Prisoners were often fed rotten food if they were fed at all. They were kept in the dark for weeks and if any grew sick or died, they were left there to rot amongst their kind.

Torture and discipline was also done out of a need for entertainment rather than any practical or lawful reason. Flogging was a common act until the 1860’s where one was tied to a grating and whipped with a cat ‘o nine tails on their bare back. After the punishment was inflicted, they were cut down and salt was rubbed into the wounds. This was for antiseptic purposes but I’m sure there was great pleasure in the pain it caused.

Then of course there was Keelhauling. As seen in episode 4.3 of Black Sails, a man is tided to a line and dragged under the ship, over the keel. The wood is often covered in barnacles and growth, along with odd splinters. Though this was a torture method, it often resulted in death by drowning or decapitation.

These were every day options in the Royal Navy and even merchant ships so it is no wonder why pirates were who they were. A short life and a merry one for the alternative was often this.


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