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Punishments on board (19th and 20th centuries)

By Ed Wijbrands
Until the “General abolition of corporal punishment” in 1879, handdagging was still in vogue. Corporal punishment was somewhat more humane than its implementation in the 17th century, though. There was no more blood involved. The punished person was handcuffed to the rigging, standing upright with his hands up. The loins were protected by a tightly […]

Until the “General abolition of corporal punishment” in 1879, handdagging was still in vogue. Corporal punishment was somewhat more humane than its implementation in the 17th century, though. There was no more blood involved. The punished person was handcuffed to the rigging, standing upright with his hands up. The loins were protected by a tightly stretched piece of cloth, with which the body was strapped against a mattress. The number of strokes of the punishment drill, which (at least after Official Gazette No. 96 of 1854) no longer exceeded fifty, was generally administered by two quartermasters, with the entire crew standing by.


A klassian was someone placed in the punishment class. This was not a special naval aviation measure. But in the navy, the classics were more conspicuous, because they were not sent to Flushing (later to Hoorn, but since the First World War abolished) as in the army, but served their punishment time on board. Before 1907, Marines also went to Flushing as classmates (with minimum punishment time of 7 months). In 1907, when Marines joined the ship’s service, even when posted ashore, the application of this penalty for Marines was made equal to that of sailors.

The seaman (usually this was limited to the sailor third, at most an occasional second class, who was somewhat disciplinarian and needed to be brought into line), who was placed in the punishment class of one to three months, lived and worked in isolation from the rest of the mates. He was dressed in a sailcloth work suit and from his hat the ribbon was removed. The dirtiest and dirtiest jobs were assigned to him, especially keeping the galleons clean; why he was also called “galleon captain.” During the time he was working, he was under the constant supervision of a sentry, and as soon as the work was finished, he was taken into the provost, which, during the time that the rest of the sailors had free time or were eating, remained open, but always with a sentry present. At night, the provost locked up. Freedom of movement the classian did not have and smoking was forbidden to him. This disciplinary measure was not often used in the Navy. Yet even now a commander can place a shipmate in the disciplinary class for some offense. There is of the klassian a moving song à la Speenhoff or Quérido: “Dear mother, will not weep, for your son is klassian” . . . . . .


The last of the provost-at-arms (officially called sergeant-provost) resigned in 1906 for long service. This abolished a function that for centuries waved the rod of justice over the shipmates on board, and whose executor supervised in the lower ship. The latter is still done today [1945] by the provost, but it is no longer a separate “profession.” A boatswain or quartermaster, and for the stoker’s quarters usually a corporal, is entrusted with the service of provost and is charged with the duty, with the seamen and any attached men, of keeping the quarters tidy and supervising them under “supreme supervision” of the officer in charge of the service of the lower ship.

The provost as a cell is still [1945] virtually on every ship today. Today, the provost’s sentence is called “severe arrest.” The use of the provost sentence was strongly opposed for many years. Although the “handing out” of provost sentences has been greatly reduced, it seems that this disciplinary tool cannot be entirely missed. The provost cell is also called squeeze, or Bouwman, in the walk. Squeeze to squeeze. Therefore, the unruly and troublesome boatman is also threatened with: “will row him into the squeeze”. Bouwman was for a series of years the serg. major of marines, who served as a jailer at the provost house in Den Helder. When the ships are inside, the provost’s sentence is not served on board, but ashore. People then said on board “He has so many days Bouwman.” From the moment, the provost-arrestee is informed of the punishment, he is under the supervision of a sentry, his bonnet ribbon is removed from his hat, his silk tie, belt and knife with scabbard and all his private belongings in coat or trouser pockets are temporarily “placed in insured custody.” Between two armed Marines and a non-commissioned officer (also a corporal) of the Marines, the provost~arrestee is then taken to the provost house on shore. It is mainly because of this method, which was and is felt to be degrading by the sailors, that people acted so strongly against the provost’s punishment.


It was not until 1854 that the most brutal punishments, at least in the Netherlands, were imposed by King William III in consultation with the Council of State and at the suggestion of the Reorganization Commission under
presidency of Lieutenant Admiral Prince Henry (William Frederick Henry) abolished and defined in 10 articles:

Art. 1. The penalties of keeling and falling off the yard are abolished.
Art. 2. The punishment of keelhauling with attendant penalties are replaced by wheelbarrow punishment. Falling from the ra with additional punishments are replaced: for the deck and non-commissioned officers by the punishments established in art. 39 and 40 of the Criminal Code for the men-of-war on water; for lesser seamen by boots. For both, the punishment imposed may be accompanied by dententie, as defined in Article 46 of the same Code.
Art. 3. The barrow punishment consists in placing the convicted in a military penal prison for the time of three to fifteen years, in order to be there, then the existing convictions for convicts of the land army, to be designed to work. Wheelbarrow punishment is always preceded by demotion, as referred to in Article 41 lit. a of the Code for deck and non-commissioned officers, and by expulsion from military rank for junior officers.
Art. 4. The end rope, which is henceforth used to the boots, is unthreaded, three-stranded, loosened and not exceeding the thickness of 15 thread on strand for convicts over 16 years. For convicts under 16 years of age, so called knutlets of not more than 9 ends of old twigged logline, without knots, are used.
Art. 5. The number of strokes does not exceed one hundred for those over 16 years old and sixty for those under 16 years old.
Art. 6. The blows with hand logs are inflicted with an end of white line, not heavier than 15 wire for convicts above 16 years, for convicts below 16 years the knutteltjes, described in article 4, are used. The number of strokes for the first mentioned does not exceed 50, for the latter 30.
Art. 7. The disciplinary punishments for deck officers and non-commissioned officers in art. 29 of the Rules of Martial Discipline for the Waterborne Military Personnel are replaced by the following punishments: demotion for a fixed or indefinite period of time, with or without arrest; arrest, with or without observation of duty.
Art. 8. To the punishments established in article 29 of the said regulations for lesser seamen, is added that of reduction in class for a definite or indefinite period.
Art. 9. At the sentencing and execution of booting or beating with handcuffs, of detention, arrest, confinement, putting on water and bread on board, the registers and commanders keep an eye on the places and air conditions, and all circumstances, by which the health of the prisoner can be too much harmed, and they may always order such intervals in the execution, as the state of health of the prisoner demands.
Art. 10. The Head of the Department of the Navy is granted the authority, upon recommendation of the commander of the messenger in whose roll they are enrolled, to dismiss from the service here in the country with a letter of discharge, or a specially marked passport. Order and command, that this shall be published in the Official Gazette, and that all Ministerial Departments, Authorities, Colleagues and Officers, whose business it may concern, shall enforce it.
Given at Assen, the 28th of June 1854.

Official Gazette 1854, No. 96.

Lieutenant Admiral Prince Henry, commander-in-chief of the fleet received the title of admiral in 1879 – six days before his death – on which occasion it was decided to “Completely abolish corporal punishment in the Royal Dutch Navy.”

Note: We Calvinist Dutch were a hypocritical people. Forced labor was not to be called that. It was reassuringly called “wheelbarrow punishment” (see Art. 3above). In the Navy, a light form persisted well into the 20th century. The punished were called klassian, but simply performed forced labor.

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