cat-o’-nine-tails (1866-79) – photograph: National Maritime Museum
The word cat-o’-nine-tails is first recorded in Love for Love, a comedy written by the English poet and playwright William Congreve (1670-1729) and first performed in 1695. Ben, a young man “half home-bred, and half-Sea-bred”, is speaking to Miss Prue, “a silly, awkard [sic], Country Girl”:
If you shou’d give such Language at Sea, you’d have a Cat o’ Nine-tails laid cross your Shoulders.
The British doctor and slavery abolitionist Alexander Falconbridge (circa 1760-1792) gave a precise description of the cat-o’-nine-tails (abbreviated to cat) in An Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa (1788); he wrote that a young seaman
on board one of the ships, was frequently beaten in a very severe manner, for very trifling faults. This was done sometimes with what is termed a cat, (an instrument of correction, which consists of a handle or stem, made of a rope three inches and a half in circumference, and about eighteen inches in length, at one end of which are fastened nine branches, or tails, composed of log line, with three or more knots upon each branch).
The British Critic (London) of January 1794 published a review of The Duties of a Regimental Surgeon Considered: With Observations on His General Qualifications; And Hints relative to a More Respectable Practice, and Better Regulation of that Department by Robert Hamilton; this review contains the following:
Occasional severity in the army is undoubtedly necessary for the sake of subordination, but that method should be adopted which, at the same time that it gives pain, is attended with least danger. The instrument with which the punishment is inflicted, is vulgarly called a Cat-o’ nine-tails, probably from the number of cords that were originally attached to one handle; at present the number is usually six. One hundred lashes given with this instrument, with regard to injury done to the skin and muscular fibres, is therefore equal to six hundred given with a single cord; but the degree of absolute pain is not in the same ratio, for a single cord would give nearly the same pain, and would be attended with less injury to the parts. We therefore do not hesitate to give our opinion, that the punishment ought to be inflicted with a single cord, and that no man should be sentenced to receive more stripes than there is a probability of his being able to bear at once.
It is therefore likely that the name cat-o’-nine-tails was originally one of grim humour, in reference to the nine knotted lashes inflicting parallel wounds similar to scratches made by a cat’s claws.
According to an alternative theory however, because the cat-o’-nine-tails, an authorised instrument of punishment in the British navy and army until 1881, was especially used at sea, the word originated on board ship, where ropes would be handy. Now, says this theory, several ropes are called cats. For example, in A sea grammar (1627), John Smith (1580-1631), English soldier and colonial governor, wrote:
Cat harpings are small ropes runne in little blockes from one side of the ship to the other, neere the vpper decke to keepe the shrouds tight for the more safety of the mast from rowling.
The word cat is more generally used in nautical compounds. For instance,
– cat-fall, or cat-rope: the rope in the cat-tackle between the cat-block and the sheaves in the cat-head
– cat-tackle, or cat-purchase: the tackle to raise the anchor to the cat-head
– cat-block: a two- or three-fold block forming part of the cat-tackle
– cat-head: a beam projecting almost horizontally at each side of the bows of a ship, for raising the anchor from the surface of the water to the deck without touching the bows, and for carrying the anchor on its stock-end when suspended outside the ship’s side.
However, the use of the word tail in the name of the whip seems to indicate that cat refers to the animal.
The following is from Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1952 (?) edition):
Cat-o’-nine-tails. A whip with nine lashes, used for punishing offenders, briefly called ‘a cat.’ Popular superstition says that it has ‘nine’ tails because a flogging by a “trinity of trinities” would be both more sacred and more efficacious. Lilburn¹ was scourged, in 1637, with a whip having only three lashes, but there were twenty knots in each tail, and, as he received a lash every three paces between the Fleet and Old Palace Yard, Cook says that 60,000 stripes were inflicted. Titus Oates² was scourged, in the reign of James II, with a cat having six lashes, and, between Newgate and Tyburn, received as many as 17,000 lashes. Thrashing in the British army and navy is no longer employed, but a modified form of it is still, though rarely, used as a civil punishment for crimes committed with violence.
¹ John Lilburne (1614-57), English political Leveller (i.e. a member of a group of radical dissenters in the English Civil War (1642-9) who called for the abolition of the monarchy, social and agrarian reforms, and religious freedom)
² Titus Oates (1649-1705), English perjurer who concocted the Popish Plot, a fictitious Jesuit plot involving a plan to kill Charles II, massacre Protestants, and put the Catholic Duke of York on the English throne; the ‘discovery’ of the plot led to widespread panic and the execution of about thirty-five Catholics.