Keelhauling (Dutch kielhalen; "to drag along the keel"; German Kielholen; Swedish kölhalning; Danish kølhaling; Norwegian kjølhaling) is a form of punishment meted out to sailors at sea. The sailor was tied to a line that is looped beneath the vessel, thrown overboard on one side of the ship, and dragged under the ship's keel, either from one side of the ship to the other, or the length of the ship (from bow to stern).
The common supposition is that keelhauling amounted to a sentence of either death by extreme torture, or minimally a physical trauma likely to permanently maim. The hull of the ship was usually covered in barnacles and other marine growth, and thus keelhauling would typically result in serious cuts, loss of limbs and even decapitation. If the victim was dragged slowly, his weight might lower him sufficiently to miss the barnacles, but this method would frequently result in his drowning. There was also a risk of head trauma, especially if the ship was in motion.
There is limited evidence that keelhauling in this form was used by pirate ships, especially in the ancient world. The earliest known mention of keelhauling is from the Greeks in the Rhodian Maritime Code (Lex Rhodia), of c. 800 BC, which outlines punishment for piracy. There is an image on a Greek vase, for example, from the same era.
Several 17th-century English writers such as Monson and Boteler recorded the use of keel-hauling on English naval sailing ships. However, their references are vague and provide no date. There seems to be no record of it in English ship's logs of the era, and naval historian Nicholas Rodger has stated he knows of no firm evidence that it ever happened.
It was an official, though rare, punishment in the Dutch navy, as shown in the painting (above, right), "The keel-hauling of the ship's surgeon of Admiral Jan van Nes." This shows a large crowd gathered to watch the event, as though it was a "show" punishment intended to frighten other potential offenders, as was flogging round the fleet. A contemporary description suggests it was not intended to be fatal.
Keel-Hauling, a punishment inflicted for various offences in the Dutch Navy. It is performed by plunging the delinquent repeatedly under the ship's bottom on one side, and hoisting him up on the other, after having passed under the keel. The blocks, or pullies, by which is is suspended, are fastened to the opposite extremities of the main-yard, and a weight of lead or iron is hung upon his legs to sink him to a competent depth. By this apparatus he is drawn close up to the yard-arm, and thence let fall suddenly into the sea, where, passing under the ship's bottom, he is hoisted up on the opposite side of the vessel. As this extraordinary sentence is executed the a serenity of temper peculiar to the Dutch, the culprit is allowed sufficient intervals to recover the sense of pain, of which indeed he is frequently deprived during the operation. In truth, a temporary insensibility to his sufferings ought by no means to be construed into a disrespect of his judges, when we consider that this punishment is supposed to have peculiar propriety in the depth of winter, whilst the flakes of ice are floating on the stream; and that it is continued till the culprit is almost suffocated for want of air, benumbed with the cold of water, or stunned with the blows his head received by striking the ship's bottom.
This makes it sound as though the punishment was more of a prolonged ducking than anything intended to inflict serious injury or trauma. Indeed, a footnote in one source suggests that it may have evolved from the medieval punishment of ducking.
The term still survives today, although usually in the sense of being over-punished or receiving extreme discipline for lightly violating the rules.
- Etymological origins
- H. A. Ormerod, Piracy in the Ancient World (New York: Dorset Press, 1987), 54-56.
- "The naval tracts of Sir William Monson".
- Boteler’s Dialogues, ed Perrin 11-25
- Nicholas A. M. Rodger, 2017 Personal communication
- The Dutch navy of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Jaap R. Bruijn
- An Universal Dictionary of the Marine, W. Falconer, 1784
- Dialogical Discourse of Marine affairs, Nathaniel Boteler (1685)
- kielholen entry in: Johann Hinrich Röding: Allgemeines Wörterbuch der Marine in allen Europäischen Seesprachen nebst vollständigen Erklärungen. Nemnich, Hamburg & J.J. Gebauer, Halle, 1793–1798.