Cat o' nine tails

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Cat o' nine tails.
A flogging in Her Majesty's gaol of Newgate (1872).

A cat o' nine tails is a whip made with a handle and nine knotted cords used principally in military discipline, e.g. in the British Royal Navy. The term, which is recorded in English since 1695, probably derives from the marks it leaves resembling the scratches of a cat. A flogging with a cat o' nine tails is a severe whipping.

There are equivalent terms in many languages, usually strictly translating, and also some analogous terms referring to a similar instrument's number of tails (cord or leather), such as the Dutch zevenstaart ('seven tail[s]').


Cat o' nine tails used at the Port Arthur penitentiary (Tasmania, then Van Diemen's Land) in the 19th century. Both misdemeanours and serious offenses were punished by flogging and other forms of physical punishment. Some men received hundreds and even thousands of lashes during their imprisonment.
Detail of the mid-cord knots.
Detail of the end-cord knots.

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 is simply unraveled into three small ropes, and each of those next unraveled, again in three. A rationalization (plausibly conceived post factum) for the number nine is that nine is thrice three: a Trinity of Trinities, fitting the concept of the wrongdoer going against the God of the Anglican or Catholic Church and hence against the Holy Trinity (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost) which, hypothetically, thus puts the wrongdoer back on the path toward righteousness. It is also said that sailors had a holy cross tattooed on their backs to prevent it from 'unreligiously' being flogged, but there is no evidence for naval authorities awarding such exemption.

In Trinidad and Tobago the "Cat" is made up of nine knotted thongs of cotton cord about 2½ feet or 76 cm long designed to lacerate the skin and cause intense pain. In the Bahamas it is made of rawhide.


Variations exist, either named cat (of x tails) or not, such as the whip used on adult Egyptian prisoners which had a cord on a cudgel branching into seven tails, each with six knots, used only on adult men, with boys being subject to caning, till Egypt banned the use of the device in 2001.

Sometimes the term "cat" is used (incorrectly) to describe various other punitive flogging devices with multiple tails in any number, even one made from 80 twigs (so rather a limp birch) to flog a sick Iranian (instead of 80 lashes normally applicable under shariah).

Historical punishments[edit]

Naval types and use[edit]

The naval "cat", also known as the captain's daughter (since, in principle, it was only used under his authority), weighed about 13 ounces (370 g) and was composed of a baton (handle) and nine cords.

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 intensity of lashes, anatomical target, baring) of any implement can be more important than its intrinsic potential.

Naval punishments[edit]

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 separated, which was apparently not strictly observed in practice) and drama enhanced by drum roll and a whole routine, including pauses, untangling of the tails, a drink of water and so on which is believed were more intended for the observing crew than for the actual participants. Informal 'daily' punishments, usually without assembly, including canings, were often left unrecorded.

The thieves cat, to inflict punishment for theft, which was considered a particularly offensive crime on board ship, had each of its thongs knotted three times to cause additional pain.

Napoleonic war period[edit]

During the period of the Napoleonic wars, the naval cat's handle was made of rope about 2 feet (61 cm) long and about 1 inch (25 mm) in diameter, and was traditionally covered with red baize cloth. The "tails" were made of cord about a 14 inch (6.4 mm) in diameter and typically two feet long. 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 hours 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.

Boys' punishment[edit]

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 formally 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" (bending over a gun barrel), 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 — or a rope's end). 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 by enlisting) 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 deterrence; cocky miscreants might brave the pain of the adult cat in the macho spirit of ‘taking it like a man’ or 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.

British Army[edit]

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, such as Canada (a dominion in 1867) until 1881. This 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 sergeant's half pikes. In many places, soldiers were generally flogged stripped to the waist.

Prison usage[edit]

Cartoon depicting the flogging of a condemned prisoner which appeared in the Cornwall Chronicle on 9 September 1837.

The cat-o'-nine-tails was also notoriously used on adult convicts in prisons; a 1951 memorandum ([1] on World Corporal Punishment Research — 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 'thoroughly' tested before being supplied in triplicate to a prison whenever a procedure was pending for use as prison discipline.

Penal colonies in Australia[edit]

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 ultimate deterrent for hardened life-convicts), Port Arthur and Moreton Bay (now Brisbane).

Typically, the offender's upper half was bared and he was suspended by the wrists beneath a tripod of wooden beams (known as 'the triangle'), while either one or two floggers administered the prescribed number of strokes, or "lashes" to the victim's back. During the flogging, a doctor or other medical worker was consulted at regular intervals as to the condition of the prisoner - if the offender had fainted from blood loss or suffered extreme skin and flesh loss from the back, the punishment was usually suspended until such time that the offender had sufficiently healed. Once healed, the remainder of the required lashes were administered. Punishment was usually limited to 20, 50 or 100 lashes at one flogging, though records exist of prisoners in Australian penal colonies such as Norfolk Island or Port Arthur receiving more than 3,000 lashes over a number of months or years.

Female convicts were also subject to flogging as punishment, both on the convict ships and in the penal colonies. Although they were generally given fewer lashes than males (usually limited to 40 in each flogging), there was no other difference between the manner in which males and females were flogged. Women were stripped naked down to the waist, and secured to the "triangle" in the same manner as the male convicts. Floggings were especially dreaded by female convicts, partly because of the exposure involved, but mainly because of the effect of "wrapping". Wrapping was a characteristic of flogging whereby the ends of the whip's thongs wrapped around the victims side as the lashes were delivered, and was virtually unavoidable when the Cat O' Nine Tails was used. The effect of wrapping was invariably to cause severe weals and lacerations to the exposed breast and underarm region, on the side opposite to that on which the flogger stood, where the Cat's "tails" wrapped around the victim's side and cut in. Flogging of female convicts was eventually abolished in 1817.

Floggings of both male and female convicts were public, administered before the whole colony's company, assembled especially for the purpose.

Due to its prevalence, flagellation featured prominently in the culture of early colonial Australia. It was often a mark of pride for a flogged former convict to "show his stripes" (expose his flagellation scars) as an "iron man", or to hide them at all costs if an emancipated convict was attempting to rebuild a normal life in society. Children in the Australian colonies were often observed playing "flogging games" where a doll or another child would pretend to be "strung from the triangles" and whipped.

Modern uses and types[edit]

The use of judicial whippings was banned in Great Britain in 1948. The Cat was still being used in Australia in 1957 and the cat is still in punitive use in several post-colonial societies, including several Commonwealth countries, while no less severe judicial caning is practiced in South East Asia.

Judicial corporal punishment has been abolished or declared unconstitutional since 1997 in Jamaica, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, South Africa, Zambia, Uganda (in 2001) and Fiji (in 2002; but a caning was given to four rapists in 1998).

However, former colonies in the Caribbean have recently begun to reinstate flogging of the bare back. Antigua and Barbuda reinstated flogging in 1990, followed by the Bahamas in 1991 and Barbados in 1993 (only to be formally declared inhuman and consequently unconstitutional by the Barbados Supreme Court). Jamaica in 1994 (flogging was banned again by the Jamaican Court of Appeal in 1998 [2]).

Trinidad & Tobago never banned the "Cat" and birching. The use of both are regulated under the "Corporal Punishment (Offenders over Sixteen) Act" of 1953. Under this Act, use of the "Cat" was limited to male offenders over the age of 16. The age limit -repeatedly disregarded- was raised in 2000 to 18. However, the government has stepped outside the bounds of their own statute at least twice: a 45 year-old mother of four was sentenced to 10 strokes of the "Cat" in 1996, and an 11 year old was whipped in 1993.

The Government of Trinidad & Tobago has been accused of torture and "cruel, inhuman and degrading" treatment of prisoners, and on 11 March, 2005 was ordered by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to pay US $50,000 for "moral damages" to a prisoner who had received 15 strokes of the "Cat" plus expenses for his medical and psychological care; it is unclear whether the Court's decisions were met.

A prisoner was sentenced on 6 October, 2006 in the Bahamas to eight lashes with a "cat-of-nine-tails" ("nine knotted cords or thongs of raw hide attached to a handle") and 24 years imprisonment.

In most modern societies, the cat is a horror icon from the past, now often associated with BDSM culture, which implies another stigma according to some.

In recent years the term cat o' nine tails is used imprecisely to describe almost any kind of multi-tailed whip, particularly those found in modern BDSM. These whips (see flogger) are usually made of soft leather, which reduces the potential for injury, and used in a way so as to not inflict terrible pain and, especially, wounds in a way that the voluntary participants find acceptable. Miniature versions are also known as ball whip because it is used for male genitorture.

References in culture[edit]

Leather-thonged "cat" at the torture museum in Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany.


  • The still-popular sailor's song What Shall We Do with a Drunken Sailor has a verse that goes "Give him a taste of the captain's daughter" or "Throw him in bed with the captain's daughter". While this doesn't sound like a dire fate for the tipsy seaman, the term "captain's daughter" referred in naval jargon to the cat o' nine tails or a similar whip.
  • The expression "to kiss the gunner's daughter" equally referred to a boy bending over a field gun, usually tied down, the trousers lowered, exposing the buttocks for a sound public spanking (often with a cane or birch), while adult sailors got their back striped in upright position.
  • The common phrase, "not enough room to swing a cat," refers not to the swinging of a feline, but of a cat o' nine tails.
  • The phrase "letting the cat out of the bag" in the sense of revealing a secret may derive from the cat o' nine tails being kept in a red baize bag and being taken out when punishment is to be inflicted. For a sailor being punished for the first time, the secret of what the 'cat' is was thereby revealed. There are other possible explanations for this particular phrase.

Fiction, songs and games[edit]

  • The calypso "Old Time Cat o’ Nine" was first recorded by Lord Invader in 1945. He recorded an updated version: "Cat o' Nine Tails" in New York in March, 1959.
  • The Cat o' Nine Tails (1971), a film directed by Italian horror maestro Dario Argento, is a gory murder mystery about the pursuit of a psycho-killer.
  • In a The Simpsons Halloween Special, where Mr. Burns succeeds in placing Homer's head in a robotic body he is quoted as saying: "...the greatest breakthrough in labour-relations since the cat o' nine tails."
  • 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."
  • In the video-game Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy's Kong Quest for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, released 1995, there is an enemy character called Cat o' 9 Tails, which is literally a cat with nine tails. This enemy made a comeback in the Game Boy Advance port of the game. Also in this game, the character Klubba makes a reference to the cat o' nine tails, saying that he's going to whip the main characters with it "unless they pay the toll."
  • In the MMORPG "Ragnarok Online" there exists an enemy Boss monster called the Cat o' Nine Tails.
  • In the Playstation game Star Ocean 2, character Ernest can equip a whip called "The Cat o' Nine Tails," which hits three times every attack.
  • The children's pirate rock band Captain Bogg and Salty wrote a song called "Cat O' Nine Tails" for their album Bedtime Stories for Pirates
  • See also the Rammstein video Rosenrot.

See also[edit]



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