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What is Keelhauling?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Keelhauling was a type of naval punishment in the 17th and 18th century, although officially only the Dutch Navy practiced it, under the name of kielhalen. It is a brutal form of corporal punishment that involves dragging the offender underwater from one side of a ship to the other. In a period when the word of the ship captain was law, it was only one in a variety of unpleasant punishment tactics that could easily kill a sailor.

This punishment first appeared in 1560, when a Dutch ordinance outlined the practice and the offenses for which it could be used. Other maritime powers, including Britain, adopted the practice as well, although it began to be phased out in the 1700s. The Dutch Navy did not ban keelhauling until 1853, when a more humane era of sailing frowned on the practice.

When a sailor was keelhauled, he would be stripped and tied so that he could not swim. Usually, a weight was attached to his legs to pull him away from the ship. The sailor was attached to a rope that ran underwater from one side of the ship to the other, and he was rapidly pulled through the water. Assuming the sailor did not usually drown, he would severely injured by the extremely sharp barnacles on the underside of the ship, known as the keel. This practice would leave severe scars on the flesh of the sailor, serving as a constant reminder of the event.

While keelhauling is often associated with pirates, it was more commonly used by the navy. Navy sailors were essentially viewed as property, and the captain of the ship held powers of life and death over them. Severe discipline on ships was supposed to prevent theft and mutiny, although it often had the opposite effect. Sailors were sometimes kidnapped and forced to serve on board naval ships, where severe punishment served as the only motivation to work.

Modern day sailors are unlikely to encounter this practice, except in jest. The punishment does offer an unpleasant example of the way in which justice used to be carried out on naval ships, however. Most sailors and merchant mariners would agree that the current system of maritime justice is far more humane and effective. The term has come to be associated with a harsh verbal rebuke in a maritime or landlocked environment, a punishment that would seem vastly preferable to potential death or serious injury.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WikiMotors researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon259523 — On Apr 06, 2012

There's a much easier way to pass a line under the hull of a vessel. he end of the line is passed under the bowsprit, if any exists on the ship. Then a weight is hung on it, and two sailors take each end and walk down opposite sides of the ship, playing out line as needed. The weight lets it sink and holds it clear of the barnacles, obstructions, etc.

By lovealot — On Jun 25, 2011

@seHiro - That's a good question that you raise. How did they get the rope under the boat so they could do the keelhauling? I really don't know. My guess is that maybe they put the rope in place when they were in a harbor, and just kept it in place. The Naval officers figured they just might need it at any time!

I just can't believe that humans took so long to become a little more civilized in punishing for fairly petty crimes. At least there is more justice today. Of course, some people today are still treated brutally. But, I think the people of the world are gradually improving

By seHiro — On Jun 24, 2011

Okay, judging by the description in the article here, keelhauling involved pulling the rope from literally one side of the ship to the other. My question is, how did they manage to get the rope looped beneath the ship before dragging anybody from side to side?

Especially if there were barnacles on the hull of the ship, wouldn't any rope shoved down one side and expected to go to the other just snag and not reach the other side to be grabbed? The only conceivable way I can think of to definitely get the rope from one side to the other would be to make somebody swim down under the ship while holding onto the rope.

That seems like an awful lot of trouble and risk of a sailor who wasn't being punished in order to get the keelhauling rope from port to starboard for the sailor who was being punished.

Does anybody know what method they used to get the rope from one side to the other? I'm very curious.

By ahain — On Jun 24, 2011

@gimbell - As horrifying as keelhauling sounds, it's still better than the practice of being hung, drawn and quartered.

Invented back in the medieval era of castles and knights, this was a cruel method of execution involving hanging someone until they're almost dead, then cutting all of their limbs off, then gutting them and letting them bleed to death. And we think waterboarding is bad.

If you stop and think too hard about any old-time form of punishment or execution, it's amazing anybody committed any crimes at all back then. The risks far outweighed the profits, in my opinion!

By Malka — On Jun 24, 2011

What a creative use of the barnacles on the keel of a ship. The keelhaul part about the barnacles explains why so many sailors back then had serious and massive scars all over their bodies, too.

The 1700s were a very difficult time period to live in. If the rampant diseases and exposure to foreign germs, pirates, accidents aboard ship or during dock time, scurvy and other diet-related health problems, violent weather, overworking and/or encounters with opposing governments' ships didn't kill you, your own captain might if he decided you had wronged him.

To top it off, even if you were good and followed the rules, there was always the possibility of a mutiny aboard. If there was a mutiny and you sided with the original captain, provided you weren't killed in the struggle to take over the ship you would likely end up marooned with the options of starving to death or shooting yourself in the head with your own pistol.

The movies and many kids' stories tend to glamorize the age of sailing, buccaneers and pirates, but they were pretty barbaric, really.

By gimbell — On Jun 24, 2011

Eww, so that's what the term "keel hauling" actually means? The kinds of things that people have done to each other throughout history can be pretty disgusting. Judging by the description, keelhauling was torture -- with a captain and shipmates like that in the Navy, who needed pirates?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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