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Keelhaulung-Pirate Punishment: Facing Fear Head On

Updated: Sep 3, 2023

Keelhauling was “a severe punishment whereby the condemned man was dragged beneath the ship’s keel on a rope. It served as a terrible warning to all mariners causing Skulduggery in the 17th century.”

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 be severely injured by the extremely sharp barnacles on the underside of the ship. This practice would leave severe scars on the flesh of the sailor, serving as a constant reminder of the event.

A keelhauling over the length would be fatal, either through drowning, or through blood loss

brought by contact with the ship. A keelhauling across the width (typically about one third of a ship's length) was a "lesser" punishment that might give the victim a fighting chance to survive.

The cuts received from such close contact could not only cause severe injuries and blood loss, but also the loss of limbs and even in some cases decapitation. The speed of movement while underwater was often crucial in determining how much injuries the will sailor get. If the rope was pulled more slowly, weight on the sailor would cause him to go deeper and narrowly miss the barnacles on the hull. But if he was pulled faster, the sailor would remain in contact with the hull during entire underwater travel, causing incredible injuries.

On September 9, 1882, a telegraph documented two Egyptian men court-martialed after an attempted murder near Alexandria. They were sentenced to a keelhauling under Article 2 of the Egyptian Naval Code, and both men survived but suffered terribly. A New York Times article cites one of the English correspondents who witnessed this keelhauling, who describes the extent of their injuries:

“The one upon whom the strain of the rope had fallen was apparently lifeless. His face was turned toward us: it was bleeding and torn: his clothes were hanging in shreds, and his hands were dripping with blood. His eyes were open, but they seemed to be filled with blood. The ship’s bottom, covered with barnacles, rasped upon the poor devils like nails…The nose of one wretch was torn almost away. One ear was gone…He was bloody literally from head to foot.”

Paul Rushworth-Brown is the author of three novels:

'Skulduggery - The bleak Pennine moors of Yorkshire; a beautiful, harsh place, close to the sky, rugged and rough, no boundaries except the horizon, which in places, went on forever. Green pastures and wayward hills, the colours of ochre, brown and pink in the Spring. Green squares divided the land on one side of the lane, and on the other; sheep with thick wool and dark snouts dotted the hills and dales. The story, set on the Moors of West Yorkshire, follows wee Thomas and his family shortly after losing his father to consumption. Times were tough in 1603 and there were shenanigans and skulduggery committed by locals and outsiders alike. Queen Bess has died, and King James sits on the throne of England and Scotland. Thomas Rushworth is now the man of the house being the older of two boys. He is set to wed Agnes in an arranged marriage, but a true love story develops between them.

"A glorious read of a period well versed and presented with accuracy and authentic telling by an

author who is as much engrossed in his prose as the reader he shares with...masterful and thoroughly enjoyable...5 stars." Adrian, Indibook reviewer.

''Skulduggery, a different treat for lovers of historical fiction, an exciting and mysterious romp through the moors of 17th century Yorkshire, more specifically Haworth and Keighley. The story is a well-painted image of how 'copyholders' or peasants would have lived at this time but that is only the backdrop to a suspenseful whodunit with romantic tones. Modern writers usually don't know what it was like to live in the past but Rushworth-Brown has done this with great skill in this accomplished, atmospheric and thoughtful novel."... Jen Summers

'Red Winter Journey'- Come on this historic journey, which twists, turns and surprises until the very end. If you like history, adventure and intrigue with a dash of spirited love, then you will be engrossed by this tale of a peasant family unexpectedly getting caught up in the ravages of the English Civil War in 1642.


5.0 out of 5 stars


The research for this book was thorough. The author describes the environment and conditions of Yorkshire in the 16th century, building these facts into fictional circumstances and families living in the times. I found it fascinating that this book came as a result of a search for the family history. Very cleverly done and a must-read for those interested in the periodand a good read. Looking forward to the next book.

'Dream of Courage' -The writing is very descriptive, the hooks very bold and is told in a way that places the reader in the time and place. So, turn the page and step back in time to follow the Rushworths on their journey of love, adventure and survival in this bittersweet family saga.

The story is historically accurate, flawlessly researched and provides an intimate portrayal of what life was like back then. You will meet professional beggars, cutpurses, felons, debtors, lifters, prostitutes, sneak thieves and a pickpocket by the name of Brewster. The story is full of colourful characters like John Wilding (antagonist), a brogger and brute of a man, with no manners or decorum, typical of the ‘lower sort’ of the time. He robs strangers, and becomes a thief taker pursuing Robert Rushworth to retrieve the sapphire necklace. If found he may get the reward and pay back the ‘Company ‘who he is dangerously indebted to and hiding from. (Due for release April 2023)

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