Cat o' nine tails

The cat o' nine tails, commonly shortened to 'the cat', is a type of multi-tailed whipping device that originated as an implement for severe physical punishment, notably in the Royal Navy of the United Kingdom. In modern days this whip's main application shifted from the grim punitive context to voluntary use for sexual pleasures.


The word is recorded in English since 1695, it was probably so called in reference to its "claws", which inflict parallel wounds. The design is much older. 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]').


The instrument traditionally has nine thongs as a result of the manner in which rope is plaited. Thinner rope is made from three strands of yarn plaited together, and thicker rope from three strands of thinner rope plaited 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 rationalisation (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 Father which, theocratically, thus puts the wrongdoer back on the path toward righteousness. It is also said that sailors had a holy cross tatooed 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, until 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

Naval types and use

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

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 wars period

During the period of the Napoleonic wars, the naval cat's handle was made of rope about two feet (60 cm) long and about an inch (25 mm) in diameter, and was traditionally covered with red baize cloth. The "tails" were made of cord about a quarter inch (6 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

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.

Flogging round the fleet

"The severest form of flogging was a flogging round the fleet. The number of lashes was divided by the number of ships in port and the offender was rowed between ships for each ships company to witness the punishment. Penalties of hundreds of lashes were imposed for the gravest offences, including sedition and mutiny. The prisoner was rowed round the fleet in an open boat and received a number of his lashes at each ship in turn, for as long as the surgeon allowed. Sentences often took months or years to complete, depending on how much a man was expected to bear at a time.

British Army

The British Army had a similar multiple 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 sergeants' half pikes. In many places, soldiers were generally flogged stripped to the waist.

Prison usage

The cat-o'-nine-tails was also notoriously used on adult convicts in prisons; a 1951 memorandum ( on CorPun — 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

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).

Modern uses and types

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 Southeast 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 but subsequently banned by laws according to Bahamas Government website Bahamas Penal Code and Barbados in 1993 (only to be formally declared inhumane and consequently unconstitutional by the Barbados Supreme Court). Jamaica in 1994 (flogging was banned again by the Jamaican Court of Appeal in 1998 ).

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. Trinidad outlawed the corporal punishment of minors (both by courts and in schools) in 2001.

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. The Inter-American court has no jurisdiction in Trinidad and Tobago, whose highest court is the Privy Council in London.

In most modern societies, the cat is a horror icon from the past, now often associated with BDSM culture .

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 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


  • The still-popular sailor's song What do you 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," is often claimed to refer to a cat o' nine tails, yet there are examples of usage predating the known use of the cat o' nine tails (i.e. before 1695) and the phrase more likely refers to the practice of putting a live cat in a leather bottle and setting it swinging as a target for marksmen. For example, Shakespeare, in Much Ado About Nothing, writes: "Hang me in a bottle like a cat, and shoot at me." This has been the subject of correspondence in The Times in January 2007.
  • 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 (see Pig in a poke).

Fiction, songs and games

  • The band L7 has a song named "Cat o' Nine Tails" on their self-titled debut album.
  • The song This I Know by Rehab contains "Cat of Nine Tails" within its lyrics.
  • 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 movie The Cat o' Nine Tails, directed by Italian horror maestro Dario Argento.
  • 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 MMORPG Kingdom of Loathing there exist a weapon called Tail o' nine cats
  • 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
  • The 2006 movie, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, has the character Will Turner whipped by the Cat and the character Davy Jones, captain of the ghost ship The Flying Dutchman, also saying "The cat's out of the bag" implying that once it has been removed from its stowage it must now be used on someone.
  • The song 'Kind Captain, I've Important Information' in the Gilbert and Sullivan play H.M.S. Pinafore, the final verse mentions using a Cat O' Nine Tails.
  • The song De Boatmen's Dance A minstrel show song of 1843 by Dan Emmett makes reference saying: "...Look out, my boys, for de nine tail cat".
  • The song "Whip in My Valise" by Adam & the Ants about S&M features a line "...they say your cat has got nine tails..."
  • In the 60's this was the preferred weapon of Catwoman, later being replaced by her trademark bullwhip.
  • In Fragile Things, a collection of short stories by author Neil Gaiman there is a story entitled Other People in which a man is tortured by a demon. One of the many apparatus used to torture the man is a cat o' nine tails made of frayed wire.
  • In Thief: Deadly Shadows, a jeweled cat o' nine tails can be stolen from High Priest Greidus of the Hammerites in the "St. Edgar's Eve" mission. It is a special loot item.
  • On an episode of JAG in Australia when Harm (David James Elliott) and Mic (Trevor Goddard) are being berated by their commanding officers for their unprofessional behavior, the RAN Captain Houghton belts out, "I don't know whether to keelhaul you or take the cat to you." At which point USN Admiral Chegwidden says, "After 10,000 miles I want to do both."

See also

Sources and References and further reading

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