“Arbitrary and cruel punishments:” Trends in Royal Navy Courts martial, 1860-1869




Johnston, Andrew

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Britain’s Royal Navy of the nineteenth century was the unquestioned master of the world’s oceans, having won such standing after over a century of near-uninterrupted warfare. However, while the strategies, tactics and technology of the navy evolved dramatically during this period, the laws that governed its many thousands of sailors and officers remained virtually unchanged from the original 1661 Articles of War. Despite minor amendments throughout the eighteenth century and a major reworking in 1749, both capital and corporal punishments were frequently employed as punishment for minor offences in a system that made England’s “Bloody Code” look positively humane. The 1860 Naval Discipline Act provided the first substantive overhaul of the original Articles of War, but historians have generally lamented this act as providing little comprehensive change to the governance of the navy. Using statistical data collected from thousands of courts martial records, this thesis takes a broad look at trends in naval courts martial, studying how these courts interacted with the legislative changes of the 1860s. Viewing how charges and sentences changed on the global scale, it becomes clear that the “arbitrary and cruel punishments” of the previous century had at last given way to a centralized, formal expression of discipline.



British history, Naval history, Legal history, Big data, Military law