was the British Royal Navy
's authorized equivalent of the Everything2 Death Borg
up until 1881. Like the EDB
it had a single purpose--to punish miscreants
in public--and assure that inappropriate behavior was minimized.
The cat was made of nine pieces of cord, each about a foot-and-a-half long, attached to a thick rope which served as a handle. Each length of cord had three knots near its striking end. The cat was kept in a red baize bag, and when the "cat was let out of the bag," sailors were flogged on the bare back for transgressing the Articles of War.
You've seen this in movies, of course. In Real Life, according to Patrick O'Brian, masterful author of twenty novels on the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, the process was ruthlessly efficient and commonplace.
Punishment always took place at six bells in the forenoon watch (eleven A.M.). Some ships set aside special days for flogging, others punished on a daily basis. The boatswain's mates piped 'All hands to witness punishment,' and the crew moved aft where the Marines were stationed with their muskets and all the officers were present in full-dress uniforms, wearing their swords.
"The master-at-arms brought his charges before the captain and the misconduct of which they were accused (usually drunkenness) was publicly stated. If the man had anything to say for himself he might do so, and if any of his particular officers saw fit they might put in a word for him.
"Having considered the case, the captain gave his decision--acquittal, reprimand or punishment. This might be extra duties or stoppage of grog, but often it was flogging.
"'Strip,' the captain would say, and the seaman's shirt came off.
"'Seize him up,' and the quartermasters tied his hands to a grating rigged for the purpose upright against the break of the poop, reporting, 'Seized up, sir.'
"Then the captain read the Articles of War that covered the offence, he and all the others taking off their hats as he did so. He said, 'Do your duty,' and a boatswain's mate, taking the cat-of-nine-tails out of a red baize bag, laid on the number of strokes awarded. Some hands screamed, but the regular man-of-war's man would take a dozen in silence."
--Patrick O'Brian, Men-of-War, Life in Nelson's Navy, W.W. Norton and Company, 1995.
It was a brutal business in a brutal era, and one that women were not allowed to witness. Many captains, including Nelson
abhorred the practice and almost never let the cat out of the bag.
Others, such as the monstrous Captain Hugh Pigot of the H.M.S. Hermione rigged the grating every day, and instead of six, or nine, or at the most twelve strokes, would sentence the men to hundreds of lashes.
Captain Pigot, it should be noted, was eventually hacked to pieces by his crew off the Spanish Main. They also killed most of the other officers and eventually turned the Hermione over to the Spaniards.
Brutes like Pigot were the exception, however, for good officers--the real-life counterparts to O'Brian's fictional Jack Aubrey--knew that a happy ship, a ship whose well-trained, well-conditioned men would follow their officers anywhere, was the essential tool of His Majesty's foreign policy. And for centuries the Royal Navy was the most efficient war machine on earth.