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.