Amnesty International activists protesting the flogging of Raif Badawi outside the Saudi Arabian embassy in Berlin. Photo: Tobias Schwarz/AFP/Getty Images
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What actually happens when you get flogged

Thanks to Saudi Arabia’s brutal and inhumane treatment of blogger Raif Badawi, flogging as a punishment is back in the news. In 19th century Britain, the case of a young soldier who died after a similar assault provoked a national outcry.

“I suppose you thought to punish me for not writing”, said Private Frederick John White in a letter to his brother on 25 June 1846. The soldier, a 27 year-old south Londoner enlisted in the 7th Queen’s Own Hussars, apologised for not being in touch with his family due to “a great deal of trouble” he had been through. He did not mention the flogging. A few days earlier, White, under the effects of alcohol, had had an argument with his sergeant and, during the fight he had stroked the sergeant’s chest with a metal bar. As a result, the Martial Court had sentenced White to 150 lashes.

When John White was found dead in his dorm, two weeks after writing the letter of apology to his relatives, the skin on his back had healed. After performing an autopsy within Hounslow Barracks, the medical army officers declared that his death was in no way connected with the flogging he had received almost a whole month earlier. White’s body was just about to be buried when the coroner for Middlesex decided to hold a judicial inquiry. The coroner was Thomas Wakley, a surgeon, medical journalist, and also the Lancet’s founder – and an ardent anti-flogging campaigner. The inquest into the Hounslow case sparked a national outcry. The post mortem examination of the soldier’s corpse, extensively reported by the Victorian press, provoked a burning political and medical debate on the effects of flogging on the health of a human being.

General of the British Empire, Sir James Charles Napier, in his Remarks of Military Law wrote that sentences of thousands lashes were common at the end of the eighteenth century. These were divided into instalments: when the skin had started to heal it was time to whip again. Flogging in the military, navy, schools and private homes was a common disciplinary measure in the nineteenth century. In order to discipline the mind it was considered necessary to discipline the body. Then, the skin was intended as a body’s shield.

Thomas Wakley. A photograph of a portrait by W H Egleton, after K Meadows. Image: WikiCommons

Thomas Wakley. A photograph of a portrait by W H Egleton, after K Meadows. Image: WikiCommons

As one of the witnesses told the coroner during the inquiry, blood had appeared between White’s shoulders after twenty lashes had been given. A regimental farrier kept on flogging until the fiftieth; he then handed over to his colleague so that he could have a rest. After fifty more had been given he took the whip again and inflicted the final fifty lashes. The farriers used the cat o’ nine tails, a tool made up of nine knotted thongs of cotton that could be found in veterinary shops. The punishment lasted half an hour: one lash every twelve seconds. The colonel and the regiment’s doctor stood with their arms folded. Neither of them checked the soldier’s pulse. A reader of the Times wrote to the editor that had the regimental doctor put his fingers on White’s wrist he would have found that at each lash his pulse faltered.

The coroner asked many questions to find out how many lashes a human being can endure. This was not because he thought that this number could be established but only to show the jury and the reporters that the number could not be quantified. It was unpredictable, and depended on variables such as the type of whips, the number of knots that the whips may form and, the external temperature. According to the press, 1846 recorded an unusually hot summer and this might have impaired the ability of White to recover. Then you have the experience of the floggers. They often undertook a sort of training to learn how to flog, using a tree trunk as a body. They were not supposed to break the skin and, as the Lancet reported, experienced hands knew that the lash should have fallen in the small area between the shoulders only. But as a Victorian pamphlet recited: “performers and skin materially differ, accidents sometimes happen”.

Dermatologist Erasmus Wilson was called by Wakley to perform a third autopsy on the body of White. Wilson, by analysing the cutaneous layer and the organs underneath, argued, in times prior to the discovery of the effects of bacteria in the bloodstream, that there was a connection between the external lacerations caused by the lashes and the internal state of the organs. According to Wilson, the injuries resulting from flogging were confined to the skin but the flogging was followed by inflammation of the internal organs and pulpy softening of muscles. The jury’s verdict, given on 4 August 1846, was that Frederick John White died from the mortal effects of the flogging that he had received at Cavalry Barracks in Hounslow.

On returning the verdict the jury called upon the public to send petitions to the British Legislature for the abolition of this form of military punishment. Less than a week after the end of the inquest, the Duke of Wellington established a limit of fifty lashes to be given for military corporal punishment. When flogging in the army was legally abolished in 1881, a few people knew it was still in law. John White was not the only person who had died after a flogging but this was the occasion on which the explanation for a dynamic relationship between superficial marks and injuries left on the body and internal organs of the punished was used as a political argument against corporal punishment. The back of the soldier furnished the script for marking an advancement in the history of the anti-flogging campaign in Britain.


Photo: Getty Images
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The buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke, but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reports in this morning’s Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.