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.


How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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