Newfoundlandia: The Cat-O-Nine Tails Incident That Changed Social Order in NL

Two English judges tortured Newfoundland Fishermen as debt repayment in 1819

Social change happens one of two ways; either a slow scraping crawl, as though all of human fear or greed had fingernails digging into time, or when enough of those nails break, and a sudden flash forward of free-fall occurs.

Significant events can cause such a break, and in 1819 something occurred in Conception Bay which slipped the social order.

The players in this drama are two Newfoundland-Irish fishermen, James Lundrigan and Philip Butler, their wives, Sarah Lundrigan and Mrs. Butler (her first name has been lost to history), two English judges, David Buchan and John Leigh, and finally a cat-o-nine tails.

The cat-o-nine tails was a nine tailed whip, used most notably in England at the time by the Royal Navy, Army, and some extremely rare judicial punishments. It was designed for severe physical punishment and extreme pain. The expression “to rub salt in the wound” comes from sailors pouring salt water over their backs which had been chewed to ribbons by a cat-o-nine tails, in an attempt to prevent infection. The first time this bloody character found its way into print was in 1681, during a London murder trial. We’ll meet “The Cat” in a little while.

Early spring in 1819 began like hundreds before, as preparations for the fishing season ramped up to that a frenetic pace. And as was custom, both James Lundrigan of Cupids, and Philip Butler of Harbour Main outfitted themselves for the fishing season on credit, using their possessions and houses as collateral. This was the normal routine, and a safe practice which most fisherman of modest means employed. It was understood that even if a bad season struck, the debt would simply roll into the following year. Occasionally the fishery failed after all, and it was common enough that when it did happen, there was hardship, but no one panicked. There would always be another season. So when the fishery of 1819 failed, James and Philip prepared for a lean winter, but never expected what was to happen next.

The regular judges took their leave at the close of summer and returned to England, leaving in their stead surrogates to preside. Enter John Leigh, an Anglican priest, and David Buchan, a naval officer who, for two winters, had been Acting Governor while the real one wintered in England. All debts were called in for immediate repayment, and both James and Philip were brought to court in separate trials to be squeezed for what everyone already knew they didn’t have. They pleaded their case and promised full payment at the conclusion of next fishing season. They lost.

The surrogate judges found them guilty of contempt of court and they were sentenced. The sentence was the same in both cases, something which hadn’t been seen in Newfoundland for a generation, not for more than 30 years: both men were sentenced to 36 lashes with the cat-o-nine tails. Many had died from far less.

The fishery had failed for everyone, but some were lucky enough to not have their debts were called in, and escaped this barbarism thought left in the past. Two separate court cases with two different surrogate judges, and both men were given the exact same extraordinary sentence. This was planned, these two men were being made an example of, but why?

Newfoundland had progressed socially much faster than Mother England in at least one important facet, women’s rights. Women had been equals in the fishery for decades, and although we were still subject to English law, by Newfoundland custom, women could inherit and own property even after marriage. This progression is what summoned the vindictive savagery from the low English judges. The wives of both James and Philip owned their respective family homes.

James Lundrigan was tied to a fish flake at his home town of Cupids, Philip Butler was bound to a fence in Harbour Main for all to see. Both were stripped to the waist. They were lashed most brutally, the knotted whips gouging and tearing through skin and muscle. James, an epileptic, was lashed 14 times before losing consciousness in a fit of convulsions. Philip endured 12 lashes, 108 rips into his body before agreeing to turn over his possessions, which under English law included his wife’s house.

The wives however, were not going down without a fight. Both Sarah Lundrigan and Mrs. Butler refused to leave their property. When constables showed up at their homes, they refused any and all orders, with Sarah going so far as to declare that if anyone approached her home she would “blow his brains out.” The surrogate judges, furious that any woman would openly defy them, ordered the constables to smash in their doors and throw the woman out, robbing them of their homes.

The Lundrigans and Butlers did lose their homes, but this incident galvanized the reform movement, organized real political opposition, abolished the practice of surrogate judges, and created a system for granting crown land.

But most importantly, women’s rights as per Newfoundland custom were deeply entrenched. Far from preventing women a greater role in society, as was the judges’ aim, it would launch forward progress from this moment on; a struggle which is still ongoing.

Thanks to this moment in our history, if ever a woman’s rights are tread upon, we can all say with one voice and with the strength of Sarah Lundrigan: “Defiance in the face of all oppression, defiance always.”

(Based on real people and real events. Source: As Near To Heaven By Sea by Kevin Major)

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