A cat-o-nine-tails is a type of whip used to physically punish prisoners. Designed to lacerate the skin and inflict the maximum amount of pain during use, they are made from nine strands of twisted and knotted rope attached to a handle.
These whips represent an era when corporal punishment was commonplace and meted out for all manner of bad behaviour. Prisoners in the Northern Territory were often sentenced to a certain number of strokes with a whip as well as prison time, when sentenced by a judge.
This cat-o-nine-tails is believed to have been used on inmates at Fannie Bay Gaol in Darwin from 1882 - 1911. A prisoner was tied to the whipping post in the corner of the gaol yard and a prison officer then wielded the whip against the prisoner’s bare back.
With the Commonwealth takeover of the Northern Territory in 1911, corporal punishment of prisoners as a judicial sentence was outlawed. However, as late as 1938, the Darwin-based and highly outspoken Judge Wells advocated the re-introduction of floggings as a punishment for lawbreakers since, in his opinion, sentencing offenders to gaol “only made them fat, and turned them into derelicts”. Luckily for the prisoners, he didn’t get his way!
Well into the 1920s, the Officer in Charge of Fannie Bay Gaol was known to possess several cat-o-nine-tails as part of a small collection of historical objects associated with the institution. During the Second World War, a soldier stationed in Darwin souvenired this
cat-o-nine-tails from Fannie Bay Gaol, probably from the goal collection, and took it with him when he returned home. It remained in the soldier’s family for over 70 years before being donated to the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory.
Cat-o-nine-tails Maker Unknown Wood, fibre
circa 1900 Gift of Tom and Michelle Tamblyn, 2016 2016.014.001