A cat o’nine tails is a whip with nine knotted lashes. Its origin is believed to date back to ancient Egypt, where the domestic cat was sacred and, even then, was said to have nine lives. The Egyptians believed that when beaten with cat hide, the victim gained virtue from the whip.
The nine cords or tails represent the nine lives of a cat and the whip also left marks like the scratches of a cat. On board ship the whip was kept in a bag, and the ‘cat was let out of the bag’ for a flogging. Plenty of room was needed to swing the whip without the tails getting caught, hence the saying ‘no room to swing a cat’. This cat o’nine tails is made of leather, ivory and rope, and dates from the 18th or 19th century. Whips like this would have been used during the transatlantic slave trade by sailors to punish African captives on board ship. White sailors and soldiers in the British navy and army were also subject to flogging with the dreaded ‘cat’ until well into the 19th century.
© National Museums Liverpool
Accession reference: National Museums Liverpool, Maritime Collection 1919.231