I recently noticed an article in the Trinidad Guardian about two male teenagers who had been charged with savagely “chopping” an old man (though not to death). Each youth received a sentence of 42 years in prison plus 20 strokes of the birch. It was the latter part of the sentence, the instrument designated by the learned judge, that surprised, but throughout the ex-British colonies “strokes” with a cane have become a fairly routine court order for rapists and for incestuous and violent men in general. The famous caning incident in Singapore hardly drew a ripple of interest in such independent, ex-colonial deposits.

An order of “strokes” in a Caribbean magistrate’s court is given by the presiding authority (quite often a woman) and carried out immediately. The instrument generally used is the whippy tamarind or “tammy,” which is similar to that in the schools of my youth; Singapore employs the rotan. The infamous cat-o’-nine tails, which the French writer Pierre Daninos claims to lurk in every Englishman’s subconscious, no longer exists in penal reality. Its last judicial use in England was probably in the case of the three so-called “Mayfair playboys,” who in the 30’s assaulted an old lady and were sentenced to, and each received, eight strokes of the cat, given in two doses, for leniency’s sake.

One may therefore be permitted a certain equanimity in discussing this matter in modern America since sentences of the kind are not likely there. My father, a Puisne judge in an erstwhile Crown Colony, probably imposed several such sentences as a matter of course. Statistics as to the efficacy of such punishments naturally do not exist. But to interpret corporal punishment as “child-whipping” is to ignore the reasons why, for instance, a black judge in Trinidad ordered the birch in 1997. There were over 600 murders in Jamaica last year.

The liberal press in America has never tried to understand, let alone countenance, the peer-punishment system of male British schools of all classes, though Helen Burns (played by Elizabeth Taylor in Orson Welles’ Jane Eyre) is lightly birched at the fictional Lowood girls school, in what the Bronte Society has told us now is an exaggeration of Charlotte’s real-life Cowan Bridge School.

The great birching headmasters, Keate of Eton and Busby of Westminster, seem not so much to have been governing schools as fighting back anarchic child ghettos, the pupils threatening any authority, letting loose large rats during prayers and the like. As Lytton Strachey tells us of Keate, “Every Sunday afternoon he attempted to read sermons to the whole school assembled; and every Sunday afternoon the whole school assembled shouted him down.” Such was the Nicholas Nickleby syndrome, from which Thomas Arnold rescued Rugby when the headmastership of that school fell vacant in 1827.

Again, Strachey puts it well:

It was a system of anarchy tempered by despotism. Hundreds of boys, herded together in miscellaneous boarding-houses, or in that grim “Long Chamber” at whose name in after years aged statesmen and warriors would turn pale, lived, badgered and overawed by the furious incursions of an irascible little old man carrying a bundle of birch-twigs, a life in which licensed barbarism was mingled with the daily and hourly study of the niceties of Ovidian verse.

Indeed, it has been said that the cane was introduced into these so-called schools as being more lenient than the birch, and taking less time from Latin. There is surely all the difference in the world in the ritual handshake to the Praepostor who has just caned you (borrowed from Tonbridge School in the movie If) and the black mask of the prison guard who administers the brutal cat. In The Fourth of June (Eton’s great holiday), David Benedictus tells us that in his day there were as many as 60 senior boys allowed to cane without first approval from a master—and the ritual number of strokes was never exceeded.

In his autobiography, David Niven relates how he got 12 strokes for cheating from the legendary Stowe headmaster, Roxburgh: after the first ration of “six of the best” it hurt so much he hardly felt anything—until later. Roald Dahl has left us an amusing short story in which he sits in a railway carriage across from another man he feels sure caned him at school years before (Dahl was at Repton). He is mistaken, but the story dramatizes how socially encumbering it is for an Englishman to meet later in life one who caned him at school.

No one is advocating the return of corporal correction in schools, though there are pockets around. The matter of social retribution—let the liberals call it revenge—is different. The criminal is a grown adversary, self-declared, and it is not for nothing that most Caribbean island states (Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, etc.) restored Britain’s Flogging Act on going independent of the mother country. They don’t want the London Privy Council, chosen by the Queen, mitigating and even annulling the sentences of their own justices on the spot.

General Zia Ul-Haq of Pakistan used to say, “We flog with style.” And presumably the Muslim code has to be taken into consideration here. It is no good simply getting into a rage about the subject, alongside the little old ladies of Amnesty International. When Edmund Wilson reviewed for the New Yorker the six-volume edition of Swinburne’s correspondence, he was horrified. All those distressing index entries under “Flagellation.” And hadn’t Steven Marcus, tapping the Pisanus Fraxi or Ashbee collection in the British Museum, found a major portion of it to be what we might term flagellantine baroque? How could this happen? Such a civilized race.

The cane is abolished in England, and no one is hazing an underclassman in front of a fire as in Tom Brown’s School Days. Still, freedom has its restraints. and stoicism exists. In fact, one of Hugh Walpole’s most popular fictions begins with a caning. It is called Fortitude.