The Cat O' Nine Tails is a type of multi-tailed whip that originated as a tool of corporal punishment from the British navy. The naval "cat" was about 13 oz. in weight and composed of a baton (handle) and nine thongs.
During the period of the Napoleonic wars, the naval cat's handle was
made of rope about two feet long and about an inch in diameter, and was traditionally covered with red baize cloth. The "tails" or thongs were made of cord about a quarter inch in diameter and typically two feet long. When inflicting punishment for theft, which was considered a particularly offensive crime on board ship, the thongs were each knotted three times to cause additional pain. A new cat was made for each flogging by a bosun's mate and kept in a red baize bag until use.
In some cases a cat with a wooden handle was used, and steel balls or barbs of wire were added to the tips of the thongs to maximize the potential flogging injury. The British army had a similar whip, though much lighter in construction; made of a drumstick with attached strings. The flogger was usually a drummer rather than a strong bosun's mate. Flogging with the cat o' nine tails fell into disuse around 1870.
The cat-o'-nine-tails was also notoriously used on convicts in secondary penal colonies of early colonial Australia, particularly at such places as Norfolk Island, Port Arthur and Moreton Bay (now Brisbane).
References in modern culture
The still-popular sailor's song What shall we do with a drunken sailor? has a verse that goes "Give him a taste of the captain's daughter" or "Throw him in bed with the captain's daughter". While this doesn't sound a dire fate for the tipsy seaman, in actuality the term "captain's daughter" refers to the cat o' nine tails or a similar whip.
In more recent years the term cat o' nine tails is used to describe almost any kind of multi-tailed whip, particularly those found in modern BDSM. These whips are usually made of soft leather and have much less potential for injury.
Also, the common phrase, "not enough room to swing a cat," is derived not from the swinging of a real cat, but of a cat o' nine tails.
In the Known Space series of science-fiction books, the alien race called Outsiders are always described as resembling a "cat o' nine tails with a fattened handle."
References and further reading