A brief history of waterboarding

American soldiers torture a Philippine captive as European despots look on with delight (<cite>Life</cite> magazine cover, 1902).
American soldiers torture a Philippine captive as European despots look on with delight (Life magazine cover, 1902).

“Waterboarding” is the latest name for a form of water torture going back to the Middle Ages in Europe, but condemned as illegal and immoral since the 1700s. Banned from Europe, water torture persisted in other parts of the world, including some European colonies, until the mid-20th century.

In the United States, water torture first appears as a means to terrorize slaves. It persists into the 20th century as a routine punishment for African American convict laborers in the Deep South. Most notoriously, it was used by U.S. soldiers on Philippine captives during the Philippine-American War (1899-1902). After that war, the technique shows up sporadically in some domestic police departments as a way to force detainees to confess to a crime.1

The “water cure”: Here’s a description by 1st Lt. Grover Flint, 35th U.S. Infantry, of a typical field interrogation in the occupied Philippines:

A man is thrown down on his back and three or four men sit or stand on his arms and legs and hold him down, and either a gun barrel or a rifle barrel or a carbine barrel or a stick … is simply thrust into his jaws … as a gag. In the case of very old men I have seen their teeth fall out — I mean when it was done a little roughly. He is simply held down, and then water is poured onto his face, down his throat and nose …, and that is kept up until the man gives some sign of giving in or becomes unconscious.… A man suffers tremendously; there is no doubt about that. His suffering must be like that of a man who is drowning, but who can not drown.2

Soldiers and officers called this technique “the water cure,” after a type of alternative health care, popular in the 1800s, in which applying cold water to the body was considered therapeutic. By using this term to name an excruciating torture, the soldiers were making what ethicist Jonathan Glover calls a “cold joke” — a humorless witticism that distances the torturer from his own action by making nonsense of the victim’s suffering.

As far as I know, no one has yet uncovered the origin of the term “waterboarding.” But if it was coined by the men who practice it today, it probably also originates in a cold joke — possibly an attempt to call the torture an “extreme sport,” by analogy with snowboarding, sandboarding, dirtboarding, etc. [Update: Why we call it waterboarding]

Water torture and slavery: As mentioned, water torture probably made its first appearance in North America as a means to control African slaves. At least one slaveholder seems to have regarded it as an appropriate punishment for slaves considered too small or weak for whipping. The earliest reference I’ve seen is an oblique one, contained in an 1815 verse satire lampooning James Caller, a politician in Mississippi Territory. Believing himself surrounded by Indian warriors, Caller is seen promising God that, if spared, he will no longer starve or abuse his slaves: “Nor will I shave their heads, for small offence, / Nor pour on water, ’til deprived of sense.” The author adds that this water torture was “a mode of punishment adopted by [Caller], among his small slaves, for trivial offences: and to which a gentleman was an eye witness.”3

Modern innovations: Convict laborers in the post-Civil-War South — often black men arrested on trumped-up charges to fill labor quotas or to break strikes at southern mines — endured a loss of freedom identical to slavery, but under even more brutal conditions. Punishments included routine whippings and, what was considered worse, the “water cure,” which sometimes resulted in death. Atlanta industrialist Joel Hurt considered the “water cure” an improvement on whipping because the prisoner, if he didn’t die, could be returned to work immediately afterward.

Convict labor bosses used the tools available to them to develop variations on the water torture. In one of these, the victim was stripped naked and made to stand under an ice-cold shower until he collapsed with hypothermia. In another, he was stripped and tied to a chair, then a high-pressure water hose was turned on him, pounding his skin and filling his nose and mouth with water until he felt he was drowning.4

It’s difficult not to infer some continuity between this latter technique (used at Birmingham, Alabama mines) and the fire hoses turned on civil-rights demonstrators at the direction of Birmingham Police Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor in 1963.

“Waterboarding” is water torture. I hope this sketch makes plain that to refer to waterboarding as anything other than torture is to commit euphemism in the service of centralized power.

1 The last reported episode of water torture by U.S. police occurred in 1983 in Texas. 
2 U.S. Senate Doc. 331, Hearings Before the Senate Committee on the Philippine Islands, 57th Cong., 1st Sess., 1902, vol. II, p. 1767; quoted in Richard Drinnon, Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-hating and Empire-building (New American Library, 1980), p. 320. 
3 [Lewis Sewall], The Last Campaign of Sir John Falstaff the II.; or, The Hero of the Burnt-Corn Fight (St. Stephens, 1815), p. 13. 
4 Douglas A. Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II (Anchor Books, 2009), pp. 71, 319, 347, 368. 

5 thoughts on “A brief history of waterboarding

  1. Right. Everything you need to know about that is here — set to music.

    Furthermore, ”sympathy” for the victims of alleged torture is to be construed as identical to “sympathy” with extremist political views that may or may not be held by said victims of said alleged torture. Both are spelled the same way; therefore, they mean the same thing, and ought to be equally subject to investigation on grounds of preventing potential threats to the security of the homeland.

    Was that sufficiently obfuscatory to go in a torture memo?

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