Human branding

Human branding or stigmatizing is the process which a mark, usually a symbol or ornamental pattern, is burned into the skin of a living person, with the intention that the resulting scar makes it permanent. This is performed using a hot or very cold branding iron. It therefore uses the physical techniques of livestock branding on a human, either with consent as a form of body modification; or under coercion, as a punishment or to identify an enslaved or otherwise oppressed person. It may also be practiced as a "rite of passage", e.g. within a tribe, or to signify membership of or acceptance into an organization.

Modern strike branding


The English verb to burn, attested since the 12th century, is a combination of Old Norse brenna "to burn, light", and two originally distinct Old English verbs: bærnan "to kindle" (transitive) and beornan "to be on fire" (intransitive), both from the Proto-Germanic root bren(wanan), perhaps from a Proto-Indo-European root bhre-n-u, from base root bhereu- "to boil forth, well up." In Dutch, (ver)branden mean "to burn", brandmerk a branded mark; similarly, in German, Brandzeichen means "a brand" and brandmarken, "to brand".

Sometimes the word cauterize is used. This is known in English since 1541, and is derived via Medieval French cauteriser from Late Latin cauterizare "to burn or brand with a hot iron", itself from Greek καυτηριάζειν, kauteriazein, from καυτήρ kauter "burning or branding iron", from καίειν kaiein "to burn". However cauterization is now generally understood to mean a medical process – specifically to stop bleeding.

Historical use

Marking the rightless

The origin may be the ancient treatment of a slave (often without legal rights) as livestock.

To a slave owner it would be logical to mark such property just like cattle, more so since humans are more able to escape.

As punishment

In criminal law, branding with a hot iron was a mode of punishment consisting of marking the subject as if goods or animals, sometimes concurrently with their reduction of status in life.

Brand marks have also been used as a punishment for convicted criminals, combining physical punishment, as burns are very painful, with public humiliation (greatest if marked on a normally visible part of the body) which is here the more important intention, and with the imposition of an indelible criminal record. Robbers, like runaway slaves, were marked by the Romans with the letter F (fur); and the toilers in the mines, and convicts condemned to figure in gladiatorial shows, were branded on the forehead for identification. Under Constantine I the face was not permitted to be so disfigured, the branding being on the hand, arm or calf.

The Acts of Sharbil record it applied, amongst other tortures, to a Christian between the eyes and on the cheeks in Parthian Edessa at the time of the Roman Emperor Trajan on a judge's order for refusal to sacrifice.

In the 16th century, German Anabaptists were branded with a cross on their foreheads for refusing to recant their faith and join the Roman Catholic church.[1]

In the North-American Puritan settlements of the 17th century, men and women sentenced for adultery were branded with an "A" letter on their chest, and for other crimes, such as "D" for drunkenness and "B" for blasphemy.[2]

The mark in later times was also often chosen as a code for the crime (e.g. in Canadian military prisons D for Desertion, BC for Bad Character; most branded men were shipped off to a penal colony). Branding was used for a time by the Union Army during the American Civil War. Surgeon and Oxford English Dictionary contributor William Chester Minor was required to brand deserters at around the time of the Battle of the Wilderness.

The canon law sanctioned the punishment, and in France, in royal times, various offences carried the additional infamy of being branded with a fleur de lys, also galley-slaves could be branded GAL or once the galleys were replaced by the bagnes on land, TF (travaux forcés, 'forced' labor, i.e. hard labour) or TFP (travaux forcés à perpetuité, forced labour for life) until 1832. In Germany however, branding was illegal.

Following the Conspiracy of the Slaves of 1749 in Malta, some slaves were branded with the letter R (for ribelli) on their forehead and condemned to the galleys for life.[3]

Branding tended to be abolished like other judicial mutilations (with notable exceptions, such as amputation under sharia law), sooner and more widely than flogging, caning and similar corporal punishments, which normally aim 'only' at pain and at worst cause stripe scars, although the most severe lashings (not uncommon in penal colonies) in terms of dosage and instrument (such as the proverbial knout) can even turn out to be lethal.

Branding in American slavery

A replica of a slave branding iron which would have originally been used in the Atlantic slave trade. On display at The Museum of Liverpool, England.

In Louisiana, there was a "black code", or Code Noir, which allowed the cropping of ears, shoulder branding, and the cutting of tendons above the knee as punishments for recaptured slaves. Slave owners used extreme punishments to stop flight, or escape. They would often brand the slaves' palms, shoulders, buttocks, or cheeks with a branding iron.[4]

Branding was sometimes used to mark recaptured runaway slaves to help the locals easily identify the runaway. Mr. Micajah Ricks, in Raleigh, North Carolina, was looking for his slave and described, "I burnt her with a hot iron, on the left side of her face, I tried to make the letter M."[5]

Most slave owners would use whipping as their main method, but at other times they would use branding to punish their slaves. Another testimony explains how a slave owner in Kentucky around 1848 was looking for his runaway slave. He described her having "a brand mark on the breast something like L blotched."[6] In South Carolina, there were many laws which permitted the punishments slaves would receive. When a slave ran away, if it was the first offense, the slave would receive no more than forty lashes. Then the second offense would be branding. The slave would have been marked with the letter R on their forehead signifying that they were a criminal, and a runaway.[7]

As religious initiation

Ceremonial Branding is an integral part of religious initiation in most Vaishnava sects. References to this practice can be traced in texts such as Narad Panchratra, Vaikhnasagama, Skanda Purana etc.[8] This practice is still in vogue among Madhava sect Brahmins of Karnataka in India.[9]

Branding in Britain

The punishment was adopted by the Anglo-Saxons, and the ancient law of England authorized the penalty. By the Statute of Vagabonds (1547) under King Edward VI, vagabonds and Gypsies were ordered to be branded with a large V on the breast, and brawlers with F for "fraymaker"; slaves who ran away were branded with S on the cheek or forehead. This law was repealed in England in 1550. From the time of Henry VII, branding was inflicted for all offences which received Benefit of clergy (branding of the thumbs was used around 1600 at Old Bailey to ensure that the accused who had successfully used the Benefit of Clergy defence, by reading a passage from the Bible, could not use it more than once), but it was abolished for such in 1822. In 1698 it was enacted that those convicted of petty theft or larceny, who were entitled to benefit of clergy, should be "burnt in the most visible part of the left cheek, nearest the nose." This special ordinance was repealed in 1707. James Nayler, a Quaker who in the year 1655 was accused of claiming to be the Messiah, convicted of blasphemy in a highly publicized trial before the Second Protectorate Parliament and had his tongue bored through and his forehead branded B for "blasphemer".

In the Lancaster criminal court a branding iron is still preserved in the dock. It is a long bolt with a wooden handle at one end and an M (malefactor) at the other; close by are two iron loops for firmly securing the hands during the operation. The brander would, after examination, turn to the judge exclaiming "A fair mark, my lord." Criminals were formerly ordered to hold up their hands before sentence to show if they had been previously convicted.

In the 18th century, cold branding or branding with cold irons became the mode of nominally inflicting the punishment on prisoners of higher rank. "When Charles Moritz, a young German, visited England in 1782 he was much surprised at this custom, and in his diary mentioned the case of a clergyman who had fought a duel and killed his man in Hyde Park. Found guilty of manslaughter he was burnt in the hand, if that could be called burning which was done with a cold iron" (Markham's Ancient Punishments of Northants, 1886).

Such cases led to branding becoming obsolete, and it was abolished in 1829 except in the case of deserters from the army, who were marked with the letter D, not with hot irons but by tattooing with ink or gunpowder. Notoriously bad soldiers were also branded with BC (bad character). The British Mutiny Act of 1858 provided that the court-martial might, in addition to any other penalty, order deserters to be marked on the left side, 2 inches (5 cm) below the armpit, with the letter D, such letter to be not less than an inch long. In 1879 this was abolished.

Branding in Russia

Branding in Russia was used quite extensively in the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century. Over time, red hot iron brands were gradually replaced by tattoo boards; criminals were first branded on the forehead and cheeks, later on the back and arms. Branding was totally abolished in 1863.[10]

Persisting practices


In symbolic solidarity with Calf 269, protesters in Israel subjected themselves to branding on World Farm Animals Day (Gandhi's birthday): October 2, 2012. This act was emulated by others in England and the Czech Republic. An English protester who was interviewed justified the extremism as a reaction to the extreme cruelty perpetrated by the dairy industry such as shooting calves at birth.[12]

See also



  1. Edward Bean Underhill, Martyrology of the Churches of Christ Commonly Called Baptists during the Era of the Reformation, (1850), pg 118
  2. John A. Grigg; Peter C. Mancall, eds. (2008). British Colonial America: People and Perspectives. ABC-CLIO. p. 54. ISBN 9781598840254.
  3. Sciberras, Sandro. "Maltese History - E. The Decline of the Order of St John In the 18th Century" (PDF). St. Benedict College. Archived from the original (PDF) on 26 June 2015.
  4. "punishments". The Underground RailRoad: An Encyclopedia of People, Places, and Operations. Armonk: M.E. Sharpe. Retrieved Oct 3, 2013.
  5. Weld, Theodore Dwight (1968). American Slavery As It Is. New York: Arno Press, Inc. pp. 21, 77, 108, 112.
  6. Howe, S. W. (Winter 2009). "Slavery As Punishment: Original Public Meaning, Cruel and Unusual Punishments and the Neglected Clause in the Thirteenth Amendment". Arizona Law Review. 51 Ariz. L. Rev. 983. Retrieved Sep 20, 2013.
  7. Higginbotham Jr., A. Leon (1978). In The Matter of Color Race and the American Legal Process: The Colonial Period. New York: Oxford University. pp. 176–184.
  8. "Tapta Mudra Dharana". Uttaradi Math. Retrieved 2014-06-09.
  9. Udupi, July 11, DHNS : (2013-05-21). "'Tapta Mudra Dharana' ceremony held". Retrieved 2014-06-09.
  10. "Murders". Retrieved 2014-06-09.
  11. Posey, Sandra, "Burning Messages: Interpreting African American Fraternity Brands and Their Bearers", New York Folklore Society Voices, Fall-Winter 2004.
  12. Starke, Jonathan. "Vegans are branding their flesh in Leeds". Vice. Retrieved 10 April 2013.
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