From The Negro's Complaint by William Cowper:

Is there, as ye sometimes tell us,
Is there One who reigns on high?
Has he bid you buy and sell us,
Speaking from his throne, the sky?
Ask him, if your knotted scourges,
Matches, blood-extorting screws,
Are the means that duty urges
Agents of his will to use?

I looked in the Century Dictionary, in Wiktionary, and in Merriam-Webster, but there were no suitable definitions for the word. What could this "match" be, from a torture-and-punishment standpoint?

  • 1
    This stumps even the OED. It has the archaic meaning of wick, but it's hard to conflate that with whips and thumbscrews. Sep 26, 2016 at 6:29

1 Answer 1


Before the invention of self-igniting matches in 19th century, match meant cord impregnated with saltpetre, which allowed it to smolder for a long time. A length of such match was set in the 'lock' or firing apparatus of soldiers' muskets to touch off the charge. Such 'matchlocks' were superseded in the 18th century by flintlocks, but the use of match continued in other circumstances where the sudden need for a reliable source of fire might arise; sailors, for instance, still employed match for their cannon in the Napoleonic wars.

Its use as an instrument of torture in the 17th century is described thus in James Merse, The Covenanters of the Merse, 1893.

The prisoner’s hand was bound firmly to a plank of wood, with one of these matches between each pair of fingers. The ends of the matches were then lighted, and allowed to smolder away, while a soldier blew them in case they should burn too slowly. As the matches consumed they destroyed successively the most sensitive parts of the fingers and not ceasing until, in the case of a heroic sufferer such as this seems to have been, the very bones were charred by the intense and confined heat thrown out by that villainous saltpeter.

  • I wondered if it might be something like this, but not nearly so gruesome.
    – Mick
    Sep 26, 2016 at 16:08

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