How accurate is the waterboarding in Gunpowder?

We think of waterboarding as a very modern form of torture, but it’s actually been around for a long time

Robert Emms in Gunpowder (BBC, HF)

In its first episode new BBC1 historical drama Gunpowder caused quite the ruckus, with scenes of torture and execution against 17th century Catholics dividing viewers as to their suitability.

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In the second episode, there’s not anything nearly as gory as the door-pressing, disembowelling action of the series premiere, but one scene of torture carried out against Catholic priest John Gerard (Robert Emms) might give viewers pause for a different reason – because it involves the practice of waterboarding, a form of torture with dark modern resonances. Does its history really stretch back to the 17th century?

Waterboarding is a form of torture in which water is poured over a cloth covering the face and nose of an immobilised prisoner, simulating the sensation of drowning. While it might not sound as bad as the medieval thumbscrews or the rack, waterboarding is a brutal practice that can cause great physical pain, damage to lungs, brain damage due to oxygen deprivation, lasting psychological damage and even death.

Despite some use in the late 20th and early 21st century, waterboarding has been banned by various governments.

Given the technique’s modern reputation, is the scene where Gerard is waterboarded (and stretched on the rack) in Gunpowder actually historically accurate, or a modern addition to help align the series with contemporary issues?

Kit Harington as Robert Catesby and Robert Emms as John Gerard in Gunpowder (BBC, HF)
Kit Harington as Robert Catesby and Robert Emms as John Gerard in Gunpowder (BBC, HF)

Well, the answer is a bit of a mix of both. Despite its notorious use in the wake of 9/11 as one of the US government’s ‘enhanced interrogation techniques‘, waterboarding is actually much much older than that.

The torture was used by the Spanish Inquisition as early as the 1500s and known as ‘tortura del agua’. In the 1550s the Flemish Inquisition also carried out the technique, and other groups continued to use waterboarding in the centuries that followed.

It was certainly possible that the waterboarding technique could have been used in 1604 around the time of the Gunpowder Plot, as the BBC series suggests, but it’s never been shown that British powers used it at this time to extract information, and it was not something reported to have been tried on Gerard himself.

With this in mind, it seems fair to say that Gunpowder’s use of waterboarding is an imaginative leap not too far out of the realms of possibility – a bit like Gerard’s daring escape from the tower in episode two, which DID sort of happen but seven years before the events of the Plot itself.

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Gunpowder continues on BBC1 on Saturday nights, and all three episodes are available on BBC iPlayer now