Cannibalism at sea: Sailors ate the cabin boy

When, in 1884, the starving crew of the ill-fated yacht Mignonette sacrificed a man in order to survive, the horrific killing became immortalised in legal history, relates Carl Thompson.

This article was first published in the May 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine

The sailors of the sunken yacht spent 24 days at sea in an open dinghy, as depic
The sailors of the sunken yacht spent 24 days at sea in an open dinghy, as depicted in this newspaper illustration derived from a sketch by one of the crew. (© British Library)

 

On 19 May 1884 four men set sail from Southampton in a small yacht. They were professional sailors tasked with taking their vessel, the Mignonette, to its new owner in Australia. As men reared to the sea, born and raised in coastal communities, they were under no illusions as to the dangers of an ocean voyage. Yet none of the Mignonette’s crew can have anticipated the full horror that lay ahead. And they certainly could not have imagined that their voyage, and the ordeal they would endure, would leave a lasting legal and cultural legacy – a legacy that extends right down to the present day.

The Mignonette’s captain, Tom Dudley, was 31 years old and a proven yachtsman. Of his crew, Ned Brooks and mate Edwin Stephens were likewise seasoned sailors. The final crew-member, cabin boy Richard Parker, was just 17 years old and making his first voyage on the open sea; however, he came from a seafaring family and had sailed extensively on inshore waters.

On 5 July, sailing from Madeira to Cape Town, the Mignonette was sunk by a giant wave. Its crew escaped in the yacht’s dinghy but found themselves in a desperate situation. Adrift in an open boat in the South Atlantic, hundreds of miles from land, they had little in the way of provisions. They had no water, and for food, only two 1lb tins of turnips grabbed during the Mignonette’s final moments.

Over the next 12 days, these turnips were scrupulously rationed out, with Dudley using his penknife to divide precisely the tiny portions. This meagre fare was supplemented for a while by the meat of a turtle, caught as it swam by the boat. For water, however, the crew could do little more than catch rain drops whenever a squall blew up. They therefore resorted to drinking their own urine, although this too was a diminishing resource as their bodies became increasingly dehydrated.

By 17 July all supplies on board the little dinghy had been exhausted. After a further three days, the inexperienced Richard Parker could not resist gulping down sea water in an attempt to allay his thirst. It is now known that small quantities of sea water can help to sustain life in survival situations, but in that period it was widely believed to be fatal. Parker also drank far in excess of modern recommendations and he was soon violently unwell, collapsing in the bottom of the boat with diarrhoea.

Even before Parker fell ill, Tom Dudley had broached the fearful topic of the ‘custom of the sea’, the practice of drawing lots to select a sacrificial victim who could be consumed by his crew-mates. Over the coming days, as Parker’s condition deteriorated, Dudley raised the idea again. As he insisted to Stephens in the early hours of 25 July, when the men had been adrift for almost three weeks: “The boy is dying. You have a wife and five children, and I have a wife and three children. Human flesh has been eaten before.”

 

A grisly decision

Stephens put off any decision, but at daybreak Parker seemed weaker than ever. Significant looks were exchanged between captain and mate. According to their subsequent depositions, however, no lots were drawn. Instead, Dudley told Stephens to hold Parker’s legs should he struggle, before kneeling and thrusting his penknife into the boy’s jugular. A chronometer case was used to catch the oozing blood and this was quickly passed between Parker’s three crew-mates, to moisten their parched mouths. Parker’s body was then stripped and butchered. The heart and liver were eaten immediately; strips of flesh were cut from his limbs and set aside as future rations. What remained of the young man was heaved overboard.

Dudley, Stephens and Brooks survived on this grisly diet for several days. But when the meat cut from the cabin boy began to rot, the crew again faced the grisly prospect of following the custom of the sea. This time, however, no sacrifice was required. On 29 July, when the men had been adrift for 24 days, a ship was sighted on the horizon. The Moctezuma, a German vessel bound for Hamburg, spotted the dinghy and came to the aid of its emaciated crew. The Mignonette’s survivors were soon being cared for, and a month later they arrived back in England, disembarking at Falmouth.

At this point the Mignonette’s unlucky crew must have thought that their suffering was over. But for Dudley and Stephens a new ordeal was just beginning. From the moment he was rescued, Dudley made no attempt to hide or gloss over the sad fate of Richard Parker. He was a forthright, honest man and to his mind killing and consuming Parker was a tragic necessity. However repugnant it was to take such drastic measures, they were justified, he would always maintain, by well-established maritime traditions.

The authorities in Britain viewed matters differently. Public opinion in Falmouth was mostly sympathetic to the crew’s action. However, the local shipping master was required by law to notify the Board of Trade of a violent death on a British ship. He duly sent a telegram to London, then reluctantly arrested the survivors pending further investigation.

Dudley and the others were amazed at this turn of events. Little did they know that they were now caught up in a legal process less concerned with their specific case than with reaching a general ruling on the legitimacy of the custom of the sea. Ten years previously, lots had been drawn and another hapless victim cannibalised after the wreck of the Euxine, and at that date the legal establishment had sought to prosecute the perpetrators. However, the case had collapsed due to procedural problems. A decade on, the Home Office saw a new opportunity to define the law’s stance on these tragic episodes.

The crew of the Mignonette duly appeared before local magistrates. Brooks was exonerated, being deemed to have played little active part in either the killing of the boy or the prior discussions about his fate. But Dudley and Stephens, to their surprise and horror, were arraigned for murder.

Outside the courtroom, public sympathies ran strongly in favour of the Mignonette survivors. Parker’s eldest brother, Daniel, also a sailor, twice shook hands with Dudley and Stephens, as if to offer the family’s pardon for their actions.

Yet when the trial began in Exeter in November 1884, it was soon apparent that the outcome was largely predetermined. Addressing both the jury and a packed chamber, Judge Baron Huddleston opened the trial with a detailed explanation as to why the law could not recognise necessity as justification for killing. The defence case was thus invalidated before it had even been delivered.

Episodes in the Mignonette drama were depicted in the Illustrated Police News in 1884. (© British Library)

 

Guilty verdict

Despite this steering by the judge, the jury was reluctant to pronounce Dudley and Stephens guilty. Murder was a capital offence, and a guilty verdict would automatically condemn the men to execution; only if their sentence was commuted would they be saved this fate. At this juncture, in another preplanned gambit, Huddleston offered the jury the option of returning a ‘special verdict’, an unusual judicial procedure which referred the case up to a higher court.

So it was that Dudley and Stephens were ultimately convicted of murder not by a jury of their peers but by a panel of five judges. This verdict required the senior judge, Justice Coleridge, to sentence the seamen to death, although it was assumed in the press that a pardon would quickly follow. For several agonising days, however, no pardon was forthcoming, as the Home Office hesitated over an appropriate response to this unusual case. Two convicted murderers, it was felt, could not walk completely free of punishment, whatever the mitigating circumstances. In the end the home secretary settled on a sentence of six months’ imprisonment, and the hapless Dudley and Stephens were duly despatched to Holloway prison to serve out this term.

Professor and historian of law Brian Simpson has described the Mignonette trial as “procedurally, a complete mess”. Yet it gave a definitive ruling on the custom of the sea, and Regina vs Dudley and Stephens remains to this day the case used to introduce students of common law to the complexities involved in pleading necessity as a defence for murder. In this way the crew of the Mignonette have achieved a degree of immortality – although doubtless it is a fame none of them would have wished for.

Away from law courses and schoolrooms, the greatest victim in the whole sorry episode has also achieved another sort of afterlife. Richard Parker lives on, albeit strangely transformed, in Yann Martel’s bestselling novel Life of Pi (2001) and director Ang Lee’s later 3D film. But here, in an act of poetic justice, Parker’s grisly fate has been reversed. Similarly adrift in an open boat, Martel’s Parker is in no danger of being killed and eaten by his companions. Instead, being a full-grown Bengal tiger, it is he who now represents the force of nature and of ravenous appetite.

 

An unlucky name?

Seafarers called ‘Richard Parker’ seem to suffer from a curse

It seems inadvisable for anyone called Richard Parker to go to sea. As commentators at the time noticed, the Mignonette victim shares his name with an ill-fated character in Edgar Allan Poe’s masterpiece of maritime horror, the Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1837). Poe’s character Parker leads a mutiny on board the Grampus. When the ship is wrecked, he finds himself adrift with the novel’s eponymous hero and two other characters. Just like the crew of the Mignonette, the survivors are racked with hunger and reduced to following the custom of the sea. Unlike real life, here it is Richard Parker who proposes that lots be drawn. But in an eerie anticipation of actual events, it is then Parker who draws the short straw and ends up being eaten by his companions.

Forty years before Poe’s novel, another sailor called Richard Parker also met a violent end. One of the ringleaders of the naval mutiny at the Nore in 1797, this Parker was subsequently hanged from the yardarm of HMS Sandwich. Poe named his mutineer after this historical figure, while author Yann Martel’s Richard Parker in Life of Pi (2001) arguably channels all three precursors, to evoke both the spectre of cannibalism and the mutinous impulses in the body which drive us to such repulsive acts.

Carl Thompson is reader in English at Nottingham Trent University. He was an adviser on the BBC Four series Shipwrecks: Britain’s Sunken History

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