On September 6th, 1884, three sailors, Tom Dudley; Edwin Stephens; and Edmund Brooks, walked into the Customs House in Falmouth, England, and told a harrowing tale. While transporting a pleasure yacht, the Mignonette from England to a new owner in Australia, they had been shipwrecked. Lost at sea for 24 days, they had killed the ship’s cabin boy, Richard Parker, had drunk his blood and eaten his flesh.
Rescued by a German vessel and returned to England, the men went immediately to the customs house and entered statements as required by the loss of the ship.
The depositions were telegraphed to the Registrar General of shipping in Bassinghall Street in London. While the survivors were making plans to rejoin their families, Bassinghall Street required the customs officers to detain them.
Dudley, Stephens and Brooks were all surprised. They were more surprised when they were held for five days, with no chance of bail.
Why? Because cannibalism was “the custom of the sea.” In times of shipwreck, it was customary for lots to be drawn, and for the loser to be devoured by his more fortunate shipmates.
Modern people can hardly imagine the risks taken by early sea travelers. Ships at sea were almost entirely out of communication with the rest of the world. They were floating islands, entirely self-sufficient, until something went wrong.
|Lifeboat used by Dudley Stevens Brooks and Parker|
Navigation was entirely dependent on personal observation by the captain or navigator. Movement was dependent on the winds, which might blow contrary and might not blow at all. The ship itself might or might not be sound. No regulations controlled ship specifications, and even the inadequate rules which sent the Titanic into the sea with far too few lifeboats were years in the future. There were no safety requirements at all. A ship at sea was alone in the world.
Statistics of lives lost at sea show the results. During the Golden Age of Piracy, an estimated 5,000 British lives were lost yearly to shipwreck. (This does not include deaths from violence, disease, starvation, thirst or pirate attack.)
Perhaps most importantly, food and water on these ships was most often transported in sacks or barrels… containers that were nearly impossible to move to a lifeboat in case of emergency. When a ship was capsized, swamped or sinking, sailors struggled to get themselves into a boat. Taking provisions was nearly impossible.
In 1710, the Nottingham Galley sank, and the crew ate the carpenter. In 1765 the Peggy ran out of provisions, and the nine crew members divided and ate, first a cat, then one of their deceased comrades. Cannibalism featured in the wrecks of the Nautilus in 1807,the Medusa in 1816, the Essex in 1819.
But before all of these was the case of the St. Christopher. Seven Englishmen were on an overnight voyage when they were blown out to sea and lost for 17 days. During this time, starving, the crew drew lots to decide who would die to feed the others. The loser was the man who had organized the drawing. When the ship’s cook (responsible for the procurement of food) refused to kill him, he attempted to kill himself, but failed. The captain had to finish him off.
The judge at this trail pardoned them all, saying that their crime had been "washed away" by "inevitable necessity".
The main reason why, it seems, Dudley and Stephens were put on trial (Brooks having agreed to testify for the prosecution) was that no lots had been drawn.
The four men from the Mignonette had gone into a small boat with only some navigational equipment and two cans of turnips. They had no water. For ten days they survived on the turnips and the raw body of a sea turtle that they had been able to kill with the boat’s oars. After 17 days the men spoke of drawing lots, but could reach no agreement. They held out for 19 days before killing Richard Parker.
At this point Parker, who had been drinking sea water, was in a coma and near death. The men agreed that it would be best to kill him in order to get the most use of his blood. While Dudley said a prayer, Stevens used a pen knife to puncture Parker’s jugular vein. Brooks stood by, and there is some debate over whether he agreed to the act or not.
Later Brooks testified, “I can assure you I shall never forget the sight of my two unfortunate companions over that ghastly meal we all was like mad wolfs who should get the most and for men fathers of children to commit such a deed we could not have our right reason."
They were rescued three days later.
In the days leading up to their trial, community sentiment was firmly behind the three sailors. A public subscription was taken up for their defense, and the brother of Richard Parker, the boy who had been eaten, came to shake the hands of the two men who had eaten him. In the public opinion, these men were not monsters, but were heroes for having survived such an ordeal.
But by this time in British history, Victoria was on the throne, and civilization and empire loomed large in the British conscience. The people might still accept the “common usage of the sea.” But the courts were forging a new sort of civilization and could no longer accept that “necessity is an excuse for murder.” In the end, Dudley and Stevens were sentenced to six month’s imprisonment. Dudley never accepted the justice of his conviction.
|Richard Parker's tombstone in England|