ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

Custom of the Sea: Cannibalism Among Shipwreck Survivors... Shipwrecked Captain and Sailors in the 1800's...

Updated on June 6, 2011

Cannibalism at Sea...

The Custom of the Sea.  By Neil Hanson.  (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1999. 315 pp. $19.95, ISBN 0-471-38389-9.)

     The author Neil Hanson described a true story about the yacht, the Mignonette, in the year 1884 that shipwrecked at sea.  The main subject of the story involves the captain of the ship, Tom Dudley, who was making a voyage from England to Australia to deliver a racing yacht to the new owner.  Dudley had 3 other crewmembers on board, which included a cook, a mate, and a cabin boy, who all survived the sinking of the Mignonette.  They were adrift in the ships dinghy for 21 days with hardly any food or water before eventually getting rescued by a passing ship, but what followed was an incredible retelling of the horrible events that took place and the aftermath.  This story ultimately brought on a precedent setting lawsuit in Great Britain that had long lasting effects.  Hanson tells the tale in a very readable way, as if the characters were in a novel and experiencing the deprivations with the reader.

     The late 1800’s was a time with a great deal of shipwrecks around the world, mostly because of poorly maintained ships due to non-existent laws about keeping sailors and passengers safe, and also because in many cases the owner could actually earn more money if the ship went down instead of reaching its port of call, because of maritime insurance.  There were no OSHA laws for safety aboard ships, and the ships were frequently left in barely acceptable condition in order to save as much money as possible for the owner.  The captain and crew had to accept the condition of the ship or not take the job, and frequently they had no choice at all in the matter, especially if they had already signed a contract to sail.  So in effect, with shipwrecks so common at the time and throughout history, a tradition among sailors was very popular and practiced regularly when adrift on the sea with no food and water.  It was called “The Custom of the Sea”, and required sailors and passengers to draw lots to see who would be killed by the crew in order for the survivors to stay alive through cannibalism and the drinking of blood.

The Custom of the Sea...

This is a very gruesome subject, but the author takes the reader through it very thoroughly and succinctly in order to fully explore the experience as if he was on the boat with the survivors.  Hanson makes sure to tell the story from the beginning with the viewpoint of the captain Tom Dudley, and describing in detail his past and current conditions, in addition to the other 3 members of his crew.  The reader is actually on the ship as it sails out of England as the daily life details are intricately told down to the minutest point, and the sea watches and work aboard is described fully.  As the ship finally heads to the bottom of the sea during a violent and prolonged south Atlantic storm, and the crew becomes adrift on the open sea, the reader is spellbound.

     The fantastic ordeals that the crew experience are described in heavy detail, as they find a sea turtle and eat it, but also as they draw lots and kill and eat the cabin boy, who just happened to be the weakest member of the surviving crew due to drinking sea water.  When the 3 remaining crew members were rescued by a passing ship about 4 days later, their troubles were not over by far.  As they were returned back to England, Captain Dudley was determined to tell the truth about what they did, as he was an honest man and he did not believe that they would ever get in legal trouble for it since it was the custom of the sea and had been practiced by thousands of sailors throughout the years until his time.  However, the authorities threw the 3 sailors into jail with the intention of a national effort at creating a solid precedent at overturning any state acceptance at this unofficial custom of the sea.  They wanted to stop this practice, as it could lead to “killing the cabin boy” or the weakest or most disliked member of the crew any time the other members wanted.

     The hearings and trial are covered in the book with much detail, down to what each attorney and defendants said in court, and also outside the courtroom.  It is hard to say how much of the narration that took place outside of official court records actually took place as the book mentions, and it is very possible that the author makes liberal conjecture in order to make for a more enjoyable book and also to make a point.  For instance, Dudley mentions at one point to his attorney that creating a precedent against this custom would not stop the practice, but it would only stop the telling of truths by the remaining survivors.  Knowing what would await them on shore, they would lie in order to protect themselves from prosecution by the state, and this has helped to create some of the same conditions in the court system today, where the rule is to deny everything even if guilty.

     This is one of those books that really make the reader think about right or wrong, and what choices they might make if placed in the same situation adrift at sea.  Is it permissible to kill another member of the crew, drink their blood, and eat their flesh in order to survive?  How much would being without water to quench thirst or food to satisfy hunger affect a person to crave another person’s blood to drink?  Most people cannot fathom being in a state of mind such as that, as they have never been placed in that condition at any time during their lives.  It brings the question to the forefront of thinking as to whether the state was doing the right thing in order to prosecute the survivors, or if they were being the typical evil, overbearing government entity that was overreaching its bounds…

     The book is definitely a must read for anyone interested in maritime history and boating, as it is a subject which could possibly be useful to sailors even today who are stranded out at sea for long periods of time without food or water.  One just never knows what extent of water deprivation will make them licking their lips toward their spouse or other crewmate…  If the question becomes one of whether to die or to kill, eat, and survive, what will be the reader’s decision?  The author Hanson makes the book a very easy read, and the reader should be able to finish it within a couple of sittings, especially since it can be very hard to put down!

Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • sunilkunnoth2012 profile image

      Sunil Kumar Kunnoth 

      5 years ago from Calicut (Kozhikode, South India)

      Nice text and fantastic photos. Your efforts are appreciated thankfully. Keep on writing with confidence. Please read the following hub I wrote a few months back as it matches with your interest. The link: https://hubpages.com/travel/Kappad-Beach-The-Gatew...

    • GetitScene profile image

      Dale Anderson 

      5 years ago from The High Seas

      I'm a sailor myself and I can tell you that the temptation to turn to cannibalism is very high indeed under the right circumstances. One grim morning, when the crew suggested we eat McDonalds for breakfast, I seriously considered killing and eating him. =)

    • johndwilliams profile image

      johndwilliams 

      7 years ago from Essex England

      Great Hub very interesting I will take a look at this book as I love gory yet interesting subjects - many thanks !

    working

    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, hubpages.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://hubpages.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

    Show Details
    Necessary
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Features
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Marketing
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Statistics
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)