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Cannabalism Amongst Shipwreck Survivors

Updated on June 21, 2017
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Jennifer is a voracious reader and loves most subjects including maritime disasters, WWII, urban legends, and murder mysteries.


For centuries, cannabalism has been a controversial and disturbing topic of discussion, but one referring to a practice that still occurs in several areas of the world. Originating from a Spanish term used to describe a West Indies tribe eminent for practicing cannabalism, the act itself involves the human consumption of other human beings. Despite the gruesome images that the term's usage conjures, cannabalism has existed for several reasons, amongst them being famine and ritualized behavior, with the latter of these two almost serving as a form of prehistoric predator control.

Historically, during times of famine, cannabalism has been employed as a last resort means of survivial. This circumstance-based practice can be observed during recent occurrences of war in the African countries of Liberia and Congo. Anthropologists have determined that in such situations, a distinction exists between "homicidal cannabalism" - the deliberate murder of a human being for consumpton-related purposes- and "necrocannabalism", the consumption of a person who has already died.

It has been estimated that over 100 species of modern-day mammals cannabalise members of their own species- such animals include grizzly bears, tigers, and chimpanzees. But whereas cannabalism is by no means exclusive to humans, it is they who bear the massive psychological and physiological effects of consuming their fellow beings. This phenonmenon, often viewed as a direct result of established societal ethics and taboos, can be observed in the greatest detail amongst the survivors of shipwrecks.

Owen Chase, first mate of the Essex, had consumed the bodies of his dead crewmates in order to survive his ordeal at sea.
Owen Chase, first mate of the Essex, had consumed the bodies of his dead crewmates in order to survive his ordeal at sea.

The Story of the Essex

In 1819, the whaleship Essex set sail from Nantucket with a crew of twenty-one on a voyage expected to last 2.5 years. Considered an "elderly" ship, the Essex was outiftted with four smaller whaleboats designed to withstand both the ocean's waves and the potential damage taken during a whale harpooning. After suffering a knockdown as a result of a squall only two days into her journey, the Essex was confronted by a threat that would prove to be more powerful than the storm: an eighty-five foot male sperm whale weighing approximately sixty-five tons.

The whale was spotted within a short distance from the ship during a whale harpooning. While several of the crew watched in horror from their whaleboats, the bull rammed the Essex at approximately 24 knots, twice the ordinary speed of a sperm whale. After a short recovery period during which the whale seemed dazed after his impact, he rammed the ship again, forcing the 283-ton ship backwards. The hull was shattered, the Essex was sinking fast, and her crew was stranded approximately 2,000 miles west of South America.

Despite salvaging the few provisions that had survived the ramming, the sailors quickly began to experience the physical and psychological sufferings of starvation and dehydration. After a brief respite on Henderson Island (where they exterminated the local bird population in just five days), the crew members continued onwards in hopes of being rescued. Salvation eventually arrived in February, three months later, but on January 20th, the episodes of cannabalism began with the consumption of crewman Issac Cole. Eventually, the total number of corpses consumed between the two groups of survivors would rise to seven.

The Raft of the Medusa, by Theodore Gericault.
The Raft of the Medusa, by Theodore Gericault.

Other Occurrences

Such extreme survival tactics have also been employed in other, perhaps less famous shipwrecks. In 1816, the French naval frigate Medusa ran aground off the coast of Maurtania. After constructing a raft, 150 survivors of the ship took to the sea in an effort to reach rescue. Upon salvation just 13 days later, all but fifteen of the original 150 had perished, with most of the bodies being consumed by their fellow raftmates.

In 1884, the English vessel Mignonette was destroyed after being struck by a wave on her leeward size. The crew of four fled to the ship's single lifeboat. Twenty days after the wrecking, 17-year old Richard Parker, the cabin boy, slipped into a coma and was murdered and subsequently consumed by his shipmates- just four days from being rescued.

More recently in 2001, a boat carrying approximately 60 Dominicans struck a coral reef off of the coast of Haiti and sank. Only two of the entire group of survivors eventually reached land, with several of the boat's inhabitants dying from exposure and dehydrationeven before the wreck. After 24 days at sea, the remaining survivors of the impact began to consume the bodies of their dead boatmates due to intense starvation.

Physiological Impacts

The consumption of human flesh by humans is accompanied by (along with drastic moral implications) severe, dehabilitating physical side effects. These effects range in severity depending upon the amount of flesh consumed and in what time period, be it short or lengthy. The disease kuru addresses the physiological impacts of consuming human flesh. First observed in the Fore tribe located in Papua New Guinea, kuru describes the degenerating after-effects of cannabalism, which include ataxia, joint pains, and severe shaking of the limbs. After several years of research, scientists have discovered that the disease is caused by the presence of prions (infectious agents) in the brain. Upon the consumption of cerebral tissue that has been tainted by prions, the disease will be transmitted into the brain of the consumer via the bloodstream. For these reasons, kuru has been compared to "Mad Cow" disease, which occurs in cows as a result of consuming deceased cows.

Kuru also affects other areas of the body, causing decreased muscle control, dysphagia, and psychotic madness. It has been referred to as the "laughing disease," as its victims often experience uncontrollable bursts of sporadic laughter early on in its course.

It is difficult to determine whether or not the survivors of shipwrecks could physiologically experience the symptoms of kuru in such a short span of time. Reports of questionable or irregular behaviors from these individuals are few. However, one such incident does exist in the case of Owen Chase, the first mate of the Essex. Chase experienced an onset of severe headaches since the wrecking of the ship, and suffered from these pains for the rest of his life. It is reported in a few accounts that these headaches eventually caused him to be judged "insane" in 1868, and upon his death in 1869, caches of food were discovered in his attic where he had hidden them, perhaps in an effort to prevent the starvation which had almost claimed his life so many years earlier.

Psychological Impacts

It is obvious that the survivors of any shipwreck would be exposed to such emotions as remorse, grief and regret. However, these are even more magnified in those survivors who resorted to cannabalism in order to survive. In the case of the Essex, the majority of the crew knew one another quite well, even to the point that they had grown up and attended school together. Towards the end of their harrowing journey, the whaleboat containing the ship's captain drew lots to determine which crewmember would next be executed and eaten, and by whom. Unfortunately for Captain Pollard, his own cousin (whom he had sworn to protect), drew the lot to be killed. His cousin's best friend, Charles Ramsdell, drew the lot to execute the boy. This must have exacted a severe psychological impact on the captain, who later proceeded to eat the flesh of his murdered cousin.

Also, in the case of Owen Chase, the hoarding of food is considered a psychological accompainment to the unwilling consumption of human flesh in order to survive. Several survivors of the Essex were observed hoarding food, including the captain himself, who constructed a net-like contraption in his cabin upon his new whaleship, the Two Brothers, to hold extra provisions.

In addition to this, the surviviors of shipwrecks who cannabalised their dead also had to come to terms with society. For the majority of these individuals, people chose to disassociate with them, oftentimes isolating and completely ignoring them altogether. In the case of Captain Pollard, who underwent the even more traumatic experience of informing his aunt of her son's ghastly death, total isolation occurred within his community, and he eventually became a nightwatchman (the lowest rung on Nantucket's employment ladder) and at night walked the streets alone.

But, most obviously, these survivors were racked with guilt and remorse for their actions, no matter how dire their situations. It is highly likely that these emotions were present for the remainders of their lives, and whether or not the men would ever come to terms with what they had done is unknown.

Tools of navigation including calipers, astrolabe, and compass. Outdated, but still proficient in the proper hands.
Tools of navigation including calipers, astrolabe, and compass. Outdated, but still proficient in the proper hands. | Source

In The Present

In modern times, it is highly unlikely that a naval frigate or whaleboat would unknowingly sink somewhere in its course. In 1904, many trans-Atlantic British fleet vessels were equipped with wireless communications capable of brodcasting distress signals, known as SOS's or "Save Our Ship!" To put this into perspective, the H.M.S. Titanic was equipped with a functional distress system that was not deployed until approximately 45 minutes after her collision with an iceberg. These communications are designed to effectively track ships in distress and, when used properly and within a reasonable period of time, can enable timely rescue.

In the specific case mentioned above involving the Domincans, their vessel was poorly-constructed and oceanic navigation was not utilized. Charts mapping the entire construct of the sea as well as discovered islands and landforms are now in existence and have proved to be indispensable to ship and airplane crews alike. Whereas navigational maps and other literature existed in the 1800's, much of the information was incorrect. Islands were improperly placed, and distance calculations were oftentimes off by several hundred miles. Such errors have been corrected, and much more accurate information is available today.

In the present, there are still many accounts that exist of cannabalism. Several serial killers that have consumed parts of a human body have been apprehended, and rituals that occur within the confines of isolated tribes and cultures have been documented. However, fortunately enough for the those voyaging upon the sea, modern technology has almost erased the possibility of starvation in the face of being stranded as a result of natural disaster or otherwise. Very few documented cases of cannabalism practiced as a result of a shipwreck now exist, and hopefully the future will bring its necessity to a complete and total eradication.


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