The custom of the sea


Wow, little did I realize that I would have to read up on such an ‘interesting’ custom of sailors when I had to write a post on the prompt which simply said “Read the story of Richard Parker and Tom Dudley. Is what Dudley did defensible? What would you have done?”  Now, before you start figuring out what it is that Dudley actually did that was so controversial, let me first put up the disclaimer that this particular incident is not for the weak of heart nor is it particularly tasteful. I personally didn’t have an issue reading up about it or having to write a post about it, but I can clearly understand that most readers of this blog might find it distasteful and they can therefore stop reading this post right here and now. Any further reading needs to be done only at your own risk.

shipThe story goes thus. It is a custom among shipwrecked sailors who have been lost at sea for more than a few days to draw straws among themselves and allow themselves to be killed and eaten by the rest of the crew. Yes, it is a peculiarly civilized form of cannibalism that is accepted among shipwrecked sailors. This particular incident referred to which involved Richard Parker and Tom Dudley is known popularly as the Mignonette Affair named after the yacht which was shipwrecked in 1884 in which both these men were sailing. What is unique about this story is the fact that Dudley didn’t necessarily follow the ordinarily followed custom of picking straws for the sailor to be killed and eaten. Dudley and two other chose Richard Parker as the first victim due to the fact that Parker had taken particularly ill after having drunk seawater and was going to die in a few days anyway.

The irony of this incident is the fact that even before Parker could be eaten up fully by the survivors, they managed to be rescued. And given that they had made the choice of adopting cannibalism, all of them were put on trial. While a majority of sailors and men associated with the sea as a profession understood the plight of the survivors and why they had to make the difficult choice to survive, the fact remained that Dudley’s frankness and openness regarding the circumstances that led them to choose Parker as the victim surprised everybody in the courthouse. He was quite candid about the fact that while they considered the ‘custom of the sea’ of drawing straws to pick the victim, they ignored it due to the sheer practicality of selecting Parker for this purpose. And the judge, not following earlier precedents in this situation ended up convicting Dudley and his mates for the gruesome murder of Dudley. Read more about this incident in this particular NY Times article which actually is a book review.

As for the question regarding whether what Dudley did is defensible, I am of the opinion that whatever choices he made were made with a clear understanding of the consequences of the same and with the full consent of the other two survivors as well. All of them in the shipwrecked boat clearly knew that Parker had consumed seawater and it was only a matter of time before he died even without any intervention from their part. Does that mean I condone cannibalism?

No, I don’t, not by any stretch of imagination. But having said that, man, since times immemorial has been doing ‘whatever is required’ to survive and the fact that Charles Darwin’s book talks about ‘survival of the fittest’ being the only reason that man has evolved to become the dominant species among countless other species on earth means that man continues to do whatever is required to continue to survive and thrive. Using this logic, what Dudley did is understandable, although probably not condonable by law. In fact, most sailors and general public opinion was quite favorable towards Dudley and the survivors, but for whatever reason, the judge and law used the fact that ‘the custom of the sea’ was not appropriately followed in this case.

Given that this is quite a controversial and relatively distasteful topic, it would be quite interesting to read your thoughts on this particular topic in the comments section. Do read the article and then come back and post your comments here.


This post is written for WordPress Daily Prompts : 365 Writing Prompts where the idea is to publish at least one post a day based on the prompts provided.

Today’s prompt was Read the story of Richard Parker and Tom Dudley. Is what Dudley did defensible? What would you have done?”

13 thoughts on “The custom of the sea

  1. Only Dudley can decide whether what he did under the circumstances is defensible.

    What would I have done? Though I do eat meat occasionally, I am reasonably certain I will not resort to cannibalism if I find myself in a similar situation. However, this is only an answer to a hypothetical question. I will know for sure only if and when I actually find myself in that situation. I am confident this applies to all humans.

  2. This depends on the fact if Parker agreed to it or not. Even if he were to die eventually, but didn’t consent to it then it is murder. If he accepted the circumstances, and agreed then it is a different matter all together

    • @Santulan, based on my reading of the events, Parker was in no position to accept or reject the proposal and they didn’t even pick the straws, hence the controversy in this particular case. He was just too sick and the rest of the crew pretty much decided that he would be the first to be killed.

  3. I have read that story. As per i consider the scenario, with the lack of any higher rational understanding of how people can survive on high seas without giving in to cannibalism; Dudley;s act can be defended as per the practicality of the situation. The judgement was according to the customs of that period – in today’s world – he might have been shut into some asylum or rehabilitation center. 😛

  4. Right, I thought it was going to be a really difficult one to write on, but somehow you managed to pull it off Jai. I’m impressed 🙂 As for if what Dudley did is right or wrong, it really depends on how you want to look at it. Yes, he may have been wrong at not pulling the straw. But then if Parker was to die anyway, well, I’m not sure. I have no fondness for human meat, but sometimes the practicality of the situation needs to be considered too. Anyway informative post

    • @Sid, this was quite a tricky prompt and given the luck of the draw I got stuck with it, nevertheless, it was quite an interesting one in terms of the fact that I had to quite a bit of reading, and a whole lot of thinking to get my point of view across.

  5. My view is wrong… under any circumstance any form of violence is wrong..the only option for the survivors would be to look for someone to save if not starve to die… And I remember from some of the ancient tamil literatures “starve to die” is the only allowed form of suicide.. and some kings have even done that….But it needs a lot of mental strength. how can we get that…and my answer is from almighty… Just keep the thinking on almighty and take the option he would give on us…I hate the opinion that any thing can be done for surviving..and i feel this is the cause for the illness of the society… When we formulate a code for living, just follow the code and die if we could not.

    • @Kannan, your point is well taken, in fact it is rules and codes like those which keep us civilized and different from other wild animals, aren’t they?

  6. And Jai I am reading your posts for the past few days and they are very good… And now I started visiting your blog more frequently..Thanks for the sharing of the mythological stories.. 🙂

    • @Kannan, thank you so much for your kind words regarding the mythological posts. For sure, they will continue to be a regular feature on my blog, enjoy reading them 🙂

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