What would you do to survive if you were adrift at sea, without food or water, and slowly starving to death?
In 1884, Captain Tom Dudley and his three-man crew were faced with just such a predicament. Dudley and his men were aboard the Mignonette, a small yacht they were delivering from England to Australia. Hit by a rogue wave in a storm, the Mignonette sank, leaving the four men in a 13-foot dinghy with two pounds of turnips and little else--no other food and no water--in the middle of the Atlantic. After nearly two weeks, Dudley announced they would have to resort to "the custom of the sea": drawing lots to decide who would be sacrificed and eaten to save the others. Two crewmen argued against lots, pointing out that the young cabin boy, Richard Parker, was delirious and on the verge of death. Dudley refused to kill the boy, and a few more days passed. Finally, on the 19th day adrift, Dudley killed young Parker while his crew watched. Three days later, the three survivors were rescued. Upon their return to England the three men were arrested and charged with murder.
Neil Hanson tells the story of the Mignonette and its crew in Custom of the Sea. At its best, the book reads like an adventure story along the lines of The Perfect Storm or Endurance. The story lags a bit when the survivors get entangled in the Victorian court and penal system--which is understandably a bit less gripping than the shipwreck and its ensuing survival cannibalism. It does, however, provide a fascinating window into the legal system and the power of the press in influencing public opinion.
Captain Simonsen of the Moctezuma, having rescued the Mignonette survivors, realized what they had done and tried to comfort Dudley by saying, "Desperate straits require desperate measures." Custom of the Sea does an excellent job of putting readers in a position to wonder if they too would take such desperate measures. --Sunny Delaney
From Publishers Weekly
An exciting, historically accurate depiction of a disastrous 19th-century sea journey and its equally horrific legal aftermath, Hanson's book recounts events that led to the official outlawing of survival cannibalism. When the Mignonette sank in a storm off the coast of Africa in 1884, Captain Tom Dudley and his three-man crew escaped in a small lifeboat, out of sight of land and with almost no food or water. After a couple of weeks, three of the dehydrated and desperate men killed their young, dying mate to survive. Using a wide range of historical documents and research, freelance writer Hanson leaves nothing to the imagination. ("Tom first cut off the head and threw it overboard. His fingers slippery with blood, he worked as fast as he could, hacking off strips of flesh, which Stephens washed in the sea and laid across the cross-beams to dry.") But this graphic depiction is essential to setting up the book's second half, which follows the intricate and mostly specious legal arguments used by Queen Victoria's High Court of Justice to sacrifice the survivors on the altar of legal precedent in order to ban forever a "custom of the sea" that was taken for granted by most sailors of the era. Much of Hanson's success comes from the dialogue, most of which is culled from actual recorded personal accounts and court records. Hanson impresses with his careful, engrossing presentation of material that, in the wrong hands, could easily have veered off course into gratuitous shocks and boring legalities. (Apr.)
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