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The Custom of the Sea

4.4 out of 5 stars 19 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0471383895
ISBN-10: 0471383899
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Editorial Reviews

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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.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Wiley (May 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0471383899
  • ISBN-13: 978-0471383895
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.1 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,867,467 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Neil Hanson's recreation of the voyage of the Mignonette is for the most part thrilling, horrifying, absorbing. Hanson is at his best when describing the ship at sea and the actual events of the tragedy (although it is distinctly off-putting to notice that on at least two occasions the events he describes are speculative might-have-beens dressed up as fact). His account of the storm that sank the Mignonette is as well-observed and powerfully controlled as any you will read outside of Joseph Conrad. I would have awarded four stars, had Hanson mastered the knack of handling his historical material. Well-researched and unexceptionable, the chapters on, for instance freak shows or prison conditions in Victorian England seem tacked on and are poorly integrated with the narrative. Still, these are quibbles, as were my initial reactions against the use of slightly cliched language: "The small boat was drifting in a vast expanse of ocean" is hardly the freshest way to begin a book about castaways. I do have my doubts about the merits of reconstructing dialogue from letters, and the merits of presenting an historical account dressed up as a fictional narrative (though hoping to keep the authority of history), but regardless, this is a worthy addition to the tradition of sea-tales and shipwreck literature, and indispensable reading for anyone interested in the last taboo, the custom of the sea.
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Format: Hardcover
Custom of the Sea does a great job of telling the story of desperate men in desperate circumstances. One can only imagine with horror being placed in the situation where you would have to kill another person to ensure that you and others could survive, if only for a few more days.
Even beyond the story of the struggle at sea, Custom of the Sea raises important questions about our system of criminal law. Can the legal system justify the intentional killing of one person where the failure to take someone's life could mean the death of several men? If not, does the legal system elevate principle over substance? On the other hand, if the law allows a person to decide when another's life should be forfeited for the greater good, doesn't that invite people to determine when their own needs can justify murder, theft and dishonesty.
Finally, Custom of the Sea raises some important questions about the purpose of a penal system. In prosecuting the captain, what does the legal system hope to accomplish? Certainly, he is not a threat to engage in a similar act, so deterrence is probably not the purpose of the prosecution. I would argue that he was sufficiently punished for his actions by his ordeals at sea. This would leave the grounding for the punishment in a theory of retribution and vindication of every victim's moral worth, but does a prosecution here exact too much of a price?
Neil does a nice job of telling the story in a narrative. My only reservations come from the fact that some of the details seem fictional, rather than historical, but this is still a very fine book.
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Format: Hardcover
I was so amazed by this story, there's an incredible amount of history here tucked among this richly told tale- that reads so much like fiction, you can't believe it really happened. The horrors that Captain Tom Dudley and his crew had to endure to stay alive after their shipwreck had me turning the pages well into the night. When I finished the book, I immediately gave it to a friend, the legal drama is also fascinating. This book has something for everyone and shouldn't be missed!
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By A Customer on April 4, 2000
Format: Hardcover
A book like this comes around rarely. It reads like a gothic novel but has all the research and facts of a court presentation. it is a true story, but its truth may be instinctively denied by the reader, so terrible is its basis. Despite an absorbing and well-written plot, the reader may at times be tempted to stp reading - if not in revulsion, at lesat in prayerful contemplation - but the urge to turn another page will prove too irresistible. In brief, The Custom of the Sea is a masterpiece of literature, historic jurisprudence, and English maritime history. Above all it is stark testament to Man's will to survive. It is a sailor's book, but the ethical and legal points it raises will be debated with equal passion by lawyers, priests, housewives, CEOs and others who may not know a bowline from a bow line. However large one's personal library may be, there are only a few books therein that have the power to leave a lifelong impression upon the reader. I predict this will be one such book.
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Format: Hardcover
Imagine yourself adrift on the open sea in a small boat with three companions. You are 1000 miles from the nearest land, you have had no food or water for days, one of your members is near death,...is there a potential temporary solution to your problem? Reading this on a full stomach, some solutions just might not present themselves. However, in "The Custom of the Sea", the author, Neil Hanson, allows us to see things from the perspective of those involved. The solution that those men took that fateful day is the basis for a most interesting look at a most unusual footnote in history.
Hanson tells the tale primarily through the eyes of the main character but he gives us plenty of background on all of the other characters and events that culminated in a major trial in England in the late 1800's. Along the way, the author gives us historical background as well which I generally found to be helpful. Essentially, half of the 304 pages are focussed on the actual events and the other half are focussed on the resulting trial. That might sound like half is exciting and half is boring (or, at least, less exciting). However, there is a major moral and legal dilemna here and the trial helps to bring out those issues.
All in all, this is a very good book, easily read, and hard to put down. If I am to fault the author for anything, it is his openly biased account of the events. We know right off the bat who the good guys are; we hear only good things about them and we hear only bad things about the "bad guys". For example, we are told of the happily married men (good guys)and then we are told about another who is "rumored" to have abandoned a wife and children. This "rumor" is never proven but it is brought up several times in the story.
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