Neil Hanson,
The Custom of the Sea
(Doubleday, 1999)

The Custom of the Sea is a rather macabre yet fascinating tale of human survival and legal chicanery. One tends to think of desperate acts of cannibalism as the stuff of horror movies, but enough shipwrecked men resorted to this most desperate of means for it to become an unspoken law of sailors.

This book, by Neil Hanson, is an account of the doomed yacht Mignonette, which went down in 1884 in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, far from land as well as the trade lanes most other ships pursued. Captain Tom Dudley, by all accounts a kind and good man, and his three hands drifted for weeks inside a tiny, leaky dinghy, surviving on two tins of turnips and a small ration of water. Ravaged by the weather, fear, starvation and especially thirst, they persevered as long as they could, but eventually Dudley knew the lot must be cast and one man die in order that the others might survive a little longer. When the youngest hand succumbed to the temptation of quenching his thirst by drinking seawater and rapidly approached death, the decision was made by Dudley and his first mate Stephens to kill him. Blood quenched the terrible thirst of the men, including the third man Brooks, who partook of the terrible rations as willingly as his mates, and human meat sustained all three men long enough for a ship to rescue them after nearly four weeks adrift.

The captain who saved the men understood, as most sailing people did, that Dudley had done what had to be done. But when the men finally made it back home, they were shocked to find themselves charged with murder. The case was a sensation, and the conviction of Dudley and Stephens for willful murder provoked a myriad of outcries from all over the country while setting a legal precedent of unusual distinction.

The book begins somewhat slowly, as the author devotes a significant amount of time to the lives and duties of men aboard ship. The story of the destructive storm they encounter and their ordeal at sea is, of course, quite gripping. The second half of the book covers their arrest and trial, and while this part of the story necessarily lacks some of the human drama that has come before it, the miscarriage of justice described by the author increasingly raises one's hackles as the book nears its end. Such an act of desperate cannibalism cannot be condoned, of course, but it is certainly understandable under the desperate conditions these sailors found themselves in. The moral and ethical issues underlying the controversy are debatable, but the story that comes out here is one of judicial abuse. The Home Office, having failed earlier to outlaw "the custom of the sea," used this case to obtain its elusive goal, railroading the unfortunate sailors involved. Their conviction was guaranteed from the start, a fact their own lawyer knew but did not divulge to them at the time. Most remarkably, the presiding judge basically told the jury they must convict the men of murder, yet went on to resort to an archaic legal maneuver that took judgment out of the hands of the jury (for fear that local sentiment might result in an acquittal) and made the royal court both judge and jury. The legal jurisprudence of this case would seem to be of great significance.

The book does drag in a couple of places. Hanson takes the time to comment on the history of shipwrecks and of cannibalistic survival methods of desperate men. He also goes into great detail as to life aboard a ship and the pitiful state of mandated food rations. These facts are interesting and provide a useful background to the story of the Mignonette, but they do take away from the driving force of the tale. Also, the story is written in a narrative form, for the most part; while this makes the book more compelling, it does pose a problem in terms of the facts. The author describes the life and times of these men as if he were there recording their thoughts and deeds from the day they sailed to the day their legal ordeal finally ended. That kind of narrative would not make for good history in an academic sense, but it does make for a compelling, eye-opening read.

review by
Daniel Jolley

20 October 2007

what's new