A folklorist looks at cannibalism afloat: the ‘custom of the sea’

The ninth wave, by Ivan Aivazovsky. Before the advent of radio, cannibalism among shipwrecked seafarers seems to have been so common it was seen as normal – and even excusable. Image from the Wikipedia

A gruesomely fascinating  article in this year’s Folk Music Journal examines cannibalism at sea and the songs about it that have come down to us in our time.

The ‘custom of the sea’ is the horrific name for the once fairly common practice of killing and eating fellow crew-members in survival situations afloat when the alternative is death for all, and a number of songs and printed ballads – both silly and serious – continued in the oral tradition well into the last century.

I’ll spare you the goriest details, but author Paul Cowdell reveals how these killings worked and describes some historical instances, including the story of the waterlogged and dismasted Francis Spaight, whose survivors apparently attempted to catch the attention of passing vessel by waving their victims’ hands and feet in the air. I’m surprised the method seems to have worked, however, for if I saw something like this I think I might be inclined to sail in the opposite direction!

Happily, he also adds that such events have been rare since the advent of ships’ radios and that this may be the reason that humorous songs about the issue were found among sailors in the mid and later 20th century, whereas in earlier times sailors seem to have treated the matter in a very serious way.

Among the broadsides and songs Paul discusses are the Shipwreck of the Essex, the widely admired The ship in distress, La courte paille (otherwise known as Il etait un petit navire), W S Gilbert’s comic Yarn of the Nancy Belle, and various versions of  William Makepeace Thackeray’s humorous skit Little Boy Billee, including the version famously sung by the well known barge skipper Bob Roberts.

Paul’s paper is well worth reading, and so is his weblog post on the issue. The reference is: Cowdell C (2009) Cannibal ballads: not just a question of taste Folk Music Journal 10(5): 723-47 and the journal is available from the English Folk Dance and Song Society at http://www.efdss.org.

4 thoughts on “A folklorist looks at cannibalism afloat: the ‘custom of the sea’”

  1. I've been reading a book re 'the painting :The raft of the Medusa" recently and this posting is serendippitous. Just the sort of thing to read whilst contemplating Christmas dinner! Hot here today but christmas eve and day are supposed to be more pleasant. A merry Xmast to you and yours Gavin, and to any other readers. Thank you for the site and the work involved in it's maintenance

    Jeff Cole

  2. We have become so culturally detached from this sort of thing (and thank heavens) that is almost impossible to imagine what it must have been like to be faced with a decision like that of Tom Dudley. A very interesting post and I've just spent an enjoyable, if gruesome, half hour following the links.

    Lets hope only turkeys get eaten this Christmas. Have a good one.


  3. You talk about eating a fellow like it's a bad thing! Come on folks, can you all honestly say you haven't glanced across at the chubby hapless sucker who's come out for a days fishing and wondered how he'd taste in a honey glaze? I always carry a portable B and Q barbie with me and a pot of lea and perrins just in case the engine conks out. If there's anything worse than eating a shipmate it's got to be eating him raw and without a good marinade.

    Merry Christmas Gavin, enjoyed your latest ditty, as did my brother – is that your other half with the sweeter voice? Thanks for your bits and bobs regarding Zulu's, Lotti knocked up a little history with pics and I popped it in a bronze porthole-like frame to go in Spindrift. It was well received as was your wonderful website. Thanks again.


    1. Hi Dominic – I'm pleased it worked well for you. Anytime you have a story or photos about an interesting boat for us, please don't hesitate to get in touch!

      Have a great new year.


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