Mignonette: on trial for eating crewmates


Reader and old friend Nic Lucas had cause to remind me of the famous Mignonette cannibalism case the other day and sent over this NMMC link. I hope he wasn’t feeling peckish at the time.

Here’s a few stark sentences about the Mignonette from the Cornish Echo copied from the National Maritime Museum Cornwall’s link:

‘In the year 1884 the country was horror stricken by the recital of a story of cannibalism at sea. The yacht sunk at sea, and the crew, after being in an open boat nineteen days and nights without provisions, cast lots among themselves as to who should be killed to afford the others sustenance. It fell to the lot of a boy named Parker to be sacrificed, and he was accordingly killed and eaten. When the crew landed at Falmouth they were arrested and charged with murder, being committed for trial at the Assizes. John Burton came forward as bail for the accused men, £400 for Captain Dudley, £400 for Mr. Stephens, the mate, and £200 for Brooks, the seaman – £1,000 in all. For this act he was presented with a gold snuff box by the citizens of London, a memento he was extremely proud of. The captain and mate were sentenced to death at the Central Criminal Court, London but the sentence was subsequently commuted to one of six months’ imprisonment. Brooks, the seaman, who turned Queen’s evidence, was acquitted.’

I should explain that the aim of the trip was to deliver the Mignonette to her new owner in Australia, and that she was lost 1500 miles the African coast. Is anyone else feeling faintly queasy?

The story is told in some detail on the Wikipedia.

This weblog post notes that the name ‘Richard Parker’ comes up quite a lot in the history  and literature of natical misfortune. Decades before the Mignonette’s sinking, Edgar Allen Poe’s novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket describes the sinking of a whaling ship from which four of the crew survive, draw lots to decide which of them will be eaten – and the chosen victim’s name is that of Richard Parker. And of course, regular readers have been reminded of the Richard Parker who was hanged for leading the Mutiny on the Nore in 1797. We even have a song about that one and the curious events that followed… And it seems the name Richard Parker has quite a few other of these connections, that add up to a strange series of coincidences including a Titanic connection…

Thanks Nic!

PS – Paul Cowdell has written a comment (see the comment link below) suggesting that the remaining crew of the Mignonette may well have had more support in Falmouth than the NMMC report suggests, and he may well have a point given the fact that they were bailed by one of the town’s citizens. Also note Paul’s weblog post on the topic of the Mignonette case and the custom of the sea more generally.

4 thoughts on “Mignonette: on trial for eating crewmates”

  1. I’m not so convinced by the line that ‘the town was agog for it appeared that not just one taboo had been crossed, but two: murder, and cannibalism, together’. The local ballad evidence suggests a reluctant acceptance of cannibalism in such an awful situation. A tradition (echoed here by NMMC) subsequently developed that the court case only arose because they had not conducted the drawing of lots properly in accordance with the custom. You’ve linked to this blog post before: http://humphreywithhisflail.blogspot.co.uk/2009/09/archive-material-on-custom-of-sea.html but there’s more on the song history in my article in the Folk Music Journal 9.5 (2010).

  2. The best book by far on this is Cannibalism and the Common Law – A Victorian Yachting Tragedy by A.W Brian Simpson, (The Hambledon Press, London, 1994). He may be a professor of law, but he is also “an avid maritime buff”, has sailed on a square-rigger, and writes interestingly. The case was procedurally very complex, but it is clear that there was a large swathe of public option, including of the jury, who sympathised with the accused, all of which Simpson deals with in detail.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.