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.

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.