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.

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