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.

The Death of Richard Parker, leader of the Nore Mutiny

My thanks to Annie Dearman and Steve Harrison for letting me post this copy of their version of the broadside ballad The Death of Parker.

Parker was the leader of the Nore Mutiny.

The year 1797 saw two important mutinies in the British Navy that between them put the wind up the British ruling classes – who naturally feared the French led by Napoleon might invade, or that another revolution might arise on home soil.

From what I read, poor pay and conditions were behind both mutinies – in particular, the sailor’s pay had been fixed for nearly a century and a half and by the late 18th century was  worth very little.

The first mutiny, at Spithead near Portsmouth, went on for about a month until the Navy met the men’s main demands. However, the Admiralty of the time made a fatal mistake in restricting the new pay and conditions to the ships that had been involved at Spithead – and the natural result was a second mutiny among ships stationed on the Thames.

This second mutiny was a somewhat different affair. The ships were scattered along the Nore, a sandbank in the Thames Estuary, and were more difficult to organise than they had been at Spithead.

However, they did establish what was called the ‘Floating Republic‘ made up of no less than 28 ships, and elected a leader, Richard Parker.

Parker was an interesting figure. He had been a naval officer and had risen to the rank of master’s mate, before a dispute with a fellow officer led to a court martial and the loss of his commission in 1793. He then became a manufacturer of golf balls, went bankrupt and finally rejoined the Navy as a crewman – though it is said he was so reluctant to do so that he attempted to jump into the sea on boarding his ship.

No doubt Parker was chosen for the role for many reasons, but perhaps the most important would have been his ability as a navigator. Others might well have been his knowledge of how the Navy did its business at the time, and the fact that while he was clearly on the side of the sailors he would be difficult to dismiss as a typically uneducated if rebellious crewman.

The mutineers made demands for improved pay and conditions to match those won at Spithead, and for pardons for the mutineers and their leaders.

Then, as the mutinying ships briefly blockaded the Thames and the Port of London, the game changed. The mutineers demanded that peace should be made with the French – something that must have seemed close to unthinkable to Royalist rulers on this side of the Channel.

Most historical sources tend to take one side or another, and I’m naturally skeptical about some of the things that are said of Parker, including that he was a supporter of the revolution in France, as earlier he had enjoyed a largely successful career in the Navy.

However, what seems to have happened next was that the mutineers were denied supplies, and sea marks were removed from Thames Estuary’s complicated channels.

This would have made it nearly impossible to sail safely out to sea using the navigational tools available at the time. Having sailed the Thames, I’d say this would have caused havoc among other vessels using the estuary, and it would be interesting to know what fishermen and others thought of this move.

Things became desperate and Parker gave the command for the mutineers to hoist anchor and attempt to sail out of the estuary, no ship moved. Parker and 28 other mutineers were captured and hanged. Most of the mutineers were not punished, however, I guess because they were not seen as strongly political, and in any case were needed to crew the ships now back under Admiralty control.

But the story doesn’t end there. Parker was buried in a shallow grave, much to the outrage of his wife. With the help of women friends she dug him up by night and carried him to a church in London, where he was given a more conventional burial.

It’s said that a guard of some kind passed by while the women were moving Parker- and that they hid him by sitting on him and covering him with their skirts.

There are various accounts and scraps of historical information here, here, here and here. The engraving of the scene shortly before Parker was hung is from the Wikipedia.