Custom of the sea

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A custom of the sea is a custom that is said to be practiced by the officers and crew of ships and boats in the open sea, as distinguished from maritime law, which is a distinct and coherent body of law that governs maritime questions and offenses.

Among these customs is the practice of cannibalism among shipwrecked survivors, by the drawing of lots to see who is to be killed and eaten so that the others might survive.[1]

Historical examples of "agreed" cannibalismEdit

Saint Christopher caseEdit

In the early 17th century, seven Englishmen in the Caribbean embarked on an overnight voyage from Saint Christopher Island, but were blown out to sea and lost for 17 days. During this time, starving, they cast lots to see who would sacrifice his own life for the others. The lot fell to the man who had suggested the scheme, and he consented to his subsequent killing. His body sustained the rest until they made their way to Saint Martin. They were returned to Saint Christopher where they were put on trial for homicide. The judge pardoned them, their crime being "washed away" by "inevitable necessity".

This case's first detailed summary in high-brow British publications was in a post-1884 medical work, not in any law reports.[2]


After a whale rammed and sank the whaling ship Essex of Nantucket on 20 November 1820, the survivors were left floating in three small whaleboats. They eventually resorted, by common consent, to cannibalism to allow some to survive.[3] Of the seven crew eaten, six died of starvation and exposure; one, Owen Coffin, lost a lottery, and was shot. The captain volunteered to take Coffin's place but Coffin refused, saying it was his 'right' to do so that the others might live.


The case of R v Dudley and Stephens (1884 14 QBD 273 DC) is an English case which developed a crucial ruling on necessity in modern common law. The case dealt with four crewmembers of an English yacht, the Mignonette, who were shipwrecked in a storm some 1,600 miles from the Cape of Good Hope. After a few weeks adrift in a lifeboat, one of the crew fell unconscious due to a combination of hunger and drinking seawater. The others (one abstaining) decided then to kill him and eat him. They were picked up four days later. The case held that necessity was not a defense for a charge of murder, and the two defendants were convicted, though their death sentence was commuted to six months' imprisonment.

Fictional references in literatureEdit

Edgar Allan Poe's only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838) has a minor character, Richard Parker, who is cannibalised by the shipwreck's survivors.

In 1866, W.S. Gilbert wrote a song, "The Yarn of the Nancy Bell", in which the last survivor of shipwreck sings that he is the entire crew after drawing lots and eating his other shipmates.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Walker, Andrew: Is Eating People Wrong?: Great Legal Cases and How they Shaped the World. Cambridge University Press, New York, 2011 ISBN 978-1-107-00037-7 pg. 22
  2. ^ Simpson 1984, pp. 122–123.
  3. ^ h2g2 – The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex – A671492

Further readingEdit

  • Hanson, Neil (1999). The Custom of the Sea: The Story that Changed British Law. Doubleday. ISBN 978-0-385-60115-3.
  • Simpson, A. W. B. (1984). Cannibalism and the Common Law: The Story of the Tragic Last Voyage of the Mignonette and the Strange Legal Proceedings to Which It Gave Rise. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-75942-5.
  • Learmonth, Eleanor; Tabakoff, Jenny (2014). No Mercy: True Stories of Disaster, Survival and Brutality. Text Publishing Company. ISBN 978-1922147240.