Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The Custom of the Sea

A Shocking True Tale of Shipwreck, Murder, and the Last Taboo
Neil Hanson

Nonfiction, History, Nautical

In 1884, yacht captain Tom Dudley was hired to sail a newly-purchased (but not new) yacht from England to Australia. His route was planned to travel to the west of Africa, round the cape, and sail east to Australia. But he, and the three crew he had hired for the journey, never made it that far. A nasty tropical storm and freak waves sank the yacht and the four endured three weeks in an open rowboat without provisions. Then the "custom of the sea" was invoked.

You're familiar with this custom. It is prevalent enough that, even today, it can be used in a Far Side cartoon and be understood. (Apparently Mr. Larson is vigilant about protecting his copyright; therefore I'll just have to remind you that it involves a groups of sailors - and a dog - looking over at the guy who drew the short straw.) It is, simply, this: When at sea, and for survival, groups can choose by lots who is to die to provide the others with nourishment so that some may survive.

Richard Parker, the seventeen-year-old cabin boy, had been drinking seawater and was delerious and near death. The captain proposed that they kill him - rather than wait for him to die - so that his blood would not congeal, as thirst was their main enemy. They did kill the young man, and survived a few days more until they were picked up. Tom Dudley did not deny his actions and reported them truthfully, knowing that he had done what was then accepted to be right. He was unaware, however, that Britain was looking for a case by which they could rule the custom of the sea illegal.

There are a number of interesting points in this book, not the least of which is that Richard Parker's elder brother, who loved him dearly, held the captain blameless for what had occurred. Likewise, most of the folk of the coastal towns considered Dudley a sort of hero for managing to survive - they blamed him only for not holding to the custom of drawing lots. However, the climate of the English courts was different; they felt that it would be better for the men to "cast the bodies into the ocean, lest they be tempted" - in other words, to die before becoming cannibals. And as you can guess, the courts held the power, and in a series of somewhat irregular trials found Dudley (and one - but not both - of his remaining crew) guilty of murder.

The subject matter is fascinating, and the author does it justice. Dudley comes across as not only reasonable, but kind - which portrait is in keeping with the contemporary material available about his personality. Because of his attitude, the point of the story is more forcefully driven home; who is not to say that, in similar circumstances, they would not behave in a similar fashion? And Dudley gets the last word when he states that the verdict would not stop the custom of the sea but only put an end to the honest reporting of its practice... because there have been instances since of people long adrift who may have had cannibalism as their only means of survival. But they aren't telling.


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