When a friend of mine first clued me up to cannibalism at sea, I thought he was joking. After all, in a well-stocked boat on a sea full of fish with a locker full of safety gear, it would seem an impossible leap to imagine that you might be compelled to eat your friends and colleagues.
But when things go badly wrong, precedent has shown time and again that the open ocean can bring about the dreaded spectre of ‘survival cannibalism’ with astonishing speed. In fact, in the 18th century, the practice was so prevalent that it was widely known as ‘The Custom of the Sea’ and it came with an unwritten set of rules by which those in desperate circumstances would seek to abide…
The rules of the game
When you’re adrift on the open ocean in a small boat, facing imminent starvation and death, the moral, ethical and legal implications of cannibalism begin to seem extremely trivial – and various legal cases have reinforced that.
Prior to the 19th century, it was suggested that survival cannibalism was innate and instinctive and therefore forgivable in extreme circumstances. However, this line of thought only holds water if those who eat their shipmates have already consumed every other form of organic (and therefore edible) object first. That includes everything from candles to shoes, leather items and blankets.
However, the ‘rules of the game’ go much further than that. For instance, all on board are required to consent to cannibalism prior to the first act - and once consent has been obtained, the dead must be eaten first. When the dead are all gone, there must be some form of drawing of straws. The unluckiest is killed and eaten and the next unluckiest is required to act as the executioner. That process is repeated until either rescue or wholesale death brings an end to the suffering.
The landmark case
However, the famous 1884 Dudley & Stephens case was (and remains) a critical moment in the history of cannibalism at sea. Still studied today, it established a precedent that necessity could no longer be used as a defence for murder. It relates the story of four sailors en route from Southampton to Sydney who were forced to abandon their sinking craft (Mignonette) and take refuge in their lifeboat. It took about 20 days with nothing to eat but two tins of turnips and a turtle before two of the men (Dudley and Stephens) agreed that Parker (the 17-year old cabin boy, who had apparently lapsed into a coma) should be killed and eaten. His jugular was cut and the fourth man (who had apparently not assented to the killing) joined in the four-day feast. When they were finally rescued, they believed that the established tenets of the Custom of the Sea would be a legitimate defence but they were all found guilty of murder and sentenced to execution by hanging. In the face of public sympathy, that sentence was reduced to a brief (almost token) period of imprisonment, but it had still undermined the Custom of the Sea and established the principle in common law that taking a life, even to preserve your own, was not justified.
The latest recorded episode
The establishment of that legal precedent, however, has done nothing to dissuade those on the edge from defaulting to survival cannibalism. For instance, in 2008, a 33-strong group of refugees from the Dominican Republic set out on the trip to Puerto Rico through the Mona Passage in search of a better life. As it was only supposed to be a one-day transit from Sanchez to the American territory, they stowed no food or water on board – but when the Skipper got lost, they ran out of fuel and were forced to endure 15 days adrift at sea.
Gregorio Maria Marizan, one of the five who would eventually be rescued said they had tried to subsist on rain and seawater, but after watching 27 men die and be discarded overboard, the death of the 28th man on Day 14 left them with a big decision to make. When interviewed from his hospital bed, Marizan explained the situation with disarming candour: “Imagine, 15 days without food, without water. I'm a sailor, a fisherman - they were all yelling at me to do something. I always try to be prepared, so I had brought my knife along. We had nothing to eat. We had to eat him, to save our own lives. We cut from his leg and chest. We cut little pieces and swallowed them like pills. It's like beef, almost the same. At the skin there is half an inch of yellow fat, then the fibres.” It probably saved their lives, but despite their dire circumstances, the survivors were each sentenced to a year in jail.
The alternatives to cannibalism
Given the right skills, initiative and state of mind, however, there are usually practical alternatives to cannibalism. For instance, in 1811 an American brig named Polly left Boston for the Virgin Islands. She was hit by a storm and briefly capsized, losing her masts before righting herself. Of the eight people on board, two were lost during the storm but the other six began a six-month spell adrift in the Atlantic Ocean, during which time they would cover more than 2,000 nautical miles. When they were finally rescued by a British cargo ship in June 1812, only two people survived, but they had done so entirely without resorting to cannibalism. Instead, the survivors ate barnacles scraped from the hull of the boat and drank fresh water from boiling seawater in a makeshift still and condensing the steam in a kettle. When deaths among the crew began to happen, they cut the corpses into pieces, ﬁxed their body parts onto hooks and caught enough sharks to remain alive – but at no time were the corpses themselves consumed by the survivors.
Prepare for the Worst
There is no doubt that extreme circumstances at sea can undermine even the most profoundly ingrained human principles. Perhaps in the future, the RYA will launch an ‘Alternatives to Cannibalism’ Course, but in the mean time, take good care of yourself (see 10 Emergency Fix-it Essentials to Carry on Every Boat. Make sure you have the right boat, the right kit, the right nav plan, the right provisions - and above all else, the right shipmates…
Enjoyed this feature? Our piece on Mad Mariners: Four Unbelievable Seafaring Exploits is also worth a read.