No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, January 03, 2008

#1: The Custom of the Sea -- Neil Hanson

Some [survivors of shipwreck] will be driven to the extreme of self-destruction: suicide. Others will adopt the other extreme of self-preservation: the practise of cannibalism.

The Mignonette, an elderly vessel converted from fishing-boat to yacht, set sail from Southampton for Sydney in May 1884. Two months later, she was struck by a freak wave and sank, leaving four survivors in a tiny dinghy. When, after 24 days in an open boat with no food or water, the men were rescued, there were only three: the cabin boy, Richard Parker, had been killed and eaten. (This is the Richard Parker who lends his name to the tiger in Life of Pi.)

This book is about Parker's death, and about Tom Dudley, the Mignonette's captain, who slew him; about the 'custom of the sea' which meant that such acts of cannibalism had, historically, inspired sympathy rather than revulsion; and about the changes wrought in British law as a result of Richard Parker's fate.

Hanson's book contains a plethora of background information: the life and work of Samuel Plimsoll, the sailor's champion; the frightful conditions prevalent on board merchant ships in the nineteenth century; and, more relevantly, an account of other cases of shipwreck and cannibalism. Following the wreck of the Mary in 1845, "Heavy seas washed seventeen women overboard -- or so the survivors said. Not one man was lost at the same time. They were stranded for eight days before being rescued by settlers, who described them as suspiciously well-fed." Hanson concludes that "It is clear that many deaths from 'natural causes' (in shipwrecks) were actually murder and that many -- the majority of -- instances of lots being drawn were rigged or fabricated afterwards to conceal the murder of a disliked or disposable member of the company."

The problem with Parker's death, as far as the law was concerned, was that lots hadn't been drawn. Tom Dudley had repeatedly suggested that they drew lots to see who'd be killed to preserve the lives of the others: Stephens and Brooks had refused. Parker had already doomed himself -- or so the men agreed -- by drinking seawater: he was dying before the fatal blow was struck. Even Richard Parker's brother forgave Dudley. But Dudley and Stephens -- not Brooks who, though he had drunk Parker's blood and eaten his flesh, refused to accept any responsibility for the boy's death -- were tried for murder, and sentenced to sentenced to death, which was later commuted to six months' imprisonment by Queen Victoria.

Even before the men had been sentenced, Brooks was earning a living as 'The Cannibal of the High Seas'. He appeared all over the West Country and the south coast in a sideshow: "unshaven and dressed in suitably distressed rags, he posed in front of a crudely painted backdrop of the Mignonette's dinghy adrift on the ocean. For the further edification of the paying customers, he devoured scraps of raw meat in a gruesome simulacrum of the ordeal he had endured. In addition to the wages and his keep, he was allowed half the proceeds from the souvenir postcards of himself that he sold." (p. 336-7) Hanson points out that cannibalism (like tattooing) was an uncomfortable reminder to Victorian society that good British sailors were just as capable of primitive behaviour as the most ignorant savages. The converse of this is the revolted fascination which kept Brooks in funds for several months.

Tom Dudley was embittered by the treatment he'd received from British society. He never felt that he had done anything wrong -- a view with which Hanson clearly sympathises. It's clear, though, that all three men -- Dudley emigrating to Australia, where he died of bubonic plague; Stephens who turned to drink and died a pauper; Brooks who went to his grave asserting that he hadn't killed Parker -- were broken by their experiences.

Some of the prose attributed to Dudley seems to have been refined by a more educated writer: "Men will do what they always have done in order to survive, for no instinct is stronger than that. But never again will men return to these shores and freely confess what they have done ..." Dudley's voice is clearer and more poignant in the letter, his 'rambling impassioned plea' post-sentence: I can assure you I shall never forget the sight of my two unfortunate companions over that gastly meal. We all was like mad wolfs, who should get the most. For men, fathers of children, to commit such a deed we could not have our right reason, and it cannot be expected that we had ... what mortal tongue can tell our sufferings but our own?

No comments:

Post a Comment