The sinking of the Mignonette: the horrific true story. Principle of Necessity of Extreme Survival.

On 19 May 1884 four men set sail from Southampton in a small yacht.

As men reared to the sea born and raised in coastal communities they were under no illusions as to the dangers of an ocean voyage. Yet none of the Mignonette’s crew can have anticipated the full horror that lay ahead.

The yacht Mignonette was a 19.43 net t. 52-foot cruiser built in 1867. It was an inshore boat not made for long voyages.

Australian lawyer Jack Want purchased it in 1883 for leisure. The vessel could at decent cost be transported to Australia by sailing but its size and the 15000-mile voyage daunted attempts that year to find a suitable crew. It was sailed to Sydney from Southampton on 19 May 1884.

The Mignonette’s captain Tom Dudley was 31 years old and a proven yachtsman. Of his crew Ned Brooks and mate Edwin Stephens were likewise seasoned sailors. The final crew-member cabin boy Richard Parker was just 17 years old and making his first voyage on the open sea; however he came from a seafaring family and had sailed extensively on inshore waters.

On 5 July Mignonette was running before a gale around 1600 miles northwest of the Cape of Good Hope. The vessel was not struggling and Dudley gave the order to heave to so that the crew could enjoy a good night’s sleep. As the manoeuvre was completed and Parker was sent below to prepare tea a wave struck and washed away the lee bulwark.

Dudley instantly realized that the yacht was doomed and ordered the single 13-foot lifeboat to be lowered.

Mignonette sank within five minutes of being struck and the crew abandoned ship for the lifeboat managing only to salvage vital navigational instruments along with two tins of turnips and no fresh water. Dudley managed to improvise a sea anchor to keep the lifeboat headed into the waves and maintain her stability. Over the first night the crew had to fight off a shark with their oars. They were around 700 miles from the nearest land Saint Helena.

Dudley kept the first tin of turnips until 7 July when its five pieces were shared among the men to last two days. On or around 9 July Brooks spotted a sea turtle which Stephens dragged on board. This yielded about three pounds of meat each plus the bones which along with the second tin of turnips lasted until 15 or 17 July.

They were unable to drink its blood after it became contaminated with seawater.
The crew failed to catch any rainwater and by 13 July with no other viable source of liquid they began to drink their own urine. By 17 July all supplies on board the little dinghy had been exhausted. After a further three days the inexperienced Richard Parker could not resist gulping down sea water in an attempt to allay his thirst.

It is now known that small quantities of sea water can help to sustain life in survival situations but in that period it was widely believed to be fatal.

Parker also drank far in excess of modern recommendations and he was soon violently unwell collapsing in the bottom of the boat with diarrhea.

Even before Parker fell ill Tom Dudley had broached the fearful topic of the ‘custom of the sea’ the practice of drawing lots to select a sacrificial victim who could be consumed by his crew-mates. Over the coming days as Parker’s condition deteriorated Dudley raised the idea again. As he insisted to Stephens in the early hours of 25 July when the men had been adrift for almost three weeks:

The boy is dying. You have a wife and five children and I have a wife and three children. Human flesh has been eaten before…

According to the accounts of the surviving crew members the drawing of lots was done in a fair and impartial manner. The captain of the Mignonette Tom Dudley tore up a cigarette paper into four pieces one of which was shorter than the others. The crew members then drew a piece of paper each with the shortest one indicating the «winner» of the lottery.

Stephens put off any decision but at daybreak Parker seemed weaker than ever. Significant looks were exchanged between captain and mate. According to their subsequent depositions however no lots were final drawn.

Instead Dudley told Stephens to hold Parker’s legs should he struggle before kneeling and thrusting his penknife into the boy’s jugular. A chronometer case was used to catch the oozing blood and this was quickly passed between Parker’s three crew-mates to moisten their parched mouths. Parker’s body was then stripped and butchered. The heart and liver were eaten immediately; strips of flesh were cut from his limbs and set aside as future rations.

What remained of the young man was heaved overboard.

Dudley Stephens and Brooks survived on this grisly diet for several days. But when the meat cut from the cabin boy began to rot the crew again faced the grisly prospect of following the custom of the sea. This time however no sacrifice was required.

On 29 July when the men had been adrift for 24 days a ship was sighted on the horizon. The Moctezuma a German vessel bound for Hamburg spotted the dinghy and came to the aid of its emaciated crew. The Mignonette’s survivors were soon being cared for and a month later they arrived back in England disembarking at Falmouth. At this point the Mignonette’s unlucky crew must have thought that their suffering was over.

But for Dudley and Stephens a new ordeal was just beginning.

From the moment he was rescued Dudley made no attempt to hide or gloss over the sad fate of Richard Parker. He was a forthright honest man and to his mind killing and consuming Parker was a tragic necessity. However repugnant it was to take such drastic measures they were justified he would always maintain by well-established maritime traditions.

The authorities in Britain viewed matters differently.

Public opinion in Falmouth was mostly sympathetic to the crew’s action. However the local shipping master was required by law to notify the Board of Trade of a violent death on a British ship. He duly sent a telegram to London then reluctantly arrested the survivors pending further investigation.

Dudley and the others were amazed at this turn of events. Little did they know that they were now caught up in a legal process less concerned with their specific case than with reaching a general ruling on the legitimacy of the custom of the sea.

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.

The Mignonette case as it became known had a lasting impact on maritime law.

It led to changes in the way that shipwrecked sailors were treated and helped to establish the principle of necessity in cases of extreme survival.

The case is one of a few criminal cases taught to all law students in England and Wales and in many though not all former British territories and has long been so. It is also a standard legal case taught to first year American law students and is often the first criminal case read in American law schools.

After 1901 Dudley and Stephens faded in public discussion behind other more culpable criminals of previous decades.

Previous articleThe Tragic Life of Concubines in Ancient China | The Terrifying Reality of Being a Concubine
Next article10 facts about the cheetah: Exploring the Wilderness World