The Custom of the Sea: A Shocking True Tale of Shipwreck, Murder, and the Last Taboo

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9780471399773: The Custom of the Sea: A Shocking True Tale of Shipwreck, Murder, and the Last Taboo

"The nightmarish events of the shipwreck are reported with real power."-New York Times Book Review

Adrift at sea, your food and water gone, you are slowly starving to death: what would you do to survive?

On May 19, 1884, the yacht Mignonette set sail from Southampton, England, bound for Australia. Halfway through the voyage, the crew were beset by a monstrous storm off the coast of West Africa, and the Mignonette was sunk by a massive forty-foot wave. Cast adrift a thousand miles from landfall with no food or water and faced with almost certain death, the captain resorted to a grisly practice common among seamen of the time: the "custom of the sea." While the others watched, the captain killed the weakest of them, the cabin boy, and his body was eaten. In this riveting account of the ordeal of the crew and the sensational trial that followed, Hanson recreates the shocking events that held a nation spellbound. Drawing from newspaper accounts, personal letters, court proceedings, and first-person accounts, he has brilliantly told a tale rife with moral dilemmas.

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Review:

What would you do to survive if you were adrift at sea, without food or water, and slowly starving to death?

In 1884, Captain Tom Dudley and his three-man crew were faced with just such a predicament. Dudley and his men were aboard the Mignonette, a small yacht they were delivering from England to Australia. Hit by a rogue wave in a storm, the Mignonette sank, leaving the four men in a 13-foot dinghy with two pounds of turnips and little else--no other food and no water--in the middle of the Atlantic. After nearly two weeks, Dudley announced they would have to resort to "the custom of the sea": drawing lots to decide who would be sacrificed and eaten to save the others. Two crewmen argued against lots, pointing out that the young cabin boy, Richard Parker, was delirious and on the verge of death. Dudley refused to kill the boy, and a few more days passed. Finally, on the 19th day adrift, Dudley killed young Parker while his crew watched. Three days later, the three survivors were rescued. Upon their return to England the three men were arrested and charged with murder.

Neil Hanson tells the story of the Mignonette and its crew in Custom of the Sea. At its best, the book reads like an adventure story along the lines of The Perfect Storm or Endurance. The story lags a bit when the survivors get entangled in the Victorian court and penal system--which is understandably a bit less gripping than the shipwreck and its ensuing survival cannibalism. It does, however, provide a fascinating window into the legal system and the power of the press in influencing public opinion.

Captain Simonsen of the Moctezuma, having rescued the Mignonette survivors, realized what they had done and tried to comfort Dudley by saying, "Desperate straits require desperate measures." Custom of the Sea does an excellent job of putting readers in a position to wonder if they too would take such desperate measures. --Sunny Delaney

From the Back Cover:

Cast adrift in a tiny boat on a vast and desolate ocean, faced with almost certain death, what would you do to survive? This is the agonizing question that lies at the heart of the gripping true drama of The Custom of the Sea.

On May 19, 1884, the yacht Mignonette set sail from Southampton, England, bound for Sydney, Australia. Halfway through the 12,000-mile voyage, Captain Tom Dudley and his three- member crew were beset by a monstrous storm off the coast of West Africa. After four terrifying days battling towering waves and hurricane-force gales, the Mignonette was sunk by a massive forty-foot "freak" wave.

Captain Dudley and his crew were cast adrift a thousand miles from the nearest land in a leaky thirteen-foot dinghy with only two small tins of turnips for food, no water, and no shelter from the scorching sun. After nineteen days, they were all near death, and Dudley determined that they must resort to the horrifying practice well known among seamen of the time called "the custom of the sea." While the others watched, the captain killed the weakest of them, the seventeen-year-old cabin boy, and his body was eaten. Five days later, the survivors were picked up by a passing ship, and although such cases of survival cannibalism were usually either hushed up or condoned as terrible but justified acts of desperation, in this case the men were arrested for murder. The sensational trial that followed kept a shocked public enthralled during the following winter, from the lowliest ship’s deckhand to Queen Victoria herself. In this riveting account, Neil Hanson re-creates with vivid detail the harrowing ordeal of the Mignonette’s crew. Drawing from newspaper accounts, personal letters and diaries, court proceedings, and first-person accounts of the principals, he has brilliantly pieced together their tragic story, a talerife with moral twists and turns that will draw you deeper and deeper into the drama of the men’s fate.

Four shipwrecked sailors...one must die so the others might live.
What should they do?
A terrifying true-to-life account of peril on the high seas—and of the electrifying murder trial that shocked the world.

Praise for THE CUSTOM OF THE SEA

"Makes astonishing reading . . . extraordinary." —Times Literary Supplement (London)
"An engrossing account."—The Sunday Times (London)
"A terrific story. . . . A riveting read."—The Spectator (London)
"Sensational."—Daily Telegraph (London)

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