New College of the Humanities

Cannibalism and the Common Law

A. Lentin | Published in History Today

Cannibalism and the Common Law
A.W. Brian Simpson.
353 pp. (Chicago University Press, £21.25.)

This is a remarkable book on several counts. The author is professor of law at the universities of Kent and Chicago; but this is no law book, and though exhaustively researched, it is no conventional academic monograph either. Indeed it is strange to see it under a university imprint. Professor Simpson is not even primarily concerned with the legal aspect of his subject-matter. His principal object, which he achieves with considerable panache, is to recount, in full and wide- ranging detail, a sombre tale of the sea. His book is a narrative of the background to the notorious case of Regina v. Dudley and Stephens (1884), which, as every law student knows, established that 'necessity' is no defence to the crime of murder.

In 1884, the yacht Mignonette , under way from England to Australia, foundered in mid-Atlantic, 1600 miles from the Cape of Good Hope. The crew of four, Dudley, Stephens, Brooks and the seventeen-year-old Richard Parker, took to a small dingy. All the food they had were two tins of turnips and a passing turtle. There was no water. After nineteen days, all were desperate from hunger and thirst. Parker lay ill and semi-comatose. Dudley and Stephens agreed that the only hope for any of them was to kill one of their number and live off his flesh and blood. Dudley and Stephens were family men, with dependants at home. Brooks and Parker were bachelors. Parker was prostrate and likely to die in any event. The choice fell on him. With Stephens' agreement, Dudley cut the lad's throat. Five days later, the three survivors were rescued. On reaching England, Dudley and Stephens were tried and convicted of murder. Brooks, who had taken no part in the killing, though he partook of the flesh, testified for the Crown. Sentence of death was passed, although there was never any question of its being implemented, and the Home Secretary commuted it to six months imprisonment.

To this harrowing tale Professor Simpson lends a wealth of expertise, nautical quite as much as legal. He tells his yarn in a manner distinctly and refreshingly unacademic: with tremendous verve, an eye for detail, the bluff common sense of an old salt, a racy, witty and sometimes macabre sense of humour. He has no time for cant, Victorian or contemporary. His underlying thesis, forcefully argued, is that by the late nineteenth century, homicide and cannibalism among shipwrecked mariners was an accepted custom of the sea, the victim sometimes, though not always, being selected by lot. Dudley and Stephens were thus doing the only sensible thing. The author contrasts the robust realism of his two seafarers with what he calls the 'Victorian parlour morality' of the judiciary.

This is a good tale well told. Yet one may dissent from his dismissal of the unanimous judgment of an unusually strong court of five judges, presided over by Lord Chief Justice Coleridge. Cannibalism itself, as recent air and potholing disasters suggest, is morally unexceptionable. But the deliberate killing of an innocent man, without his consent, for the sake of self-preservation, now as then, cannot properly be defended on such facts, however much it may be mitigated. The judges were right: why Parker? For all Professor Simpson's forensic aplomb, the reader is haunted by Parker's reply, when Captain Dudley told him his time was come: 'What, me Sir?'


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