British minister claims technology makes maritime cannibalism obsolete

Even in a shipboard COVID lockdown, chowing down on ailing cabin boys is apparently no longer a thing


A British government minister has claimed that cannibalism on the high seas should now be a thing of the past, as modern navigation and safety technology have made it very unlikely sailors will find themselves in circumstances where they might want to eat each other.

This hopeful statement came during a debate in the House of Lords on human rights at sea when Baron Mackenzie of Framwellgate stood to ask a question of Charlotte, Baroness Vere of Norbiton, the Conservative government's Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport.

The debate had begun with Baroness Vere answering questions about the government's policy regarding the many merchant sailors worldwide who found themselves stuck on vessels thousands of miles from home, sometimes without pay or current contracts, due to the effects of the COVID pandemic.

Baron Mackenzie then somewhat derailed this worthy discussion by referring to the case of R v Dudley and Stephens, a famous criminal case in British law from 1884, which concerned a pair of shipwrecked sailors stranded in a lifeboat with an ailing cabin boy, who decided to kill and eat him to save themselves from starving.

“My Lords, I recall as a young student of law, many years ago, the late-19th century case of R v Dudley and Stephens,” Mackenzie began, as if succumbing to a reverie about a distant, happier time. He continued:

This involved a shipwreck that caused a number of sailors to take to a lifeboat. As a result of hunger and thirst, they alleged that it was necessary to kill and eat the young cabin boy in order to survive. The common law defence of necessity succeeded at their trial but was reversed on appeal. Does the Minister think that, if the facts were repeated today, the cabin boy’s human rights to life would still trump those of the starving crew?

The tone of Baroness Vere's response contained an element of alarm at the unexpectedly dark turn the debate had taken, and certainly showed little of Mackenzie's affectionate reverence for important but ancient pillars of common law:

Oh, my Lords, with modern standards for lifeboats and search and rescue, I would very much hope that such a situation would not arise today. The shipwrecked seafarers would be rescued long before any decisions would need to be taken on who to eat. Modern-day search and rescue services are equipped with an astonishing range of technologies that aid both in alerting the rescue services that there is an issue and in locating persons in distress or potential distress.

The debate then moved on, to Baroness Vere's presumed relief, when Lord Berkeley asked about the government's policy on mariners' rights to broadband internet access while on board ship.

Out at sea

While Mackenzie's question may have been somewhat irreverent or mischievous, the subject under discussion is extremely serious. A recent Washington Post article suggests that while cargo is still being transported and delivered, up to 200,000 sailors may currently be stranded on board ship: trapped by a lack of access to COVID vaccines, pandemic-related immigration and quarantine restrictions, and an inability to return home due to shipping schedules and flight cancellations.

Many have been trapped on board beyond the expiry of their contracts of employment, with some forced to accept extensions at lower rates of pay.

Despite these difficult conditions, however, it is unlikely anyone is going to have to draw lots to decide who to eat out of starvation. The case of R v Dudley and Stephens occurred when a four-man scratch crew attempted to sail a newly purchased 52ft yacht called the Mignonette – which was designed mainly for in-shore use – over 15,000 miles from Southampton, UK to Sydney in Australia for its new Australian owner.

The yacht was crushed by a wave in the middle of the South Atlantic and the four-man crew was forced to take to a 13ft lifeboat with no fresh water and only two tins of turnips to sustain them. After 19 days without rescue and with the cabin boy, 17-year-old Richard Parker, said to have been in a coma after drinking seawater, Captain Tom Dudley and mate Edwin Stephens decided to kill and eat him.

Five days later the lifeboat was rescued by the German ship Montezuma and the three remaining crew of the Mignonette were returned to Falmouth in the UK, where they were arrested and charged with murder.

Despite claiming that they had been abiding by an established “custom of the sea” and having considerable public support, Dudley and Stephens were found guilty and sentenced to death. The case established a precedent in common law that necessity was not a defence for murder. But this having been established, the sentence of the two men was then commuted to six months' imprisonment and both were later released.

Fortunately, satellites, aircraft, GPS beacons, modern high-visibility materials, mobile phones and improved maritime safety laws mean that Baroness Vere was right to suggest that such a macabre tale is hopefully unlikely to happen again.

Especially on a well-provisioned merchant vessel, however long the crew has been forced to remain on it. ®

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