Adrift in a lifeboat, after the ship sinks at sea, survival becomes visceral. Is killing someone justified if it aids others to stay alive by eating the dead's flesh? Or is it murder? "Survival cannibalism" after a shipwreck, abandoned at sea, became a "purported justification based on a custom of the sea" because of a landmark case in England, R v Dudley and Stephens (1884) 14 QBD 273 DC.
In May 1884, the English yacht Mignonette left the docks of Southampton, sailing for Sydney, Australia. Onboard were Captain Tom Dudley, crew Edwin Stephens and Edmund Brooks, and a 17-year-old inexperienced cabin boy named Richard Parker. The yacht was a 52-foot cruiser, not made for high seas. But the only way to transport the ship to her new owner, John H. Want, was to sail the 15,000-mile voyage.
Almost one month into the voyage, the Mignonette hit a storm about 1,600 miles northwest of the Cape of Good Hope. A wave took out a side of the boat, and she sank within five minutes. The crew hastily jumped into the thirteen-foot lifeboat, a flimsy canoe-style vessel of poor construction. They managed to save nautical navigation instruments and some
turnips. Later they would catch and kill a turtle for food, but as their
little boat bobbed and dipped in the currents, the men knew they would have to
resort to desperate measures if they wanted to live. It was late July when the
crew was at their lowest: they resorted to drinking urine and began discussed
sacrificing a man for meat and blood. Richard Parker was ill and in a coma.
Besides, he was an orphan and had no family. Dudley and Stephens murdered
Parker and all of them began eating the flesh and drinking the blood to survive.
Brooks did not agree to the killing, according to Brooks. Testimony would vary,
but Brooks possibly ate little.
Photo: Sketch of English bark Mignonette by Tom
Dudley (1853-1900) as appeared in Simpson, A. W. B.
On July 29, they were saved by a German sailing ship and taken to Falmouth, Cornwall. Per protocol, Dudley and Stephens reported into the customs house to enter statutory statements about their voyage, per Merchant Shipping Acts. It was here where Dudley and Stephens admitted their act of survival cannibalism.
It was then the question arose: when charged with murder, is the "defense of necessity" allowed?
Government entities could not agree on punishing the survivors; some thought arresting them with murder was wrong. Others believed the men morally and ethically wrong to kill to survive; they also labeled it as illegal despite public sentiment for the survivor. Supporters included Richard Parker's brother, also a seaman. The sole witnesses for the prosecution were the people who only heard of Parker's murder.
On November 3, the trial began for murder, before Baron Huddleston, who had already made up his mind the two were guilty and intended to sway the jury into voting as such. "Huddleston presented (the jury) to find the men guilty of murder or return a special verdict. Without waiting for the jury's decision, Huddleston produced a special verdict that he had written the night before and invited the jury to indicate their assent to each paragraph as he read it out." (Simpson)
The case was a legal mess; still, Tom Dudley and Edwin Stephens were found guilty and sentenced to the statutory death penalty with a recommendation for mercy. Queen Victoria could only exercise the latter, on the advice of the Home Secretary William Harcourt. Now that they were convicted, public opinion swayed against them. In early December, Harcourt decided to amend the sentence to six months. The men were released in May 1885.
After being pardoned, Captain Tom Dudley and crew member Edwin Stephens disappeared into history, as did crew member Edmund Brooks. A plaque was erected in a churchyard in Peartree Green, Southampton, in memory of Richard Parker. There have been numerous cases of survival cannibalism. But England's cases R v Dudley and Stephens (1884) "established a precedent throughout the common law world that necessity is not a defense to a charge of murder." (Walker)
R v. Dudley and Stephens  14 QBD 273 DC.
Simpson, A. W. B. (1984), "Cannibalism and the Common Law: The Story of the Tragic Last Voyage of the Mignonette and the Strange Legal Proceedings to Which It Gave Rise." Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
"The Mignonette Case." (May 20, 1885) North-Eastern Daily Gazette: Britain. p. 4.
Walker, A. (2011) "Is Eating People Wrong? Great Legal Cases and How They Shaped the World." New York: Cambridge Press.