“Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean—roll!” wrote Byron in a comradely salute to the last great romantic wilderness on the planet. “…Man marks the earth with ruin—his control/ Stops with the shore….” In 1818, he could hardly have foreseen that it would not be very long before man would mark the ocean, too, with ruin, poisoning whole seas with his industrial effluent, or fishing them out with vast synthetic nets deployed by immensely powerful hydraulic winches. Yet the sea is still wild: as global warming takes hold, shipwrecking storms are beginning to blow more fiercely, and with greater frequency, than they did in Byron’s time, and the reach of the law of the land over the anarchy of the sea is, if anything, even more tenuous now than it was then. Mankind has always had much to fear from the ungovernable sea, and never more so than in this period of international terrorism, when who knows what abominations may soon arrive on our shores from the lawless terrain of the world’s oceans.
The application of national law to events on the high seas was dealt with in a highly readable book by A.W. Brian Simpson, Cannibalism and the Common Law, published in 1984. Simpson, now a professor of law at the University of Michigan, concentrated chiefly on the landmark case of Regina v. Dudley and Stephens (1884), which arose from the unhappy last voyage of the yacht Mignonette.
In mid-May 1884, Mignonette sailed from Southampton, England, bound for Sydney, Australia, with a crew of four professional seamen who were commissioned to deliver the boat to her new Australian owner. On July 5 she was wallowing in a violent storm in the South Atlantic when a poorly timed maneuver put her broadside-on to a huge breaking sea. The force of the wave broke away the bulwarks and a section of planking on the leeward side; as the yacht quickly sank, the crew scrambled into a cockleshell dinghy, taking with them basic navigational instruments and two cans of turnips as their only provisions. They had heaved a half-full water cask into the sea, hoping to pick it up later, but it disappeared from sight.
On July 9, they caught a passing turtle and ate it, bones and all. By July 21 there was talk of drawing lots to decide which of themselves should be killed for food, though it seems that no draw probably took place. On July 24, the captain, Tom Dudley, a devout Anglican churchgoer, took his penknife to the throat of the seventeen-year-old cabin boy, Richard Parker, severing the jugular vein and catching his blood in the ship’s chronometer case. On July 29, while the survivors were still dining on the remains of young Parker, they were spotted by a passing German ship, and taken back to England, where the captain and mate (the deckhand escaped prosecution because he was needed as a witness for the Crown) were put on trial …