Judges and prosecutors have long struggled to assert that the law of the land applies equally to the wilderness of the sea, even as they’ve acknowledged that in international waters the law is in conflict with traditional maritime custom—especially the custom of drawing lots to decide who should live and who should die in desperate situations. A key case in England was Regina v. Dudley and Stephens (1884), in which the professional crewmen of the yacht Mignonette were convicted of killing and eating the cabin boy after their vessel had sunk in the South Atlantic and they had taken to the dinghy. The trial was obliquely commemorated by W.S. Gilbert in “The Yarn of the ‘Nancy Bell,’” in which an ancient mariner sings of how he has eaten most of the crew of his lost ship:
Oh, I am a cook and a captain bold,
And the mate of the Nancy brig,
And a bo’sun tight, and a midshipmite,
And the crew of the captain’s gig!
A close American parallel, cited in the later English case, was United States v. Holmes (1842). No cannibalism was involved, but the crew of the William Brown, bound from Liverpool to Philadelphia with a cargo of Scottish and Irish emigrants, pushed fourteen male passengers from an overcrowded lifeboat after the ship collided with an iceberg in mid-ocean, about 250 miles southeast of Cape Race, Newfoundland. When the twenty-two-foot boat was sinking under the weight of nine seamen and thirty-two passengers, lots were not drawn, and none of the crew members were thrown overboard. Alexander Holmes, the sole defendant in the case, was selected because he alone happened to be in Philadelphia at the time, though he was not the skipper of the boat and was merely following the orders of the first mate.
During the trial, much of the argument devolved on whether everyone aboard the lifeboat had been forced into a “state of nature” by their appalling circumstances, and were therefore beyond the reach of law, or whether they remained within “the social state” and so were answerable to the rules of conduct that apply ashore. The social state won the day, and Holmes was found guilty of manslaughter (a grand jury had rejected the charge of murder), but given a sentence of only six months and a $20 fine.
Charlotte Rogan has said that the William Brown case supplied her with the germ of The Lifeboat, her first published novel. She has moved the time of the action forward to 1914, so that the disintegrating world aboard her twenty-three-foot boat mirrors the fate of Europe as World War I breaks out. This time around, the ship is a sleek liner called…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.