The Custom of the Sea, by Katie Gill

It’s human nature to ascribe gentle euphemisms for horrible things that happen. An animal is put down or crosses the rainbow bridge. A family member hasn’t died, they have passed away or they’re with the Lord now. In the 1700s and 1800s, if you were a sailor who had the ill luck to participate in survival cannibalism, you undertook the “custom of the sea.”
Survival cannibalism is defined as the act of a member eating a different member of the same species to survive. The important asterisk there is “in order to survive.” The Donner Party was survival cannibalism. Hannibal Lecter isn’t. It’s due to the dire straits nature of survival cannibalism that historically, the practice is looked upon with more sympathy than its non-survival counterpart. Of course, some people were still looked at with fear and revulsion—some had their reputations destroyed or were legally court-martialed. But there are just as many instances of perpetrators of survival cannibalism, once rescued, going on to live a long life and becoming valued members of the community. 
Survival cannibalism was the unspoken secret of being a European or American sailor, especially in the 1800s. Everybody knew it could happen—there were even folk songs and ballads that referenced survival cannibalism, such as “Little Billee” and “The Ship in Distress.” Everybody knew at least one famous voyage that ended in survival cannibalism. It seems everybody knew what to expect. A series of patterns show up in various instances of survival cannibalism from 1700 to 1900, in sea, land, and polar cases, almost like there was a rulebook everybody was expected to follow.
So, you’re a Georgian or Victorian sailor, your ship’s wrecked, you’ve run out of food in your lifeboat, and you’ve decided to undertake the ultimate taboo: what are you going to do first?
Make Sure There’s No Food Left
This may seem obvious: obviously you should make sure there is no food left before deciding to embark on survival cannibalism. In situations of dire hunger, the definition of food becomes expanded. Animal blood, domesticated animals, candles, bone marrow, sea lice, lichens and moss, seaweed, barnacles, and any form of leather could serve as food when the situation gets dire. And hey, if you survive, you might get a neat nickname due to eating some dubious materials. The Coppermine expedition of 1819–1822, led by Sir John Franklin, ended in an utter disaster as the nearly starving men made a desperate retreat across uncharted territory in an attempt to reach civilization. Local fur traders critiqued Franklin for his lack of planning, but in the eyes of the British press, he was a hero who battled the elements, pressed on against unforeseen consequences, and got a new nickname: “the man who ate his boots.”
Though do be mindful if there is any alcohol left. The French frigate Méduse ran aground about fifty kilometers from the coast of Africa. One hundred forty-seven passengers boarded an unstable, hodge-podge raft in an attempt to steer themselves to the coast. They had provisions, but the provisions included barrels of wine instead of water. I’m not saying that the most likely inebriated state of the poor souls on the raft of the Méduse helped contribute to the onset of survival cannibalism…but considering that some members resorted to survival cannibalism on the fourth day of floating on the raft, the fact that they were most likely drunk couldn’t have helped. There isn’t a set time limit on when survivors resort to survival cannibalism—it could be a week, it could be a month. But the Méduse’s streak of four days might set the record as the least amount of time spent between the ship’s wreck and the enaction of survival cannibalism.
Being intensely drunk might have hurt the chances of The Peggy’s crew as well. The Peggy was an American schooner carrying wine and brandy who was de-masted in a storm in 1765—she continued to float, but could not be steered. The crew ate their way through the provisions, but still had quite a lot of alcohol left. A potential rescue vessel sailed in The Peggy’s direction, but one look at the absolutely wasted crew caused the rescue ship to turn right around.
Wait for Someone to Die
The important qualifier here is wait for someone to die, not “kill them outright.” In 1884, the yacht Mignonette sank, leaving its crew of four to abandon ship for a lifeboat. After about fifteen days with barely any food, seventeen-year-old cabin boy Richard Parker fell into a coma. Fellow sailors Tom Dudley and Edwin Stephens killed Parker and, along with the third sailor Edmund Brooks, ate him. When they were rescued and questioned, Dudley and Stephens were candid about their actions, believing that the custom of the sea would spare them from any legal punishment. That was a reasonable belief: pre-Mignonette, the attitude towards survival cannibalism could basically be summed up as “we know it happened and really wish it didn’t happen, but let’s not probe too closely into it.” However, pre-Mignonette, the attitude towards survival cannibalism involved casting lots to randomly select a victim if there were no bodies—not outright murder, in the case of Dudley and Stephens. Instead of getting off relatively easy, as they had hoped, the crew was arrested and Dudley and Stephens were charged with murder. The ensuing legal case that followed, Regina v Dudley and Stephens, established the principle that necessity is not a defense for murder. Dudley and Stephens were sentenced for the death penalty, a sentence that was commuted to six month’s imprisonment.
Things are different if people have naturally died. In 1710, the Nottingham Galley sank off the coast of Maine, leaving the crew stranded on a small, provision-less island. The question of cannibalism was broached only when the ship’s carpenter slipped into a coma, then died of natural causes. For a different example, in 1820, the whaleship Essex was attacked by a whale. The survivors abandoned the ship, dividing their number into three whaleboats. The blistering heat, grueling sun, lack of food, and kidney failure brought on by drinking seawater meant that men soon died of natural causes. The first of the deceased were given burial at sea. As time ran out and provisions ran dry, those who died helped sustain the rest of the survivors. 
Cast Lots
If nobody has died and it’s gotten to the point where everyone is close to starvation, then it’s time to cast lots. Casting lots is the art of drawing straws, rolling dice, choosing slips of paper (The Peggy’s method of choice), or any other method of chance to determine an outcome. The whaleship Essex sank in 1820, leaving its survivors scattered across three individual whaleboats. When one of the Essex whaleboats ran out of provisions, sixteen-year-old Charles Ramsdell suggested casting lots. The other sailors—Owen Coffin, Barzalli Ray, and Captain George Pollard Jr.—agreed to the proposal. They cut up pieces of paper and put them in a hat, and the unlucky lot fell to Coffin. Next, they drew to see who would kill Coffin. That lot fell to Ramsdell, who initially refused to follow through before submitting. Coffin asked Pollard to deliver a message to his mother before he was shot and then consumed.
If you’re useful to the crew, then congratulations! You might be spared from the lottery process! There are conflicting accounts of what happened to make the whaleship Janet resort to cannibalism, but two things are certain: multiple sailors ended up adrift in a whaleboat, away from the ship, and the captain was spared, probably because he was the only navigator on the whaleboat. Like all games of chance, casting lots can inevitably be rigged. Cooks, surgeons, or anyone with the stomach to handle the butchery often coincidentally (or “coincidentally”) escape drawing the short straw, such as Ann Saunders, fiancée of the cook on the Frances Mary. The Frances Mary was a ship that in 1826, was wrecked and disabled by a storm. Saunders was one of the people who took up initiative in butchering the bodies and survived the thirty-five days the ship was afloat at sea.
What to Do with the Body
Once the decision has been made, someone must be the first to cut into the body. Often this duty falls to the ship’s cook or doctor. In the case of the Nottingham Galley, the job fell to John Deane, captain of the ship, who coincidentally had training as a butcher. The ship’s carpenter had died due to exposure, and it was decided (either by Deane or the crew, sources differ here) that he should be eaten. The first thing Deane did was to make the body seem less human. The hands, feet, head, and skin were all removed. Afterwards, Deane removed the organs, cut up the man’s breast, and then wrapped the pieces in seaweed before distributing them to the crew.
It was best to eat from the body as soon as possible: blood would still be relatively fresh, not clogging or coagulating inside the veins. When someone died or was killed, blood was often caught in containers and then immediately drunk—that was the case of the Euxine, a British collier that sank in 1874. The man who was to be eaten was Francis Shufus, an Italian crewman. After Shufus’s blood was drained, his body was dismembered, his organs cut out, and his head and hands thrown overboard. Survivors of the wreck of the Cospatrick, also in 1874, mention drinking the blood and eating the organs of the dead, as do survivors of the Frances Mary.
Keep Your Optics in Mind
Don’t want to admit that cannibalism happened? Find a scapegoat! In 1854, the explorer John Rae brought back news that the men of the Franklin Expedition, an expedition that vanished six years earlier, almost certainly participated in survival cannibalism. Lady Jane Franklin, wife of the expedition’s leader Sir John Franklin (yes, the Sir John Franklin who famously ate his boots), did not like that idea. It ran counter intuitive to the narrative she wanted to promote of her husband as a hero and a paragon of Englishness. So, she decided to change the narrative. With the help of Charles Dickens (yes, that Charles Dickens), Lady Franklin launched a slander campaign against Rae, claiming that he was misled and that his sources, the indigenous people of the area, were lying, having partaken in the cannibalism themselves instead. Lady Franklin’s PR campaign worked: Rae’s news was discredited in the press.
It also is an unpleasant fact that occasionally, the optics of who were eaten do not look good. Often in a survival cannibalism situation, people splinter into in-groups and out-groups. One might focus on taking care of those in one’s own group before taking care of others. While not purposeful, any outsiders to the group might end up a lower priority than those in the main group. We see this pattern appear time and time again in survival cannibalism situations: those of the same race, ethnicity, or social class often bond together (whether intentionally or not) against those of a different race, ethnicity, or social class. That certainly was the case with the whaleship Essex and the American sloop The Peggy. 
The Essex was based out of Nantucket, a booming American town with a large population of whalers. Even when the ship was sailing, the Nantucketers stayed together, bonding with and prioritizing their fellow Nantucketers over any out-of-town sailors. That did not let up when the Essex sank. When the ship was abandoned, the captain, first mate, and second mate divided up the crew among three whaleboats. Unsurprisingly, most of the Nantucketers landed in the captain and first mate’s boat. In their quest to sail to civilization, the survivors first landed their whaleboats on an island—uninhabited, but with scarce resources. Three men decided to stay on the island and take their chances there: none were native to Nantucket. And when cannibalism started on the whaleboats, the first four men to be eaten were African American. There is no reason to believe that the men’s demise was hastened by the sailors, as all the men died of natural causes. It was likely that they all had an inferior diet before the ship sank (food on a whaleship was often assigned due to where one slept—the African American sailors, who slept in the forecastle, received food of a lesser quality than those in the officers’ cabins or steerage), and three of the four held heavy manual labor jobs on the ship. This was a profound embarrassment for the fiercely abolitionist Nantucket.
I’m willing to cut the Essex crew a little slack with regards to their actions because there have been cases where the game was blatantly rigged. After springing a leak, The Peggy soon ran out of provisions. When talk of casting lots was brought up, out of the crew of ten, the first person whose lot came up was the captain’s Black manservant, who was quickly killed and eaten. Later, when the crew of the Peggy drew lots for a second time, the lot fell to David Flatt, a popular member of the crew. And instead of the crew taking action immediately, as they did with the only nonwhite crew member, Flatt was granted a night’s reprieve. Miraculously, Flatt was spared his fate, as another ship found The Peggy the next morning.
Accept the Fact That There Will Be Rumors
This is the 1700s and the 1800s, after all. If your shipwrecked crew or your falling-apart whaleboat or your polar expedition is found, and you are all in relatively good condition compared to the majority of your dead men? Someone is going to float the question about cannibalism, and someone is going to print a salacious newspaper headline. If you’re in the 1700s or the early 1800s, it might be easier just to own up to it. But if you’re post-1850, post-Franklin Expedition, when the general culture of the United States and United Kingdom takes a bent towards morality, didacticism, piety, and sternness? Even if you say that cannibalism never happened, à la Adolphus Greely and the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition (yes, named for the same Lady Franklin who came up with a John Rae smear campaign), people are still going to talk, and rumors are still going to persist.
Remember: Your Life Isn’t Over
Though if you were in a position of authority, hopefully you were nice to your crew before the cannibalism started. While surviving trauma might serve as a bonding experience, people will still remember what happened before the trauma. After the crew of the Nottingham Galley were rescued, John Deane immediately published an account of the journey that showed himself in a heroic light. When the other crewmen returned to London, they published a pamphlet themselves, casting Deane in a negative light, accusing him of cowardice, cruelty, and trying to turn the ship over to French privateers—an accusation that ends up favoring the crew, as years later, Deane was court-martialed for taking bribes.
But those who had to partake in this gruesome scenario shouldn’t be rejected or shunned. Obviously, there will be some lingering trauma associated with the act. Owen Chase, first mate of the Essex, was plagued by headaches and late in life, he began hoarding food due to the trauma. Before that, Chase had a long, full life. Chase returned to his job as a whaler, serving on whaleships for close to a decade, before retiring back to Nantucket with his wife and children. Captain Pollard’s whaling career was short-lived as the next ship, he commanded, the Two Brothers, also sank. His career path ended with him becoming the town’s night watchman and a respected, well-liked member of the community.
After all, despite what pop culture might tell you, there is no inherent immorality to survival cannibalism. It is simply a human eating another human to survive. The immorality comes in the lead-up to the act. It’s easy to read immorality in the blatant racism of men on The Peggy or the murderous actions of the Mignonette, but what about the Essex, or the Nottingham Galley? What about the modern stories of people driven to survival cannibalism, such as those affected by war or famine? There is nothing immoral about wanting to live: it simply depends on how you go about it.

Katie Gill is a librarian by day, essayist and podcaster by night. She has previously published at The Singles Jukebox, Anime Feminist, and Manor Vellum. Hear her voice on various podcasts including PseudoPod and Stacks and Stories. Twitter: @katiebeluga

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