The Macabre case of the Mignonette

Illustration of the yacht Mignonette.

Authenticated acts of cannibalism among shipwreck survivors are remarkably rare.   But when they have taken place, those involved have often been met with revulsion and sympathy in equal measure.

Such was the case with the survivors of the small yacht Mignonette which foundered on its way to Australia in 1884.

The Mignonette was a small yacht of about 33 tons. It had been purchased in England by Sydney barrister and Commodore of the Sydney Yacht Club, John Want. He hired Captain Thomas Dudley and a crew of three to sail the vessel to Australia for him while he returned by a regular steamer service in more salubrious surrounds.

The Mignonette sailed from Southampton on 19 May 1884 and briefly stopped at Madeira off the Moroccan coast around the middle of June.   Nothing further was heard of it until 6 September when Dudley and two of his crew returned to England having been rescued at sea by the German barque Motezuma.

Six weeks after leaving England they were over 3,000 Kilometres south of the equator and 2,500 kilometres off the Namibian coast. By now the weather had turned foul. The seas ran high and they were running further south before a strong wind. On the afternoon of 5 July a gigantic rogue wave rose from nowhere and crashed into the side of the yacht stoving in the hull.

As the Mignonette went down, The Illustrated London News, 20 Sept 1884, p. 268.

The mate, Edwin Stevens, was at the wheel and only had time to call out a warning before the monster wave struck.   Fortunately Dudley grabbed hold of the boom and held on as a wall of water swept across the deck.

The Mignonette immediately started filling with water.   Dudley ordered the men to prepare to abandon ship.   They got the lifeboat over the side while he went below to gather provisions.   By then seawater was already swirling around the cabin interior.

The captain grabbed two tins of what he thought was preserved meat, raced back on deck and leaped into the dinghy as the Mignonette sank below the waves.

Dudley, Stevens, Edward Brooks, and seventeen years old Richard Parker spent a frightening night in the tiny four metre dinghy as the storm raged around them.    To make matters worse, they had no fresh water and discovered their tinned provisions consisted of just one kilogram of preserved turnips.

“Sailing Before the Wind.” The Illustrated London News, 29 Sept 1884.

For the next five days they subsisted on small morsels of turnip and small quantities of rainwater, but it was never enough.  Then their luck improved, at least for a short while.   They captured and killed a turtle which had been basking on the sea’s surface.

By day 19 the remaining can of turnips and the turtle meat had long gone and the young cabin boy, Parker, had started drinking seawater to alleviate his burning thirst.   He was now lying in the bottom of the boat in a delirious state.

Wracked with hunger and despair, that night Thomas Dudley suggested they should draw lots to see who should be killed to provide food so the rest might live. Brooks wanted no part of it and told the others he thought they should all live or die together.

Dudley and Stevens discussed their options and felt as they were both married men with families to support, Parker should be the one as he was already close to death.   The matter was settled.

Dudley prayed for forgiveness for what they were about to do, then as Stephens held Parker down, Dudley slit his throat with his knife.   Brooks turned away covering his eyes with his hands but he could not block out the lad’s feeble cries for mercy.

As Parker’s blood drained from his body, they caught it in an empty turnip tin and drank it.   Brooks, despite his horror, was unable to resist taking his share.

The three men fed on Parker until they were rescued by the passing barque Montezuma, five days later.

Newspaper illustration showing the “terrible tale of the sea. and the horrible sufferings,” of the shipwrecked sailors.

When Captain Dudley returned to England he reported the loss of his vessel and the hardships they had endured afterwards, including the death of the delirious Parker.

As abhorrent as his actions were, he did not believe he had committed a crime. In his mind he had sacrificed one life to save three.

But, he and Stephens were remanded in custody to stand trial for the capital crime of Murder.  

There was huge interest in the tragic story both in Britain and in Australia.   Many people appeared sympathetic towards the Captain and his first mate.  But there were also those who felt the pair acted prematurely in killing Parker who was already close to death anyway.

At their trial, Dudley and Stephens pleaded not guilty, their barrister arguing they acted in self-defence.   He used the analogy that if two shipwrecked men were on a plank that would only support one, one or the other could be excused for pushing away the other man to drown.   For, he argued, were both men to remain on the plank, both would perish.

FEARFUL SUFFERINGS AT SEA. LAD KILLED AND EATEN. Courtesy State Library of Scotland.

The judge didn’t see things that way.   In summing up the case, he told the jury:

“It was impossible to say that the act of Dudley and Stephens was an act of self-defence. Parker at the bottom of the boat was not endangering their lives by any act of his.  The boat could hold them all, and the motive for killing him was not for the purpose of lightening the boat, but for the purpose of eating him, which they could do when dead, but not while living.   What really imperilled their lives was not the presence of Parker, but the absence of food and drink.”

The jury found the pair guilty and the judge sentenced them to death but it appears there was little likelihood that the death sentence would ever be carried out.    Even Parker’s family had forgiven the two men on trial.

After waiting on death row for six months, both sentences were commuted to time served and they were released from custody.  

It was generally agreed that they had acted as they did under the extreme duress of being lost at sea for so long without food or water.   No one felt that justice would be served by punishing the two men any further, for they had already suffered enough.  

Copyright © C.J. Ison, Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2021.

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