An artifact from the 1884 Mignonette shipwreck, the last case of cannibalism in British naval history, is up for auction.
The yacht Mignonette was en route to Australia from Southampton when it was shipwrecked in a storm on July 5, 1884. The crew were left stranded in a 13-foot lifeboat in the middle of the south Atlantic with a few tins of turnips and some navigational instruments.
The sextant, now up for auction, bears a pencil inscription inside the lid that details their plight:
We Thomas Dudley, Edwin Stevens, Edmund Brookes & Richard Parker, the crew of the yacht Mignonette which foundered on Saturday the 5th of July, have been in our little dinghy 15 days.
We have neither food or water and are greatly reduced. We suppose our latitude to be 25º south our longitude 28ºW.
May the Lord have mercy upon us, please forward this to Southampton
Custom of the Sea
In order to avoid seawater, the men began drinking their own urine. The turnips and a captured sea turtle managed to feed them for ten or twelve days, but soon after that they began discussing the possibility of cannibalism.
When 17-year-old cabin boy Richard Parker, who had been drinking the salty water, lost consciousness, Dudley and Stephens figured he was probably dying. They decided they should kill him rather than let him die naturally so that his blood would be better preserved for drinking.
Dudley said a prayer, and then pushed his penknife into Parker’s jugular.
Of the grisly scene that followed, Dudley later said:
“I can assure you I shall never forget the sight of my two unfortunate companions over that ghastly meal we all was like mad wolfs who should get the most and for men fathers of children to commit such a deed we could not have our right reason.”
They were rescued four days later on July 29.
The men readily described their desperate act of survival, believing they were protected by an ancient custom of the sea. It was a common practice for shipwrecked survivors to draw lots to determine who would be eaten. Rather than go home to see their families, the sailors were detained and charged with murder.
Brooks was acquitted, but Dudley and Stephens were convicted and sentenced to death. Due to public outcry, however, their sentences were commuted to six months imprisonment.
The sextant up for auction in November at the London-based Charles Miller Ltd. is said to be the only remaining artifact from the event. When Dudley was released, he took it with him when he moved to Australia. There it remained until it was bought from an antique shop in 1973.