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Tom Dudley was an intensely respectable Anglican and teetotaller, and was employed to sail the fifty-foot yacht Mignonette from England to Sydney, Australia.
He set sail from Southampton on 19 May with a crew of three: Edwin Stephens (mate), Ned Brooks (able seaman) and Richard Parker (ordinary seaman and “boy”). The yacht foundered in the South Atlantic on 5 July, the crew escaping in a small dinghy supplied with two tins of turnips, but no water.
In 1884 Tom Dudley and Edwin Stephens were sentenced to death for killing their young shipmate in order to eat him. The case caused a sensation in Victorian England; public sympathy was strongly in favour of the two men. But the legal authorities were determined to establish - even to the extent of manipulating legal procedures - that necessity was not a defence for murder.
Sentenced to death but reprieved, they served a mere six months in prison. Brian Simpson presents these events in their context, now utterly remote: that of the Victorian seaman in the days of sail, when murder and cannibalism after shipwreck ranked as an accepted custom of the sea.
Cannibalism and the Common Law tells the story of a dramatic collision between two worlds: that of Victorian judges and their parlour morality, and that of seamen confronted by brutal reality. In this tour deforce Brian Simpson proves that legal history can be presented in human terms; and that it can make compulsive reading.
Cannibalism and the Common Law is an enthralling classic of legal history. The killing and eating of one of the crew, Richard Parker, led to the leading case in the defence of necessity, R. v. Dudley and Stephens.
Brian Simpson sets the legal proceedings in their broadest historical context, providing a detailed account of the events and characters involved and of life at sea in the time of sail. This brilliant and fascinating book, is a marvelous example of careful historical detection, and first-class legal history, written by a master.