Jay Hulme @JayHulmePoet Award winning Transgender performance poet. Speaker. Educator. Contributor to anthologies. Currently doing some children's poetry. Highly Commended: CLiPPA 2018 Dec. 23, 2018 3 min read

Okay, it's time to tell a Story.

So I know people have this image of the seafaring aspect of the Georgian and Victorian eras as this grand thing, and of Victorian morals being stiff and immutable, but it wasn’t until 1884 that it was made clear that sailors couldn’t kill and eat each other at sea.

Like, until 1884 people just accepted that if they got stuck in a boat with no food, or shipwrecked on an island, they’d end up drawing lots, and one of them would be killed and eaten.

It was completely normal and socially acceptable.

So what happened in 1884?

Well, these four blokes got stuck on a shitty lifeboat with two tins of turnips (actual fact, not hyperbolic statement) and began to starve to death, and when the cabin boy fell unconscious two of the others decided to kill and eat him, which they proceeded to do.

Once the surviving three were finally rescued, they were taken to Falmouth, in Cornwall, where they told the whole story to the harbour officials - cannibalism and all - because so far as they were concerned, it was entirely legal, as loads of people had done it before.

The thing was, it was only due to complex legal reasons that the previous cannibal sailors hadn't been prosecuted for killing and eating people, and unfortunately for these guys those complex legal loopholes didn't apply here, and the British government were like:

So the three sailors were arrested and went to court, the thing was the Victorian public, of all classes, were extremely mad that these guys were arrested, because as far as they were concerned, killing and eating someone if your ship was wrecked was a perfectly fine thing to do.

So because the public were mad, the Judge, Baron Huddleston, knew the jury would be mad, and no matter that the sailors actions were technically illegal, they would be forced nd guilty and freed.

So good old Huddleston got to tampering.

The thing was he tampered and tampered and altered the record, and lied, and stripped away the power of the jury so much, because he was adamant the sailors would get the death penalty, and it all went a bit too far - so they eventually found themselves in front of a Queens Jury.

A Queens Jury is a panel of judges, and in the end these judges gave the sailors the death penalty, as was mandatory for murder cases, but it was commuted to six months in prison because, the general public would have probably rioted in the street if they were given much more.

Except, when I refer to "the sailors" here, I'm only referring to TWO of them, because only two of the three surviving sailors were prosecuted and convicted. One wasn't even taken to trial.

Yup, because he refused to take part in the decision making process, or the stabbing-the-cabin-boy-in-the-jugular-with-a-pen-knife process, the third sailor was seen as innocent and wasn’t even prosecuted, despite the fact that he ate more cabin boy than one of the convicted two.

And that is how the Victorian public defended cannibalism, and how the British government made it very clear that under no circumstances was murder acceptable (but in the process kind of made it very clear that eating people, so long as you didn't personally kill them, was okay)

The best part is that the Judge & Government were so adamant that they'd get these prosecutions because this kind of incident had happened too many times before, and so people just accepted it as a fully normal thing to do, just... The normal protocol upon shipwreck. Cannibalism.

(if ppl wanna find out more the case was called - R v Dudley and Stephens (1884) - and because it was so highly publicised at the time there's a nice amount of reading around it)

(forgot to mention that the cabin boy was called Richard Parker, and a years before, in 1838, Edgar Allan Poe had written a shipwreck story where they draw straws and one of the sailors gets eaten. And that sailor is called Richard Parker. Life imitating art in the spookiest way)

(if you want to, you can drop me a tip here:  https://ko-fi.com/jayhulme )

Ironically, I don't consume caffeine, so will probably spend it, not on coffee, but on nonfiction books about weirdly specific things.


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