Cannibalism and “Custom of the Sea”

Life at sea occasionally ended in tragedy. When vessels foundered in the age of sail, and crews found themselves in remote waters far from aid, sailors relied on their considerable professional skills to try to save themselves. But circumstances often outmatched them. If food and water ran short, cannibalism sometimes ensured survival, and a sympathetic public was likely to forgive such extreme necessities upon return to land. The common expression for these acts of survival was “the custom of the sea.”

Melville’s Moby-Dick drew from the story of the Essex, albeit with dramatized effect. In Moby-Dick, it seems as if the whole crew of the Pequod craved a cannibal diet—if Melville never fed his characters flesh, he still described their whale prey with an anatomy and behavior parallel to a hunted man.

Another famous shipwreck with cannibalism was the 1816 wreck of the French frigate Medusa, whose raft of 151 survivors floated for two weeks until an English bark rescued fifteen men. The wreck of the British yacht Mignonette in 1884 found the survivors in legal trouble for murdering a shipmate for food. This event changed the “custom of the sea” from a tragic but accepted necessity to a legal crime. As a consequence, fewer mariners admitted to cannibalism, although it still happened.

Cannibalism among shipwrecked sailors was openly acknowledged in the days of sail, and castaways often admitted to drawing lots to decide who would live and who die. Yet it is clear that these lotteries were rarely fair, and the strong typically ate the weak. In disaster after disaster, passengers perished before sailors, boys before men, and Blacks before whites. So, too, perhaps, among the men of the Essex. Is it a coincidence that only Nantucketers remained in the boats at the end, or that only white men survived, or that only non-Nantucketers elected to remain on Henderson Island? We will never know for sure, but the questions are there to be asked, further darkening what, by any measure, was a journey of nearly unimaginable horror.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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