Life at sea occasionally ended in tragedy! When vessels foundered, crews were at the mercy of the open seas. Fate led sailors to make terri-ble decisions. Taboo, often unspeakable but necessary actions taken to ensure survival in extreme circumstances were forgiven upon return to land. There was even a term given to this: “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.
Historically, reports of this “custom” were rare but scandalous. The mutineers of the Bounty, who island-hopped around the Pacific before settling at Pitcairn Island, murdered and stole from each other and indigenous Islanders—actions which were revealed when Nantucket-er Mayhew Folger discovered their descendants while whaling in the early 1800s. Another infamous cause celebre was the 1816 wreck of the French frigate Medusa, whose raft of 116 survivors floated for two weeks until an English bark rescued five men. Later disasters, like the wreck of the British yacht Mignonette in 1884, found survivors in legal trouble for these acts of necessity, much to the displeasure of a sympathetic public.
Destitute castaways have admitted to drawing lots to decide who would live and who would die, however it is not clear if these lotteries were fair. Power is hard to relinquish and those with it often kept their seat at the feast: sailors sacrificed passengers, officers ate the enlistment,boys overpowered old men, and sailors of color perished before their white brethren. For example, the colonial governor of Senegal survived the Medusa wreck (1816) by securing a lifeboat for himself. Of the total complement of 400 souls on board the frigate, 15 survived. Power dynamics may have gripped 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 abandoned on Henderson Island? We will never know.
Today, people in dire situations struggle with these moral decisions. The 1972 crash in the Andes Mountains of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 with 45 passengers on board mirrored the Essex tragedy. For the 16 ultimately rescued, the Catholic Church forgave the sin of “anthropophagy” or eating the dead—it was not murder, but it was an extreme act of survival.