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The Custom of the Sea is a rather macabre yet fascinating tale of human survival and legal chicanery. One tends to think of desperate acts of cannibalism as the stuff of horror movies, but enough shipwrecked men resorted to this most desperate of means for it to become an unspoken law of sailors. This is an account of the doomed yacht Mignonette which went down in 1884 in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, far from land as well as the trade lanes most other ships pursued. Captain Tom Dudley, by all accounts a kind and good man, and his three hands drifted for weeks inside a leaky, tiny dinghy, surviving on two tins of turnips and a small ration of water. Ravished by weather conditions, fear, starvation, and especially thirst, they persevered as long as they could, but eventually Dudley knew that the lot must be cast and one man die in order that the others might survive a little longer. When the youngest hand succumbed to the temptation of quenching his thirst by drinking sea water and rapidly approached death, the decision was made by Dudley and his first made Stephens to kill him. Blood quenched the terrible thirst of the men, including the third man Brooks who partook of the terrible rations as willingly as his mates, and human meat sustained all three men long enough for a ship to finally rescue them after almost four weeks adrift. The captain who saved the men understood, as most sailing people did, that Dudley had done what had to be done. When the men finally made it back home, they were shocked to find themselves charged with murder. The case was a sensation, and the conviction of Dudley and Stephens for willful murder provoked a myriad of outcries from all over the country while setting a legal precedent of unusual distinction.
The book begins somewhat slowly, at least for me, as the author devotes a significant amount of time to the life and duties of men aboard ship. The story of the destructive storm they encounter and their ordeal at sea is of course quite gripping. The second half of the book basically covers their arrest and trial, and while this part of the story necessarily lacks some of the human drama that has come before it, the miscarriage of justice described by the author increasingly raises one's hackles as the book nears its end. Such an act of desperate cannibalism cannot be condoned, of course, but it is certainly understandable under the desperate conditions these sailors found themselves in. The moral and ethical issues underlying the controversy are debatable, but the story that comes out here is one of judicial abuse. The Home Office, having failed earlier to outlaw "the custom of the sea," basically used this case to obtain its elusive goal, railroading the unfortunate sailors. Their conviction was guaranteed from the start, a fact their own lawyer knew but did not divulge to them at the time. Most remarkably, the presiding judge basically told the jury they must convict the men of murder yet went on to resort to an archaic legal maneuver that took judgment out of the hands of the jury (for fear that local sentiment might result in an acquittal) and made the royal court both judge and jury. I'm not a lawyer, but the legal jurisprudence of this case would seem to be of great significance.
The book does drag in a couple of places. Hanson takes the time to comment on the history of shipwrecks and of cannibalistic survival methods of desperate men. He also goes into great detail as to life on board a ship and the pitiful state of mandated food rations. These facts are all interesting and provide a useful background to the story of the Mignonette, but they do take away from the driving force of the tale. I should say that the story is written in a narrative form, for the most part. While this makes the book more compelling, it does pose a problem in terms of the facts. The author describes the life and times of these men as if he were there recording their thoughts and deeds from the day they sailed to the day their legal ordeal finally ended. That kind of narrative would not make for good history in an academic sense, but it does make for a compelling, eye-opening read.
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on 8 June 2003
What did I want for Christmas? Away on business, flicking through the legal pages of one of Britain's broadsheets, I came across the stocking-filler section. Glancing down the list I came across the words cannibalism, sea, ordeal, adrift, and survivors. The perfect light entertainment?
Well-researched, entertainingly written and with an engrossing story, this is an excellent read. Telling the story of the yacht Mignonette from the start of the journey, to what eventually became of the survivors, you just want to keep on reading.
It's not a dusty record of the events, but a novel written with some style. Overflowing with information and period details, if you like your books on obscure incidents painstakingly researched, then this is for you.
And it offers an insight in to how the legal system worked in Victorian days. Which is why I think it was in the newspaper in the first place.
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on 5 March 2013
This is a pretty thorough account of the ill-fated voyage of the 'Mignonette' and its aftermath, which resulted in cannibalism effectively being criminalised. The title refers to the practice of drawing lots in order to decide which man dies to save the rest in the event of a shipwreck or other disaster which renders seamen without food and/or water. Hanson takes a winding route through the events, stopping off to explain the history of cannibalism on the high seas, and the English penal system of the 19th Century among other things, but this is useful background.

What worked less well for me was the dramatisation of the story, which almost turned it into the literary equivalent of a television drama-documentary. Hanson clearly envisioned this on screen and gives Captain Dudley and the rest of the 'actors' lines to speak and inner feelings at appropriate moments. It seems unlikey that every single one of these was directly expressed in correspondence, transcripts and contemporary accounts, so although not wholly incongruous, it does blur the boundaries of fact and fiction in quite an unnecessary and unsatisfying way. I would have preferred something wholly non-fiction, with speculation clearly defined, rather than a book which tends towards novelization with factual inserts, but that is a personal opinion and others may enjoy the read as it is.
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on 4 April 2000
A book like this comes around rarely. It reads like a gothic novel but has all the research and facts of a court presentation. It is a true story, but its truth may be instinctively denied, so terrible is its basis. In brief, The Custom of the Sea is a masterpiece of literature, historic jurisprudence and English maritime history. Above all it is a stark testament to Man's will to survive. However large one's personal library may be, there are only a few books that have the power to leave a lifelong impression upon the reader. I predict this will be one such book.
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on 21 June 2007
I cannot deny that I love reading of ships and the slightly macabre element to this particular book drew me in. I saw it in the second hand store for 5euro and couldn't resist. Boy am I glad I didn't!

This has got to be the most well written book I have set my paws on in a long time.

The story is delicately handled but leaves nothing to the imagination as to the suffering of the four men that were wrecked in 1884. Particularly enjoyable is the nature of the Captain - Dudley. There are arguments for the men doing what they did but there are arguments against it and it leaves you with that killer question - -- 'What would I have done?'

I am not sure any author could have tackled this issue with such insight and genuine affection for the reputation of the men involved in the tale.
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on 15 January 2000
From start to finish this book was captivating. The author has retold a remarkable story of seamanship, survival and stoicism, as well as giving an interesting lesson in maritime history. The book is an easy read and the author has masterfully linked the telling of a story about a tragic voyage made by four seaman in the 1880s to 19th century British politics, economic greed and the lot of sailors throughout history. It is clear that Neil Hanson has thoroughly researched his chosen topic. He has recreated the characters and events so vividly that the reader can easily understand the politics and social morality of the times. I found this book exceptional.
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I thought the whole topic may have been covered by recounting numerous known or suspected instances of cannibalism. In fact the story unfolded so well into a political thriller and described in good style the historical provenance of our legal and penal systems as seen during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Without giving the game away, I'd say that they were not guilty of anything.
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on 29 October 2000
The Custom of the Sea is my top read for the year so far, a fasinating story of the sea and human survival that ends up as a political thriller. The author has done an excellent job of capturing the sea faring atmosphere of the time. Excellent, deserves six stars!
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on 1 September 2010
A good book giving an insight into the seafaring traditions & customs of a long time ago!
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on 14 March 2016
best book i ever read
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