The stars are engaged in a constant, cosmic cycle, with millions blinking out of existence across the cosmos, only to be replaced by fledglings birthed by the stellar-nurseries that sit throughout the universe. They stand out as beacons of light, beating away the pervading forces of darkness, acting as the overseers of man, who comparatively, are as ephemeral as the lifespan of a burning matchstick. In a topic such as the law, and especially the common law (the extensive network of judicial rulings, which are ‘binding’ and used by judges as reference to decide the outcome of a case, and establish edicts for the future), nothing is as longstanding or as universal as these celestial bodies, and so it is a common misconception, that specific legal statutes or cases, once generally accepted as ‘legal canon’, so to speak, tend to evade the drags of time. They don’t. And so it is inaccurate to refer to some of the most widely known cases as ‘everlasting gems’, in the world of jurisprudence, which is a false title many dole out. Though certain ‘landmarks’ do pave the way for legal conduct, and make additions to the ever evolving common law, they are no more cemented in history than certain celebrities are in the cut-throat business of Hollywood. The law reflects upon the ideologies of society, and once certain events stimulate change, it is often that we see certain cases that may have been classed as being ‘great’, toppling from their mantles and into the realms of insignificance. It is for these reason why trends and context are of the utmost importance, when considering what makes a case truly important, albeit for only a period of time. Due to the nature of the common law, it is a force to be reckoned with. Its boundaries are constantly tested and buffered by a compilation of decisions, making it a tangled web of experiments, inventions and wild cards. Any case which lives up to this simple truth, and survives the stresses of time and change, is one that may be determined as being relatively ‘great’. Such is the case which involved the death of the sailor, Richard Parker, who was eaten by his fellow crew members.
The ‘Mignonette’, a £400 boat owned by the acclaimed Australian maritime lawyer, John Henry Want, set sail from Southampton in May, of 1884. It was captained by the Englishman Tom Dudley, and a three man crew, consisting of Edwin Stephens, Edmund Brooks and the cabin boy, Richard Parker. The purpose of their voyage was to deliver the yacht to its owner in Sydney, and all the men had their own intents and purposes in committing to such a treacherous journey, spanning some of the most dangerous waters on the planet. The prospects of a fresh start, financial gain, an economically-sound method of migration and a desire to adventure, were some of the catalysts which sparked the ill-fated journey. On July the 5th, the boat was buffeted by strong winds in the midst of the Atlantic, and was dealt a devastating blow when the waves pummelled a hole into its frame. The men had no choice but to abandon ship, and resort to their meagre lifeboat.
Afflicted by the violent waves, much of their food and caskets of water were lost to the endless depths of the ocean, leaving them with a measly supply of just two tins of turnips and no drinking water. 680 miles away from the nearest land, it seemed as though the men were indeed, doomed. In their first week, they had to face off the endeavours of a particularly determined shark, and upon finishing their supply of food, the ravenous men devoured a turtle they were capable of pulling on board. However, without access to any fresh water, the crew were forced to drink their own urine. As their situation worsened, they found themselves discussing the controversial, yet widely reported custom of cannibalism, dating back to the Ancient Greeks. The idea was that it would be for the best that a few men sacrificed themselves (decided by the drawing of straws or lots) to provide nourishment for the others, so that their peers may survive. The blood would relieve their unquenchable thirst and the consumption of the flesh, would settle their maddening hunger. At first, this disgusting, yet seemingly necessary action, was rejected by the majority of the men, although this came to change when the 17 year old Richard Parker fell severely ill from drinking sea water, which led to a terrible case of diarrhoea, considerably worsening his dehydrated and undernourished form. Dudley announced his intent to kill Parker, on the condition that no ship appeared on the horizon the following morning, and so, he slit the poor cabin boy’s throat on the 20th day of their ordeal. Brooks was the only member who wanted no hand in the gory murder of Parker, although he did join the others in guzzling his blood and gorging on his innards. It was only out of sheer luck, the remaining trio were finally rescued on the 29th of July, by the German ship, the ‘Montezuma’.
These series of events are undeniably gory, macabre and to many who have never experienced, or can even expect to endure such a horrifying tribulation, may seem incredibly outlandish. The disenfranchisement of Richard Parker, and his dehumanisation at the hands of his fellow crew members, is an occurrence which deserves extensive legal scrutiny and analysis, due to the strange nature of the circumstances in which the murder was committed. Dudley was incredibly open about the events that took place, and in fact boasted of his triumph over death, through the despicable means he had sought to ensure his survival. He even brought back Parker’s remains to England, to ensure he received a Christian burial, and revealed everything in his detailed report to the maritime authorities. In the statement Dudley filed, he wrote, “on the twentieth day the lad Richard Parker was very weak through drinking salt water. (I), with the assistance of Mate Stephens, killed him to sustain the existence of those remaining, they being all agreed the act was absolutely necessary.” Their reports were passed on by the corrupt local shipping master, to the Board of Trade, which then forwarded the files to the Home Office, which held power and influence over all criminal proceedings. James Laverty, a local policemen, took matters into his own hands, after becoming angered by the conniving nature of the shipping master, who had turned a blind eye to many illicit actions in the past, and interrogated Dudley. He became incredibly irritated by the arrogant manner in which the ‘Mignonette’s’ captain recounted the chain of events, especially when he boldly brandished the very knife that had claimed Parker’s life. Laverty secured warrants for all three men, and imprisoned them, after gaining permission to do so from Henry Liddicoat, who served as mayor and chair of the magistrates. Meanwhile, their files were progressing through the upper levels of the Home Office, and were analysed by the Home Secretary himself.
The public saw the three men as heroes, who had conquered death itself. They were seen as being blessed by the grace of God, and much support was garnered for them. A shop owner posted bail for their release, and the brother of Richard Parker even made a public display of shaking their hands. Despite all of this, Dudley and Stephens were made to stand trial in November, 1884, whilst Brooks was absolved of any crime, when William Danckwerts produced no evidence against him. In hindsight, the trial was not an entirely fair one, and perhaps even aligned against the two defendants. The judge presiding the trial had been replaced with another (Baron Huddleston) who had a supposedly better character, as well as a history of forcing verdicts and no care for the sailors. A benefit that Dudley and his companion had, was the support of the public, which allowed them to secure a brilliant lawyer, by the name of Arthur J.H. Collins. The prosecutor for this case was named Arthur Charles, and he initiated the trial with the fact that there was no established precedent for necessity in English law, which meant that although the men had been in terrible conditions with little to no hope, their actions as a result of desperation, could not be excused or justified. He argued that they both fulfilled the conditions of acts reus (Latin for guilty act) and that of mens rea ( Latin for guilty mind). He demanded that they should be convicted as, although he did admit to the fact that these were extraordinary circumstances. Laverty testified about the manner in which Dudley had given his statement and Brooks was also called to the stand, where he explained Dudley’s role in instigating the crime, and of his own rejection of the captain’s idea. Collins, defending the two men, called upon Brooks to explain the disgusting environment in which the men had suffered and the deterioration of Parker’s health. He even asked him to explain his own involvement in feasting upon the poor cabin boy’s body. It was at this point that the judge intervened, and refused to accept any notions related to necessity, which was on what Collins had built up his defence. In addition to this, the judge ordered the jury to either find the accused men guilty, or else deliver a special verdict, in which they would express the facts and allow the higher levels of the legal system to analyse the case. The jury recognised that if the boy had not been killed, the entirety of the crew would have perished, and also accepted the fact that the boy had been on the verge of death. A bench of five judges gathered at the Divisional Court, under the Chief Justice, Lord Coleridge. Collins continued to express the importance of recognising and defending necessity, by posing moral arguments. Unfortunately, for Dudley and Stephens, the two men were found guilty and convicted. They were sent to Holloway Prison for a time.
The Chief Justice was understanding of the dreadful nature of their circumstances, yet remained unmoved on the fact that the men had committed a murder of a much weaker, and inferior fellow human. He also stated that it was no more necessary to kill the boy than any of the other men. Shockingly, Dudley and Stephens were sentenced to death, but again they were fortunate, and were on the receiving-end of Queen Victoria’s mercy, who reduced their sentence to a mere six month prison stint. To this day, there is much discussion and worry over the acceptance of the defence of necessity. The general consensus amongst the legal world remains in line with the fears uttered by Lord Coleridge, that it may become a ‘legal cloak for unbridled passion and atrocious crime’. It would seem as though its acceptance would bring far more worries than benefits. The trial of Dudley and Stephens, was one that was thrust into the limelight, garnering both the attention of the masses, and the academics of the legal world. The case has served as an example for many similar cases throughout the years, and is widely accepted as an all time ‘great’, due to its historical importance and relevance. It established the precedent that necessity cannot be a defence to an act of murder.
- ‘Is Eating People Wrong? Great Legal Cases and How They Shaped the World’ by Allan Hutchinson.