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R. v Dudley & Stephens

By David Edmonds

We at the Uehiro Centre keep a careful watch on the latest developments and pride ourselves on being bang up to date with the news.  So I’m pleased to be able to bring you the story of an episode that occurred on the night of July 25th.

Well, July 25th 1884.  125 years ago.

On that day Captain Dudley killed and later began to eat Richard Parker.  He shared Parker’s body with two others, Edwin Stephens and Edmund Brooks.

But perhaps we should go back in time a further 20 days.  The four men had been in the middle of the Atlantic en route from England to Australia when they sailed into a terrible storm and their yacht began to sink.  They clambered into a life-boat.   All they had to keep them going were two tins of turnips.

On the 20th day they were close to starvation.  Richard Parker was the youngest (17) and the weakest, and was drifting in and out of consciousness.    Captain Dudley thought there was only one solution; one of them had to be sacrificed for food.  He proposed they draw lots. 

Brooks objected.   That night Dudley and Stephens stabbed Parker in the throat with a penknife. 

For four days, until they were finally rescued, Dudley, Stephens and Brooks fed off Parker’s carcass. 

As Dudley was later to explain, if they hadn’t acted the way they did, all four of them would have died.  As it happened, Parker was not only the closest to death, but the only one without a family.  But in Regina v Dudley & Stephens, when two of the sailors were tried for murder, a court consisting of the top judges in the country found them guilty.  Fearing popular disquiet, a death sentence was later commuted to a short spell in jail. 

John Stuart Mill’s ‘Utilitarianism’, published two decades earlier, had clearly still to filter through the British judiciary.   Today the courts would almost certainly be more lenient – the case is still cited in discussions about the defence of ‘necessity’.  

But in deciding to prosecute the case the then Home Secretary wrote ‘If these men are not tried for murder, we are giving carte blanche to every ship’s captain, whenever he runs low on provisions, to eat his cabin boy’.  

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2 Comment on this post

  1. In the case before the House of Lords, one of the opinions said that the Home Secretary should look at the matter in order to determine whether to exercise the royal pardon. The idea was that the truly hard decisions in the criminal law should be made by legislature or executive prerogative. In this case, the doctrine of “necessity” was considered too dangerous to the general functioning of the law against murder. It was too vague; it could swallow up a good part of the law against murder by providing too easy an exception to liability.

  2. “John Stuart Mill’s ‘Utilitarianism’, published two decades earlier, had clearly still to filter through the British judiciary.”

    I believe the cultural shift is a little different than you describe. My understanding is that up until this case, cannibalism due to necessity was the accepted practice of the sea. (And that Dudley and the others thus showed no shyness about telling their story all over town upon their return, or in any way tried to conceal their actions.) The prosecution of the case, and the heavy verdict, was not some pre-utilitarian thinking, but actually the first attempt by the English judicial system to make a public statement that they were going to start prosecuting such cases.

    Or I could be totally wrong, it’s been years since I read about this case.

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