On 5 July 1884, the yacht Mignonette set sail from Southampton bound for Sydney. Halfway through their voyage, Captain Tom Dudley and his crew of three men were beset by a monstrous storm off the coast of Africa. After four days of battling towering seas and hurricane gales, their yacht was finally crushed by a ferocious forty foot wave.
The survivors were cast adrift a thousand miles from the nearest landfall in an open thirteen-foot dinghy, without provisions, water or shelter from the scorching sun. When, after twenty four days, they were finally rescued by a passing yacht, the Moctezuma, only three men were left and they were in an appalling condition. On their return to England, Tom Dudley freely confessed that they had killed and eaten the cabin boy, Richard Parker, in order to survive. His voluntary statement was the only evidence against them.
The ordeal that they had endured and the show trial that followed held the whole nation - from the lowliest ship's deckhand to Queen Victoria herself - spellbound during the following winter. In their determination to “uphold the law” and outlaw this barbaric custom, the Government and the judiciary conspired to bend and even break the law themselves. No jury ever convicted Tom Dudley but a panel of justices acting as both judge and jury, convicted him and then sentenced him to death. Only massive public protests and riots on the streets of London forced the Home Secretary to commute the sentence.
From yellowing newspaper files, personal letters and diaries, and first-person accounts of the principals, Neil Hanson has pieced together the extraordinary tale of Tom Dudley, the Mignonette and her crew. Their routine voyage culminated in unimaginable hardship and horror, during which the survivors of the storm had to make some impossible decisions. This is the true story of the voyage and the subsequent court case that outlawed for ever a practice followed since men first put to the ocean in boats: The Custom of the Sea.
'A terrific story… a riveting read.'
The Spectator, London
'Makes astonishing reading… extraordinary.'
Times Literary Supplement, London
'Engrossing… the nightmarish events of the shipwreck are reported with real power and the account of the trial reads like a good courtroom drama.'
Sunday Times, London
'A gripping tale… offers a compelling look at the life of sailors in the latter half of the nineteenth century.'
Kirkus Reviews, USA
'An exciting, historically accurate depiction… Hanson impresses with his careful, engrossing presentation.'
Publisher's Weekly, USA