In 1838 Edgar Allan Poe’s only full length novel, “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket1 was published. The novel was not a commercial, or literary success.

Poe’s novel is a seafaring tale about Arthur Gordon Pym who was a stowaway on a whaling ship called the Grampus. After a number of misadventures including a mutiny after which a number of crew were cast adrift on a small boat “Bounty -style”, three of the sailors, manage to retake control of the ship. They spare the life of one of the mutineers to help them run the ship. However further bad luck ensues when a storm hits and the mast is broken and the hold is flooded. The foursome find themselves adrift without provisions and facing death by starvation and thirst.

Ultimately with no land in sight and no rescue appearing likely, they decide to resort to cannibalism and draw straws to decide who will be killed.

Now if you’re reading this article and thinking that this story sounds familiar, it is because every law student knows the (in)famous necessity case: R v Dudley and Stephens (1884) 14 QBD 2732. The facts of that case commenced on 19 May 1884 when the yacht Mignonette3 set sail from Southampton bound for Australia4. On 5 July the four member crew were cast adrift in a lifeboat some 1600 miles from the Cape of Good Hope when the yacht sank after being damaged by a wave. After 21 days with no food or water, Dudley (with the agreement of Stephens) killed the cabin boy (being the youngest and weakest) for food. They were rescued four days later. Dudley’s diary in a masterstroke of understatement records the rescue occurred “as we was having our breakfast we will call it”5. On return to England, Dudley and Stephens were tried for murder, found guilty and sentenced to death. The sentence was not carried out and they were pardoned on the basis that they serve a prison term of six months. To escape the notoriety, Dudley migrated to Australia in 18856.

While the case seems to be an eerie example of life imitating fiction, an even more remarkable aspect of these stories is that the name of the fictional crew member who drew the short straw in Poe’s novel and the name of the real life cabin boy (murdered 46 years later) in Dudley and Stephens was both Richard Parker!

This story was apparently the inspiration for Lon Fuller’s “The Case of the Speluncean Explorers7 and also for a Monty Python sketch8. In an interesting reverse twist, Yann Martel’s Booker Prize winning novel “Life of Pi” is about an Indian boy, Pi Patel who is stranded on a life boat with a fully grown bengal tiger for 227 days after the cargo ship transporting his family’s zoo sinks. The tiger’s name? – you guessed it – Richard Parker.

2The case is referred to in the speech given by NSW Chief Justice Bathurst at admission ceremonies (at [10]): http://www.lawlink.nsw.gov.au/lawlink/Supreme_Court/ll_sc.nsf/vwFiles/Bathurst2012.pdf/$file/Bathurst2012.pdf

3The Mignonette was a 15.8m cruiser. Jessica Watson’s Pink Lady was 10.2m.

4The yacht had been purchased by John Henry Want who became Attorney General of New South Wales in 1885

5New York Times book review of Neil Hanson’s “The Custom of the Sea”, 16 April 2000 at http://www.nytimes.com/books/00/04/16/reviews/000416.16rawsont.html

6Later life did not go well for Thomas Dudley who became the first person in Australasia to die from the bubonic plague in 1900. He is buried at the North Head Quarantine Station in Sydney.

7Lon L Fuller (1949) 62 Harvard Law Review 616-645

8Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Episode 26 – Lifeboat (Cannibalism) sketch

Creative commons acknowledgment for the photograph.

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