Cannibals at Sea & the Real Richard Parker


For my local Halloween story I would like to tell you about the real story of Richard Parker. An unfortunate cabin boy who sailed from Southampton at the tender age of 16 only to be eaten by his crew.

In Southampton’s Peartree Churchyard lies an unusual gravestone…

The newer stone in Peartree Southampton which combines the grave of Sarah Parker and the memorial to her son Richard Parker – the victim of cannibalism at sea

It is the combined stone which marks the grave of Sarah Parker and the memorial of her beloved son Richard Parker, who had reached the age of 17 by the time he became the victim of cannibalism at sea.

Richard Parker was killed and eaten by Tom Dudley and Edwin Stephens to prevent starvation Regina versus Dudley and Stephens (1884) established the precedent that necessity is no defence against a charge of murder Concerning survival cannibalism following a shipwreck the case overturned the folklore of the Custom of the Sea

Richard Parker served on the English yacht Mignonette, which set sail for Sydney, Australia from Southampton, England in 1884. While in the South Atlantic, the Mignonette sank, leaving Parker and his three shipmates in a lifeboat. Dying of thirst Richard fell into a coma after drinking sea water. As the crew thought he was going to die anyway, they killed the boy to drink his blood, then ate him so that they could survive. There had been many similar cases like this up until that time, which were given over to sympathy from seafarers, even those in Richard Parker’s own family in Southampton. It had been regarded legally as “A Custom of the Sea”.

The surviving three were rescued after 24 days by the German sailing barque Montezuma, named fittingly enough  after the Aztec king who practiced ritual cannibalism.

But this case caused a great uproar in Victorian Britain. The men were charged with murder and were found guilty. Although not much was done about the prisoners even when their sentences were later reduced to six months hard labour. Most importantly, their trial, R v Dudley and Stephens established a legal precedent in common law around the world, that: ‘Necessity is no defence to a charge of murder’. It is one of the first cases that law students read about.

The original memorial to Richard Parker which reads: Sacred to the memory of Richard Parker, aged 17, who died at sea July 25th 1884 after nineteen days dreadful suffering in an open boat in the tropics having been wrecked in the yacht Mignonette.’ Though he slay me yet will I trust in Him. Job 15 v 15 Lay not this sin to their charge. Acts vii6

If you haven’t read Yann Martel’s Booker Prize novel about the Life of Pi then you may have seen the ®Oscar-winning movie of the same name directed by Ang Lee.

The narrator is a novelist who has been recommended to interview an Indian man named Piscine Molitor Patel, as his life-story will make him “believe in God”.

Pi’s story is how at 16 he survives a shipwreck in which his family and the zoo of animals they are transporting to Canada, all die, apart from him and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker who he ends up sharing a lifeboat with.

Booker Prize novel ‘Life of Pi’ by Yann Martel

In the novel the tiger who arrived at their zoo was called Thirsty but got mixed up on the list with the hunter’s name – Richard Parker. The novel is an allegorical one about man’s battle between his animal instincts and his religious ones. Pi has been brought up a vegetarian and does not even eat fish.

By a great nautical coincidence, the name of Martel’s tiger, Richard Parker, was also inspired by a character in Edgar Allan Poe’s nautical adventure novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838). In Poe’s book, Richard Parker is a cabin boy who is stranded and eventually the victim of cannibalism on a lifeboat. There is a dog aboard who is named Tiger.

A third Richard Parker drowned in the sinking of the Francis Speight in 1846, described by author Jack London, and later a cabin boy was cannibalized.

Yann Martel said: “So many victimized Richard Parkers had to mean something. My tiger found his name. He’s a victim, too – or is he?”

The Mignonette yacht sketched by Dudley
The Mignonette yacht sketched by Dudley

For most who have never had starvation forced upon us it must be difficult to imagine how this could happen. One can only receive clues from behaviours in the animal kingdom.

There have also been three plays written about Richard Parker  –   ‘Richard Parker’ by Owen Thomas, ‘Mr Parker’s Bones, or The Strange, Lamentable, Bloody, and mostly true History of Parker of Pear Tree Green and of his Captain, the Dastardly Cannibal Tom’ written by Russ Tunney and more recently The Sad Tale of Richard Parker by Cheryl Butler who also works on historical walking tours of Southampton.

Although there are still many shipwrecks, technology is developing all the time and we are now able to convert sea water into drinking water in minutes. Although still expensive, new materials will soon make it available for common use.

To visit Pear Tree Church and cemetery on Peartree Green by satellite navigation, use the postcode SO19 7GY

Jack London - When God Laughs and other short stories
Jack London – When God Laughs and other short stories

For further interesting links on this story:

Court case: R v Dudley and Stephens 

You Tube video of descendant of Richard Parker

Edgar Allan Poe: Horrific Prediction Haunts my family –  by descendant/psychic Craig Hamilton-Parker

‘The Sad Tale of Richard Parker’ a play by Cheryl Butler

‘Life of Pi’ – Creating ‘Richard Parker’ (Behind the scenes making of the movie)

44 thoughts on “Cannibals at Sea & the Real Richard Parker

  1. The Life of Pi was my daughter’s favourite book when it came out (she was 9). I think she read it about 15 times, simply starting again once she reached the end! I’ll send your article to her as I’m sure she’ll be as fascinated as I was by your post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is one of my favourite books too – a bit marmite (love it or hate it). I just loved every single thing about the film too. I had forgotten the story about Richard Parker in Southampton until a colleague remarked on a grave she had seen – Richard Parker sounded familiar and then when I googled it – it all came flooding back. Send my regards to you beautiful daughter!


  2. Your research continues to amaze me and this is one of the most fascinating tales you’ve given us. What a terrific story, thanks for posting it.

    On Sun, Oct 30, 2016 at 10:09 AM, SNIPS & SNAPS wrote:

    > southamptonoldlady posted: ” For my local Halloween story I would like to > tell you about the real story of Richard Parker. An unfortunate cabin boy > who sailed from Southampton at the tender age of 16 only to be eaten by his > crew. In Southampton’s Peartree Churchyard lies an un” >

    Liked by 1 person

      • This exchange made me laugh. I’ve eaten fruitbat, in Liberia, West Africa, although I didn’t know I was eating it until I found the W-shaped bone in the bottom of the bowl. It was quite tasty.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I went to visit a cave in the Philippines, a fruit-bat, the size of a German Shepherd dog, flew out followed by a hundred others all in size biggest first, ending with a tiny bat the size of an old dollar. They flew to a neighbouring island to eat fruit from the trees. Later that night I saw some people barbecuing one on a spit and one of the wings kept flapping into the fire!
        Here in Britain there was a scandal a few years ago when people who thought they were eating beef lasagne from the supermarket where actually eating horse-meat.


  3. Loved the book Life of Pi, and I love this post. An eerie story. And, interestingly, my husband has an ancestor who was cannabalized–also a young cabin boy. (It didn’t pay to be a cabin boy!) His relative, Owen Coffin (unfortunate but apt name) was on the whaleship Essex, which was shipwrecked and the ordeal that followed went into the writing of Melville’s Moby Dick. (I posted about it here: His tale is very similar to that of your town’s Richard Parker. Desperate circumstances, and I think are hard for us to even imagine. I have a feeling that lots of these life and death tales had there roots in real events– though we don’t like to think it, life is stranger and more harrowing than most fiction.

    Liked by 2 people

    • How fascinating – I will visit that post – I went to the place in Cork where they filmed Moby Dick and love that story too. And yes – one would think that cabin boys were there as larder spares! Will write to you on your whale of tale – Sol


    • If that’s the one by Neil Hanson – it is the same story – someone told me to look out for it, but as I am going to live on a boat in a few months – it is not one that I fancy taking with me.


  4. A well-researched and interesting post, but surely not all of these Richard Parker stories were coincidental. How many of these writers knew the story of the real Richard Parker? Not clear to me..Perhaps I’m not reading closely enough? Do you know if Martel was aware of all of these Richard Parkers or if any of the authors were aware of the other Richard Parkers?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Music Monday: Pi’s Lullaby – ART So Provident

  6. This a totally amazing and awesome post! Wonderful information here, must have taken you hours of research! I couldn’t get into the book, but I loved the film, Life of Pi, especially Richard Parker!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’ve a friend who wrote a review of the movie, which I found “interesting.” This certainly fleshes out the story (pun sort of intended) and makes it far more interesting than the movie-without-any-background. It reminds me of the continuing fascination in this country with the Donner party, which landed in the mountains during the winter, and endured similar circumstances.

    This was a wonderful post — just the right amount of creepiness for Halloween, and more than enough interesting detail to make me want to know more.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes its about time for another film about The Donner Party. There was another true film made in 1993 called “Alive” about the Uruguay’s rugby team stranded after a plane crash in the Andes mountains who resorted to cannibalism, which I found very compassionate.


  8. Fascinating. I have a very large stuffed tiger that I rescued from the bottom of someone’s driveway, where it was waiting for the garbage man to toss him out. I cleaned him up and he is a fixture in our house. Currently, he resides in our bedroom. He is called Richard Parker.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! Have you been to the Caravan Gallery’s Your Southampton in East Street yet? It is really interesting like an alternative tourist office – people have been writing all sorts of things from poems to postcards about their Southampton. Perhaps you could print out some of your more quirky posts and take them along?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I did not know about this so thank you very much for bringing it to my attention, will certainly take a look!

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Its a wonderful research you did. I didn’t know there were so many Richard Parkers. Its sad and eerie. I too loved the film, the animation was excellent. Thank you for sharing the stories, now I understand a bit more about the idea and inspiration of the book and the movie!

    Liked by 1 person

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