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…
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 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.
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.
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?”
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
For further interesting links on this story:
Court case: R v Dudley and Stephens
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)