Custom of the Sea

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

The Custom of the Sea is a set of customs that are said to be practiced by the officers and crew of ships and boats in the open sea, as distinguished from maritime law, a distinct and coherent body of law which governs maritime questions and offenses.

Possibly the best-known of the customs is the practice of shipwrecked survivors drawing lots to see who would be killed and eaten so that the others might survive.[1]

Historical examples of the Custom of the Sea[edit]

The Essex[edit]

After the sinking of the Essex of Nantucket by a whale on November 20, 1820, the survivors were left floating in three small whaleboats. They eventually resorted, by common consent, to cannibalism to allow some to survive.[2]

The Mignonette[edit]

The case of R. v. Dudley and Stephens (1884 14 QBD 273 DC) is an English case which developed a crucial ruling on necessity in modern common law. The case dealt with four crewmembers of an English yacht, the Mignonette, who were cast away in a storm some 1,600 miles from the Cape of Good Hope. After a few weeks, one of the crew fell unconscious due to a combination of the famine and drinking seawater. The others (one abstaining) decided then to kill him and eat him. They were picked up four days later. The case held that necessity was not a defense to a charge of murder, and the two defendants were convicted, though their death sentence was commuted to six months' imprisonment.

Examples not related to cannibalism[edit]

The captain staying on board and being the last person off a sinking vessel or where the captain elects to actually go down with the ship is another custom of the sea, often enshrined in naval tradition.


  1. ^ Walker, Andrew: Is Eating People Wrong?: Great Legal Cases and How they Shaped the World. Cambridge University Press, New York, 2011 ISBN 978-1-107-00037-7 pg. 22
  2. ^ BBC - h2g2 - The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex - A671492

Further reading[edit]

  • Hanson, Neil. (1999). The Custom of the Sea: The Story that Changed British Law. Doubleday. ISBN 978-0-385-60115-3. 
  • Simpson, A. W. B. (1984). Cannibalism and the Common Law: The Story of the Tragic Last Voyage of the Mignonette and the Strange Legal Proceedings to Which It Gave Rise. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-75942-5.