He wanted some adventure on the high seas. His shipmates ate him

Cole Moreton reports on the memorial ceremony to mark a cabin boy's death
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The Independent Online
In A Leafy English churchyard last week, by a village green, next to a pub, Cintra Taylor was discussing shipwreck, starvation and cannibalism.

"The salt would have preserved the body, wouldn't it?" She was wondering how long a man's flesh would remain edible as a dinghy containing his body drifted on the open seas. Mrs Taylor, dressed in a sober suit,turned her face away as we discussed the death of a teenage relative, who had been killed and eaten by his shipmates. And then she laughed.

If it seemed cruel, that was perhaps not surprising. The story of Richard Parker's murder has been handed down from generation to generation in Mrs Taylor's family since it happened in 1884. As a small child, she learnt the macabre details from her father, a Hampshire fisherman and yachtsman, and added her own twist. "I grew up with it," she said, "and I used to tell everybody that it was my brother. My parents had told me the story, and I must have got confused."

Now Mrs Taylor has taken it on herself to keep her third cousin's memory alive. She persuaded Southampton City Council to pay pounds 350 for the restoration of a memorial stone in the grounds of Peartree Church, Itchen, the village in Southampton from which Richard set sail as a 17-year-old cabin boy. The wording says he died "after 19 days' dreadful suffering in an open boat in the tropics, having been wrecked in the yacht Mignonette".

The stone was erected 111 years ago, after two of the three survivors had been tried for murder in a landmark case. Last Thursday, the Mayor of Southampton and other local dignitaries gathered in the churchyard for a quiet unveiling ceremony.

Mrs Taylor's father was born in the same row of cottages as Richard, and she was brought up a few miles down the road in the village of Bitterne. Two years ago, she visited the grave and found the stone in a state of disrepair. "I just felt sad. It's a big part of local history," she said.

The Mayor, councillor Dorian Attwood, grew up in the parish and was well aware of Richard's fate. "I sailed down this river at 15 for my first trip at sea, so I could imagine what he must have felt like that day, his anticipation at going into an adventure. Suddenly it all went wrong for him."

The Mignonette was a 52ft yacht of questionable seaworthiness bound for Australia. It was being repaired at a yard on the river Itchen when Richardwas taken on.

When heavy seas struck the yacht several hundreds of miles south-east of Trinidad, the crew was forced to abandon ship, with no water and only two tins of turnips to eat. They caught and ate a turtle, but after 20 days adrift in blistering heat the men were starving and crazy with thirst. Richard had succumbed to temptation and drunk sea water, which had made him sick and delirious.

The captain, Tom Dudley, later wrote: "At about three o'clock in the morning I said to the mate, 'What is to be done? I believe the boy is dying. You have a wife and five children, I have a wife and three children'." Despite their reservations, they cut the boy's throat, drank his blood and ate his liver and heart.

When the dinghy was spotted by a German ship four days later, all that remained of Richard was a rib and some flesh. The survivors made no attempt to disguise what had happened, believing their action had been justifiable under the extreme circumstances. To their great surprise, they were charged with murder on their return to England. The crewman, Ned Brooks, was discharged because he had taken no active part in the killing, but the captain and the mate, Edward Stevens, were convicted of murder in the High Court and sentenced to death by hanging.

The ethical dilemmas raised by the trial attracted wide publicity and it became a case study for law students. The Lord Chief Justice made a recommendation for mercy, and the sentence was commuted to six months' imprisonment, without hard labour. To demonstrate that Richard's family understood the predicament in which the seamen had found themselves, his older brother William insisted that the memorial stone be inscribed with a passage from the Book of Acts: "Lord, lay not this sin to their charge."

The Rev Barry James, vicar of Peartree Church, who prayed at the unveiling of the renovated stone, said the case still struck an emotional chord. "The choice was between one life and four, and I don't know how you make that decision."