Eating The Cabin Boy

Updated 11 July 2018

The Queen v. Dudley and Stephens 14 Queens Bench Division 273 (1884)

On 5 July 1884 an English yacht sank in the Indian Ocean. Four crew survived in a small open boat, with no water and only two 1 lb tins of turnips by way of food. They were an able seaman called Brooks, two ordinary crewmen called Dudley and Stephens, and a 17 year old youth called Parker. They did not know where they were except in the most general terms, and they were over 1,000 miles from the nearest land.

The boat drifted. For 3 days they were without food, and with only such rainwater as they could catch on their oilskin capes. On the 4th day they caught a small turtle, which had been entirely consumed by the 12th day. On the 18th day they had been 7 days without food and 5 days without water.

The facts

Parker was in the worst state, because he had drunk sea water, and was lying semiconscious in the bottom of the boat, unable to move. On the 18th day, Dudley and Stephens spoke to Brooks. They suggested that perhaps one of the four should be sacrificed to save the lives of the others. They obviously meant Parker. Parker was not included in the conversation, and did not volunteer to be killed to save the others. Brooks dissented.

Dudley suggested it would be fair if they drew lots, but Brooks dissented.

Later Dudley and Edwards said that they both had families and Parker did not, and it would be better to kill the boy that they might live. Brooks dissented. Then Dudley said that if they saw no ship the next morning he would kill the boy.

The next day there was no ship in sight. Dudley gave a small prayer for all their souls and killed the boy. Stephens was in agreement. Brooks was not. Dudley spoke to the boy telling him his time had come and then killed him. Once the boy was killed all three ate and drank of poor Parker.

After another 4 days they were rescued by a passing ship. The evidence was that if they had not eaten of the boy the men would have died.

The outcome

Dudley and Stephens were tried for murder. They argued a defence of necessity.

The legal point was referred to a Queens Bench court consisting of 5 judges. The problem with “necessity” is that “necessity” is confined to situations where immediate action is needed to save one’s life. The boy Parker was no threat to anyone. At the time he was killed there was no immediate need to kill him. It was therefore murder.

The judges were hugely sympathetic but said the law was clear. They actually suggested a Royal Pardon in the judgement, before passing the death sentence, which at that time was the only penalty possible for murder.

The Crown later commuted the sentence to 6 months imprisonment.