Law in Contemporary Society

On page 140, Simpson shares the purpose of the preceding chapters:

"But our concern is that of establishing the historical context for the case of the Mignonette, and for that purpose what really happened hardly matters; what was really important was belief and myth, not reality."

In preparation for our discussion tomorrow, I thought we might flesh out the belief and myth around seaman, cannibalism at sea, the law, and anything else people find central to our examination of the text.

I will start with a thought or two, hopefully people will add what they know and create talk pages to figure out what we don't so that we are ready for tomorrow's class.


As trade by boat, exploration, and yachting expanded, shipwrecks were commonplace. Once wrecked, rescue was a challenge for a number of reasons. First, there was no way to communicate you location. Second, even if found, ships without provisions (which seemed to be quite a few in those days) would not pick you up. Third, actually rescuing seamen in the wind-powered boats of the time was dangerous. Fourth, sharks, rough weather, and a lack of preparation for a potential shipwreck meant that, once the boat was lost, the crew likely was as well.

The Seamen themselves worked in virtual slavery. Provisions were meager at best, fear of desertion made them captives when the boat was at dock, and they were generally perceived to be drunkards; brave, but unfit for civilized society. The captain (and possibly the first mate) had it a bit better, but still starved with the rest of the crew when the ill-equipped ship went down.


Accounts of cannibalism at sea were made known through newspapers, plays, books, and song. Most common was the consumption of sailors drowned in the wreck or overcome by dehydration and starvation. When no such meals were available, seaman drew lots to determine who would die and who would be the executioner. This had the added benefit of proving the survivors warm blood to drink. Seeing as the survivers provide the only evidence and it was usually one of the youngest, weakest, or darkest who was first killed and eaten, it is likely that, in many cases, the selection was rigged or lots were never really drawn.

The Law

The public was both repulsed and enamored with the process and the judiciary had historically taken a hands off approach.

The case of the Mignonette represents England's attempt to formalize the law around necessity as a justification for murder.

-- AdamCarlis - 04 Mar 2008

Simpson writes that the “humanitarianism that produced voluntary assistance also led to an increased degree of legislative and administrative regulation of the merchant marine.” This humanitarian impulse explains the development of the regulatory mechanisms that brought Dudley into the customs house. It does not fully explain why the Home Office and the judiciary were willing to conspire to convict Dudley and Stephens of murder by means of a sham trial in an official looking kangaroo court.

The best answer that I can pull from the text is a desire, which we talked about in class, to draw a line between Englishmen and savages. I do, however, find this somewhat unsatisfactory. I suspect that the more important line that the ruling elites wanted to draw was between the working class rabble (sailors), who were something close to savages in their eyes, and complete savages out in the wilderness of the empire. Furthermore, the fact that a trial was used to draw this line is interesting. It seems that the ruling elites believed strongly in the power of the ritual of a criminal trial to change public opinion. The amazing part is that the quotes from newspapers seem to indicate that the trial worked the magic that the elites wanted it to.

-- StephenClarke - 12 Mar 2008



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r5 - 07 Jan 2010 - 22:14:58 - IanSullivan
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