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Terrible true tales of life at sea


Many tragic and awful things happened to mariners and other seafarers in the age of deep-sea sailing ships.

Cannibalism: the ‘Custom of the Sea’

After the American schooner Sallie M. Steelman was battered by a storm off Cape Hatteras in December 1877, it drifted, derelict, for over a month. One sailor then shot and killed another. The crew cut up and ate the dead man's flesh. The men’s experience of the cannibalistic repast was varied. Barrett, who butchered the corpse, and who ate about a pound and a half of the flesh, declared that it tasted as ‘ good as any beef-steak he ever ate’.

It wasn’t a unique case of the so-called ‘custom of the sea’: the cannibalisation of a dead shipmate so the others might survive.

In August 1899 the Norwegian barque Drot was sunk by a hurricane in the Florida Straits. Six men survived on one raft. One of the men subsequently lost his mind from thirst and hunger and jumped overboard and drowned. Another died a natural death, but, ‘before the breath was well out of his body his comrades drank his blood and devoured his flesh’. A second man met a similar fate.

Lots were cast to decide who’d be next. A big German drew the short straw. He was stabbed to the heart and his blood was drunk by Anderson and Thomas [who survived] as it gushed from the wound. They also cut strips of flesh from his body and devoured them. The two survivors were eventually picked up by a British steamship in mid-Atlantic.

In 1884 the yacht Mignonette was being sailed from England to Australia with three men and a 17-year-old boy, Richard Parker, as crew. The Mignonette sank in a storm in the South Atlantic. The four crew drifted for several weeks in a small dinghy. Finally, Capt. Dudley decided that the boy Parker would have to be sacrificed and cannibalised so the others might survive.

The captain said to Parker, ‘Now, Dick, your hour has come.’ Parker feebly replied, ‘What! me, sir? Oh, don’t!’ But Dudley did - he ran a penknife into Parker’s jugular vein, and he died in a few seconds. Later they stripped the boy and for five days subsisted on his body before they were rescued by the ship Montezuma and taken to Falmouth.


Strict discipline was essential for the safety and management of crews, ships and cargoes. Brass-knuckle and iron hard belaying pin discipline was something else entirely: brutal, vicious, barbaric cruelty. For which some ships were tarred, quite rightly, as hell-ships

The Harvester was another Pacific ship with a bad record. Her captain had one man put in a barrel, the head of which was then fastened up, and nails were driven into the sides of the barrel. When the captain thought it had enough spikes, he rolled the barrel up and down the deck. The unfortunate victim was nearly dead when released.

The so-called ‘Red Record’, in 1895, cited cases of unusual cruelty on American ships. On the Tam O’Shanter, second mate Crocker (‘6 feet 3 in height and...260 pounds’) assaulted several seamen. One in particular, Harry Hill, bore nine wounds... A piece was bitten out of his left palm, a mouthful of flesh was bitten out of his left arm, and his left nostril torn away as far as the bridge of his nose. Crocker is reported to have kicked the seamen from pure devilment.


The Craigmullen, with twenty-five crew, left Singapore at the end of July 1895 bound for Callao, Peru. The barque was soon beset by a hundred days of a supernatural calm. According to one survivor, ‘Day succeeded day; week succeeded week; month succeeded month, and still the wind came not. Each morning the sun would rise out of the sea in the east, burn a path across the brazen sky, and sink in the west in endless, unchanging monotony. Oh, it was maddening - terrible!... I wonder some of us did not go mad with thirst, hunger, or terror at this supernatural calm.’

Worse was to come:

‘Then the men began to fall sick. Too weak to help themselves, they lay down in corners, and passed into a sort of coma. The first to die was our youngest apprentice, a boy of fifteen, and one who, by his kindness of disposition, had endeared himself to all of us. It was Christmas morning, I remember, when he died - Christmas, of all days in the year, and what a Christmas! The captain was the next to go; he died raving. After that not a week passed without one man dying. Sometimes they went with quite a fluttering of the heart and a sigh; at others, shrieking in maniac fury and cursing with foam-flecked lips. I buried them all in the same grave - beneath the oily surface of that leaden sea.’

And then - a typhoon.

When they were finally rescued - just three hundred miles from Callao - the three wretched sole survivors of that trans-Pacific death-drift had been reduced to ‘skeletal shadows of their former selves’.


In the winter of 1826 a twenty-three year old Englishwoman, Ann Saunders, was a passenger on the ship Frances Mary during a voyage from St. John’s, New Brunswick, to Liverpool. Ann had previously ‘formed an indissoluble attachment’ with the ship’s cook, James Frier; they had decided to marry when they got back to England.

After her departure from St. John’s on 18 January 1826, the timber-laden vessel was constantly assailed by winter North Atlantic storms. The crew were hammered by the exhaustion of struggling against the weather, the cold, and, eventually, the shortage of food. Early in February a ‘poor seaman was discovered’, early in the morning, ‘hanging lifeless by some part of the rigging’, overcome by cold and fatigue. About a week later, on 12 February, a second seaman, James Clarke, succumbed from ‘no other complaint...than the weakness caused by famine’.

Another nine seamen perished up until 7 March when HMS Blonde [commanded by Lord George Anson Byron] rescued the remaining six survivors, including Ann Saunders, about 700 miles northeast of the Azores.

The tragedy that eleven of the original crew of fifteen on the Francis Mary died from fatigue and famine was accompanied by the grimmer revelation to Lord Byron’s horror that the survivors had subsisted upon the corpses of their brethren, which ‘caused tears to bedew those faces’ of their rescuers. Worst of all, though, was that the last man to die was none other than Ann Saunders’ fiancé, James Frier... – and that she herself ‘plead [her] claim to the greater portion of his precious blood, as it oozed half congealed from the wound inflicted upon his lifeless body!’


The German schooner Johanna left Port Louis, Mauritius, for Melbourne on 3 April 1890. Most of the crew caught a tropical disease in Port Louis and dropped like flies during the voyage which, in the southern Indian Ocean of boisterous westerly winds, was rough and stormy. The mate, Mr. Hejen (‘a splendid specimen of a sailor’), was the only crew member well enough to run the ship – and dispose of the dead:

‘The forecastle,’ he said, ‘as you know, is small and closed up, as it was in the rough weather, and the air was so fearfully bad that when a man died, I had to get the body away at once. When I went into the forecastle the men called out for water, and in their agony threw themselves on the floor. The poor men who died were all young, smart fellows, and we had been together so long that it was a terrible task for me to have to throw them overboard like dogs, but it could not be helped. Then I had to destroy the bedding, and altogether it was a terrible time, the like of which I hope never to experience again.’

Labour recruitment in Pacific islands

The ‘recruitment’ of labour from the islands of the western Pacific in the nineteenth century (more often than not, really, kidnapping – blackbirding, as it was called) was a perilous and frequently reprehensible – and bloody- enterprise.

In April 1876 the labour recruitment schooner Dancing Wave took on a number of islanders at the Solomon Islands. Soon after, the Solomon men massacred most of the schooner’s crew, including her captain, and took over the vessel. Another vessel, the Sydney, under the command of Capt. Woodhouse, finally caught up with the Dancing Wave.

Having come up to the schooner, Captain Woodhouse, accompanied by 12 of his crew (principally natives), boarded the Dancing Wave, and found that the vessel had been ransacked from stem to stern; the natives had murdered the captain and all his crew excepting William Broad and the man Harry, and had pillaged the whole place, carrying off everything that they could lay their hands to, and destroying life as well as property. The decks and the cabin floor were all bespattered with blood and other human remains; and in the saloon pickle and pepper bottles were found to have been emptied, and their contents cast upon the floor, mixing themselves in heterogenous masses with the blood, &c. Near the mainmast the head of one of the native crew was found.

It was reported, ‘As soon as Captain Woodhouse could make it convenient, he had the decks washed, and removed, as far as possible, all signs of the fearful outrages that had been perpetrated on board her...’

To this day seamen are vulnerable to dreadful perils of their trade. A sea captain friend once told me that he had witnessed, or was told about, a particularly atrocious circumstance (probably in the 1950s) when a wire mooring line on a vessel docking at the time snapped. The wire, as it whipped back, cut a sailor in two. 

By Graham Faiella

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