The Queen vs. Dudley and Stephens | Elizabeth Gam | June 15, 2018


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The Queen vs. Dudley and Stephens

The real title of the case is: Her Majesty The Queen vs. Tom Dudley and Edwin Stephens. And it is a criminal case that shook the English society of its day, and still plays with people’s minds today because it deals with the harshest aspects of life and death: survival.

The Dudley and Stephens case was decided in 1884 in a very Victorian England, where Queen Victoria ruled a society that was incredibly devout in its Christianity and had a very conservative view of the world. Its ruling established one of the most important precedents in common law, which is that necessity is not necessarily a defense against a charge for murder. 

Dudley and Stephens were shipwrecked when sailing on the English yacht Mignonette, which was a 52-foot cruiser that had been built in 1867.This was long before the days of air travel and campervan hire. It wasn’t the smartest choice for their voyage, as it was an inshore boat and had not been designed for long voyages. The owner of the vessel was John Henry Want, who was an Australian lawyer. He wanted to sail her from England to Sydney, Australia. Because of her size and obvious incapability to survive such a long voyage, it was hard for John to find a suitable crew who would be willing to take the risk of steering her. But he finally did in Tom Dudley, the captain; Edwin Stephens; Edmund Brooks and Richard Parker, the cabin boy who was a very inexperienced seaman, an orphan and only seventeen years old.

When the yacht finally hit the northwest of Cape of Good Hope on July the 5th, a gale was carrying the sailboat. The weather was relatively normal, nothing was out of sync with the boat. Everything was going well. But Dudley ordered the crew to “heave to” so that everyone could finally get a good night’s sleep. When the crew completed the heave to, the cabin boy, Parker, was sent below deck for tea. Right then a wave struck the yacht and washed away the lee bulwark. Dudley knew right then and there that the yacht was a goner. He ordered the one lifeboat to be lowered. But this lifeboat wasn’t in the best of shape, and wasn’t built very well. Despite this, the crew obeyed orders and climbed into it. The Mignonette sank within five minutes of being hit. Dudley and the crew were able to fortunately get a few navigational instruments along with some turnips, but no fresh water.

And the bad luck kept coming. The crew survived a shark attack that night. Being nearly seven hundred miles away from the nearest land, they were losing hope minute by minute. The first two days the crew survived on turnips, and then Brooks saw a turtle and they ate it. The crew knew they couldn’t drink seawater. Because there was no other freshwater they resorted to drinking their own urine. It’s estimated that on July 20th Parker became ill, probably from drinking seawater.

According to Dudley, the crew discussed cannibalization openly between them during this period. According to this testimony, the crew decided to draw lots to choose who would be the victim of cannibalization to keep the others alive. They started to discuss this option on the 16th or 17th of July and by the 21st the discussion had turned into a very heated argument, with no resolution in sight. Parker had fallen into a coma around the 23rd or 24th of July. Dudley kept encouraging his crew that one should die to save the others, and drawing lots would be the best way to end this problem. But Brooks wasn’t having it. Dudley wouldn’t let up, though. He pointed out that both he and Stephens had wives and families, while the Parker boy was an orphan with no connections. The crew still hadn’t come to any agreement though, that night. They all decided to sleep on it.

The next day there was still no hope of a rescue. They were still stranded 700 miles from any human contact. Both Dudley and Stephens signalled to one another that Parker should be the one to go. What was the point of drawing lots when he was obviously going to die? They knew that killing Parker would best preserve his blood for drinking. The other crewman, Brooks, claims he had not been involved in the earlier discussion, and he claimed in court that because of his ignorance he had not given any direct signal to the two men of his agreement or dissent. However, Dudley claimed that Brooks had also given his permission to go ahead with the plan. Dudley then said a prayer and used a penknife to kill the boy. The men consumed the flesh. On July 29th they were rescued.

At the trial, both Dudley and Stephens were convicted of murder and sentenced to death. But the sentence was commuted to six months in prison. This case set a precedent that cannibalism was both illegal, and that necessity for survival doesn’t excuse murder. It was also one of the most publicized cases of the late 1800s in Britain. Often law students will cite this case in their own educational casework, or will commission an essay writing service to assist in the citation of such a case.


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June 25, 2018

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Elizabeth Gam


New York University

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