The real Richard Parker, a gruesome and spooky tale of shipwrecks and cannibalism
Southampton, Hampshire on the sunny south coast of England is my home town. It’s a city filled with history and this is one little bit that has some surprising connections with the film Life of Pi. If you’ve seen the film you will know its the story of a shipwreck and a tiger called Richard Parker. What you probably won’t know is that Richard Parker is also the name of several real people (and a fictional one) who were shipwrecked.
Edgar Allan Poe wrote a novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, whose Richard Parker is a mutinous sailor, shipwrecked and eaten. When the Francis Spaight sank in 1846, another Richard Parker drowned. Yet another with that name was hanged for his part in the Spithead and Nore mutinies in 1797. There is a theme developing here it seems.
The final Richard Parker (as far as I know) turned out to be closer to home than I’d imagined.
You can live in a city for years, thinking you know it well until you discover something new. On a quiet Sunday afternoon walk I got a new insight on a very familiar landmark, Peartree Church. As we strolled down Peartree Avenue towards the little church, Commando started to tell me the story of one of the graves in the churchyard. As a child he and his friends had played on the green and this particular grave stone had captured their imagination and led to a few spooky tales. Of course we had to go and have a look, if only to prove he hadn’t imagined it all, so we went through the creaky old gate and round the side of the church. He remembered the spot exactly, even though it was years since he’d been there and, sure enough there it was, the grave of Richard Parker aged seventeen.
His is a gruesome tale. Back in 1884, poor Richard set sail from Southampton on a small yacht, the Mignonette, bound for Sydney. The crew numbered just four, the Captain, Tom Dudley, Edwin Stephens, Edmund Brooks and Richard, the cabin boy. Forty seven days into their journey, during a gale, the little yacht was hit by a wave and sunk but not before the crew managed to lower the lifeboat and escape. Unfortunately, they didn’t manage to salvage much in the way of food or fresh water and they were over seven hundred miles from the nearest land, St Helena.
On the first night they were attacked by a shark but managed to fight it off with their oars. Two days later they had their first food, a tin of turnips shared between the four. Two more days and they managed to catch a turtle which they eaked out for eight days along with a second tin of turnips.
Water was the main problem, they tried to catch rain water but failed and, in desperation, were driven to drink their own urine. About fifteen days after their shipwreck, poor Richard became ill from drinking sea water. Things were getting desperate. Eventually this desperation led them to discuss drawing lots for one of them to be sacrificed and eaten.
The debate raged for days. Twenty days after they’d abandoned ship Richard was in a coma. They’d been without food or water for twelve days and there seemed to be no chance of rescue. The terrible decision was taken to kill the lad who was, in all likelihood, close to death anyway. It was nine more days before they were finally rescued.
The survivors, believing themselves to be protected under the ‘custom of the sea,’ admitted what they’d done but they were prosecuted for murder in what amounted to a test case to clarify the law in such situations. Eventually, after much debate and, despite public opinion, they were found guilty and sentenced to death. They never did hang. Public opinion was such that their sentences were commuted to six months imprisonment, possibly because even Richard’s own brother, a sailor himself, took the side of the survivors. Even so the precedent stands today. If you are shipwrecked, killing someone and eating them is murder, no matter how desperate the situation.
So, Commando and I stood and looked at the grave, a new marble one since his boyhood, and wondered what we’d have done in the place of those starving seamen. I guess having a bit more fat on my bones means it would be longer before I actually starved anyway. There are some plus points to being fat. I wonder too, how many people walk past that little church every day, just as I have hundreds of times before, and never know the sad tale of the little grave hidden away round the side of the church yard?
By the time we finished our walk and it came to walking home it was dark and I must admit to a little shiver as we passed the graveyard. Walking down Peartree Avenue will never be the same again.