THE CUSTOM OF THE SEA by Neil Hanson

THE CUSTOM OF THE SEA

A Shocking True Tale of Shipwreck, Murder, and the Last Taboo

KIRKUS REVIEW

A gripping tale of four sailors adrift at sea—and the cabin boy eaten to sustain the remaining three—by British journalist Hanson.

The tale begins with Captain Tom Dudley, an honest upfromthe ranks sailor, being hired to sail the Mignonette, an old and small yacht, from England to New South Wales in 1884. After hiring three other crew members, including an inexperienced cabin boy, Dudley and his men set sail from England, are suddenly overwhelmed by a tremendous storm, and lose the ship with only minutes to get into their lifeboat. After more than 20 days adrift, the men discuss drawing lots to decide if one will be killed to sustain the others (the ``custom of the sea''), but then decide not to go ahead. Several days later, the cabin boy slips into unconsciousness and the others decide to forego drawing straws and kill him. Days later, the men are rescued and returned to England where they freely tell of their ordeal and the killing. Dudley (who performed the killing) is brought up on charges of murder and becomes a hallmark legal case. Hanson’s description of the voyage, his reconstruction of the men’s conversations both onboard ship and in the lifeboat, and the manner in which he weaves in maritime social history (and such other diverse topics as marine construction, navigation, medicine, and anatomy) are skilled and offer a compelling look at the life of sailors in the latter half of the 19th century, but in the chapters following the death of the cabin boy and the men’s rescue, the book becomes mired in the obscurities of the English legal system. Although the courtroom scenes in the book provide gripping drama, they read as if there has been little attempt made to make it palatable to an American audience.

Gruesome and completely fascinating, but requires translation.

Pub Date: April 14th, 2000
ISBN: 0-471-38389-9
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Wiley
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 2000




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