Nautical Coincidence & Lifeboat Morality – Richard Parker and the Mignonette

Lifeboat from the Mignonette

We recently posted in response to a video, “The Strangest Coincidence Ever Recorded?.”  It recounted how three men named Hugh Williams were each the only survivors of shipwrecks in the treacherousness Menai Straits off North Wales. More remarkably, two of the Hugh Williams escaped from shipwrecks on the same day,  December 5th separated by over a hundred years.  The video claimed that all three Hugh Williams’ ships sank on December 5th, but that was not the case.  And Hugh Williams is a very common name in North Wales, so while it is a remarkable coincidence, it doesn’t quite rank as the “strangest ever recorded.”

On the topic of nautical coincidences, Chris Quigley at the Quigley’s Cabinet blog, mentioned the Mignonette coincidence.  All that we can say is, Hugh Williams meet Richard Parker.  The case of Richard Parker and the  Mignonette does indeed involve coincidence but the story remains compelling because it raises issues of morality that are very tricky to address, even to this day.

Richard Parker was a 17 year old cabin boy on the English yacht Mignonette in 1884.  While in the South Atlantic, the Mignonette sank, leaving Parker and three others in a lifeboat with little food or water. The three ultimately killed and ate the cabin boy.   The three were rescued after 24 days by the German sailing barque Montezuma, named fittingly enough  after the Aztec king who practiced ritual cannibalism.  The case caused a great uproar in Victorian Britain. The men were charged with murder and were found guilty. (The sentences were later reduced to 6 months hard labor.)  Most importantly, their trial, R v Dudley and Stephens, established a legal precedent in common law around the world, that necessity is no defence to a charge of murder.

OK, so what does this have to do with coincidence?  The coincidence arises with Edgar Allen Poe’s only full length novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, written in 1838 in which a whaling ship sinks, one of the survivors is named Richard Parker and is eaten by the other survivors.  Some claim that Poe’s novel, written fifty years before, foretold of poor Richard Parker’s end.  The only problem is, that while both the fiction and the history involved a ship and cannibalism, the rest of the details did not track so closely.  Poe’s Parker was a mutineer, not a cabin boy and the events took place on the hull of an overturned ship and not a lifeboat.   Poe may have modeled his character on another mutineer named Richard Parker who lead  the mutiny at the Noire in 1797 and was subsequently hanged by the Royal Navy.

In Poe’s novel, the ship’s dog was named Tiger. In 2001, Yann Martel published a novel, Life of Pi.  In the novel Martell’s hero, Pi is trapped in a lifeboat with a tiger, named Richard Parker.  Martel commented about naming the tiger in the lifeboat, “So many Richard Parkers had to mean something.”

There have also been two plays written about Richard Parker  –  Owen Thomas’ “Richard Parker” and “Mr Parker’s Bones, or The Strange, Lamentable, Bloody, and mostly true History of Parker of Pear Tree Green and of his Captain, the Dastardly Cannibal Tom” written by Russ Tunney.

There was yet another Richard Parker in history, on the ship, Francis Spaight, ship in 1846, which sank and whose survivors practiced cannibalism, but Richard Parker had nothing to do with it. He drowned when the ship foundered. Jack London would later write a short story about the sinking, “Francis Spaight.”   There was a cabin boy killed for food after the ship sank. (Note to self: Never ship as cabin boy.)  His name was not Richard Parker.  It was Patrick O’Brien.


Nautical Coincidence & Lifeboat Morality – Richard Parker and the Mignonette — 14 Comments

  1. why did richard eat someone, i dont understand why couldnt they try to find fish or something? why didnt they try to get to an island be four killing someone? thats pretty gross.

  2. why would Richard eat someone. why didn’t they look for other food. they could have waited to find land

  3. Thanks Rick for the article. Are the two comments above for real? Richard didn’t eat anyone (AFAWK).

    Suddenly the Life of Pi story clicks into place for me. I’d seen the Tiger as a metaphor (unlike my Mum who wanted to believe the Tiger story and asked why he’d made up that second story at the end). But I couldn’t quite ‘get it’. I’d been trying to make the Tiger Pi himself. But as a metaphor for the cannibalism that Pi (a vegetarian boy) witnessed that then haunted him for the rest of the journey it makes much more sense!

  4. Yes, the various Richard Parkers never seemed to eat anyone.

    Regarding Life of Pi, I doubt that Yann Martel wanted to leave the reader with any one answer, (although your take works for me.) What makes the fantasy fun, at least to me, is that that questions it raises that have several possible answers.

  5. Something I read elsewhere today reminded me about the actual central premise of the film – which story you choose believe and why (connected to religion). This is a more interesting and meaningful question than which of the stories is true.

  6. Pingback: 10 Amazing Coincidences You Just Won’t Believe – Blogonomy

  7. Richard Parker was my great grandfather’s cousin and has a memorial in his honour. This case was the first of it’s kind where the remaining crewmen were tried for murder and cannibalism. Ever since this trial in the 1800’s every university law student has to learn about the case as part of their training. My relative saved lives and is still remembered today even if the events were gruesome!!

  8. Jayne, I recently attended a funeral service at Peartree Green Parish Church, but did not know then of the memorial to Richard Parker there. As a lawyer, R v Dudley and Stephens was indeed an early lesson. I knew there was a Southampton connection (my own home city) to the case but not the memorial in the churchyard. Do you know more of this background from your family roots? I am assuming that there were nor human remains returned to be interred there.

  9. Jayne Kinghorn your relative saved lives?
    He was murdered and eaten.
    More of a victim than some hero don’t you think?

  10. Richard Parker is also the name of the Bengal Tiger in Yann Martel’s “The Life of Pi” Pi is stranded on a lifeboat with a tiger after the ship, carrying zoo animals, sinks. The tale is an allegorical story of cannibalism on a lifeboat. The author must have used the name Richard Parker as searches will bring forth the famous trial of him being eaten. Richard Parker’s grave is in the Peartree cemetery in Southampton.

  11. Pingback: 8 Examples of Precognition in Literature – Oceanside Blue

  12. Pingback: 13 Coincidences That Will Really Creep You Out – Awareness Act