The Custom Of The Sea

25 Mar

The custom of the sea is a commonly-used euphemism for cannibalism. Not your every day cannibalism (if there is such a thing) but a very specific type. It has occurred regularly for hundreds, maybe even thousands of years but it’s also something that’s never talked about in polite company, even by those who resort to it. So what is the custom of the sea? In the days before satellite phones and emergency beacons if a ship went down while crossing an ocean, it wasn’t unusual for a few survivors to find themselves bobbing around in a lifeboat or life raft with no way to tell any would-be rescuers where they were. If the were lucky they might get picked up by another ship after a few days but if they weren’t, they could find themselves out there in the middle of nowhere for weeks or even months.

When they ended up in this position, sailors were faced with a stark choice: starve or turn to whatever food source that was available to them. So what could they eat? Well, they might have some basic supplies with them and after they ran out there’d be fish or seabirds, maybe even a turtle or two if they could catch them. The trouble is without the right equipment that’s extremely difficult to do. There’s one food source, however, they could easily get their hands on: human flesh. In some cases they’d wait for someone to die of natural causes before consuming them but in others the custom of the sea was much more unsavoury. When there was no other option, one survivor would be killed and eaten so that the rest could live. It is said there were very specific, if unwritten, rules as to how this was done and it involved drawing lots. However, in practice it seems things weren’t always so democratic and instead it was the most junior or unpopular crew member who was eaten first.

One of the most famous examples occurred when a whaling ship called the Essex was attacked and sunk by a male sperm whale in the middle of the South Pacific in 1820 (if this sounds familiar it’s because Herman Melville based his epic Moby Dick on these event). The surviving whalers found themselves in three small boats and more than 1000 miles from the nearest land. The few that lasted the three months until they were finally picked up by other ships survived, in part, by following the custom of the sea and eating some of their fellow crew members after they died.

Of course, this type of cannibalism doesn’t just happen at sea but in any circumstances where people find themselves trapped with no other sources of food. Probably the most famous modern example happened after a plane carrying a Uruguayan rugby team crashed in the Andes in 1972 and involved the survivors eating those killed in the crash in order to sustain themselves long enough to be rescued. All this raises an interesting question. Were a zombie apocalypse ever to happen, it’s likely that there’d be small groups of people trapped in houses, offices, hotel rooms, bank vaults, military bunkers and almost every other possible hidey-hole and safe place you could imagine. Many of these groups would have little food and they’d be faced with having to choose between staying safe and starving to death or going outside and facing the zombie hordes in order to find food. Assuming only those infected by whatever’s causing the zombism in the first place will become zombies and not just everyone who dies, would such survivors, like so many have done before them, resort to the custom of the sea?

Based on what we know about how people have responded to similar circumstances in the past, I suspect that in a lot of cases, the answer may well be yes, at least towards the beginning of event when they still have hope and think that rescue might be a possibility. This is because in a zombie apocalypse, the world outside would be a truly terrifying place and if they feel safe, most people will choose to stay where they are rather than going outside and risk being attacked by zombies. Some may try a few foraging trips first but if these fail or if those that try are killed by the undead, it’s likely that the rest will simply stop trying and just hunker down where they are, and where they know they’re safe, waiting and hoping that someone will rescue them. Of those that do resort to cannibalism, most will probably wait until someone dies a natural death before consuming them. Some people may volunteer to die to help those around them survive, while those in other groups may draw lots to decide who’s going to get sacrificed. There will also undoubtedly be a few where things will be less democratic and selfless, and they’ll gang up on the weak, the elderly or just the plain old unpopular.

The custom of the sea, therefore, has an interesting, if rarely considered, implication were a zombie apocalypse were ever to happen: if, when it starts, you find yourself part of a group that’s trapped and there’s no other readily available food, it’s quite likely that it won’t just be the zombies that will be eyeing you up as a potential meal!


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From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as an ebook. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.

To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.

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4 Responses to “The Custom Of The Sea”

  1. Rolling Harbour 26/03/2013 at 17:29 #

    Colin: you might enjoy the Wiki entry which deals with the famous legal case of R v Dudley & Stephens. The “Custom of the Sea” is well covered. It’s one of the cases any Law student will remember forever! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R_v_Dudley_and_Stephens

    • cmdrysdale 26/03/2013 at 17:49 #

      There’s a great book about this case too called ‘The Custom Of The Sea’ by Neil Hanson. I made the mistake of reading it while at sea and found myself not quite trusting my fellpw crew mates any more, just in case something went wrong and they started eyeing me up for their next meal (I was spending way too much time on and around the water back then!)

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The Custom Of The Sea – A Short Diary From A Zombie Apocalypse | Colin M. Drysdale - 24/04/2013

    […] The title of this post refers back to a previous posting on this blog which considered whether humans, when trapped somewhere with no food and faced with the choice of going outside to face zombies or staying safe and starving to death, may well resort to cannibalism. You can read the original article here. […]

  2. What Would You Do If … Dilemmas In A Zombie Apocalypse: No. 17 – The Donner Party Dilemma | Colin M. Drysdale - 21/06/2013

    […] scenario of cannibalism within groups of people trapped in buildings during a zombie apocalypse. The first considered the likelihood that this would happen, while the second was a short story based around […]

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