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The Custom of the Sea: A Shocking True Tale of Shipwreck, Muder, and the Last Taboo

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A riveting account of a horrifying act of desperation at sea and the sensational legal drama that followed

Cast adrift in a tiny boat on a vast and desolate ocean, faced with almost certain death, what would you be willing to do to survive? This is the agonizing question that lies at the heart of the horrifying drama of The Custom of the Sea.

On July 5, 1884, Captain Tom Dudley and his crew of three set sail from Southampton, England, aboard ...

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2000 Hardcover New 0471383899. Hardcover; Somerset, New Jersey; John Wiley & Sons Inc; 2000; 8vo 8-9 tall; New with no dust jacket; New. No jacket. No remainder marks.; 9.57 X ... 6.43 X 1.09 inches; 336 pages. Read more Show Less

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Overview

A riveting account of a horrifying act of desperation at sea and the sensational legal drama that followed

Cast adrift in a tiny boat on a vast and desolate ocean, faced with almost certain death, what would you be willing to do to survive? This is the agonizing question that lies at the heart of the horrifying drama of The Custom of the Sea.

On July 5, 1884, Captain Tom Dudley and his crew of three set sail from Southampton, England, aboard the yacht Mignonette, bound for Sydney. Halfway through their voyage they were hit by a ferocious storm off the coast of Africa. After four days battling towering waves and hurricane force gales, the yacht was finally crushed by a massive forty-foot "freak wave." Adrift in an open thirteen-foot dinghy, a thousand miles from landfall, and without food or water, Captain Dudley and his crew endured a horrific twenty-four-day ordeal climaxing in the desperate decision to practice the time-honored "custom of the sea." While the others watched, the captain killed the weakest of them, the seventeen-year-old cabin boy, and his body was eaten.

In this dramatic account of the ordeal of the Mignonette's crew and the sensational murder trial that followed, Neil Hanson brings to life for modern readers the shocking events that held a nation—from the lowliest ship's hand to Queen Victoria herself—spellbound during the following winter. From newspaper accounts, personal letters and diaries, and first-person accounts of the principal players, Neil Hanson has pieced together a gripping and moving story that combines the best elements of a nautical adventure with thrilling courtroom drama.

This is a story rife with moral ambiguities that is sure to spark controversy and will keep readers enthralled with the unavoidable question: What would you do?

Neil Hanson (West Yorkshire, England) is an American journalist who has written widely for newspapers and magazines in England. He is the coauthor of Goldfinder with Keith Jessop and of Ghostfinder: The Secret History of the SAS with Ken Connor.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
An exciting, historically accurate depiction of a disastrous 19th-century sea journey and its equally horrific legal aftermath, Hanson's book recounts events that led to the official outlawing of survival cannibalism. When the Mignonette sank in a storm off the coast of Africa in 1884, Captain Tom Dudley and his three-man crew escaped in a small lifeboat, out of sight of land and with almost no food or water. After a couple of weeks, three of the dehydrated and desperate men killed their young, dying mate to survive. Using a wide range of historical documents and research, freelance writer Hanson leaves nothing to the imagination. ("Tom first cut off the head and threw it overboard. His fingers slippery with blood, he worked as fast as he could, hacking off strips of flesh, which Stephens washed in the sea and laid across the cross-beams to dry.") But this graphic depiction is essential to setting up the book's second half, which follows the intricate and mostly specious legal arguments used by Queen Victoria's High Court of Justice to sacrifice the survivors on the altar of legal precedent in order to ban forever a "custom of the sea" that was taken for granted by most sailors of the era. Much of Hanson's success comes from the dialogue, most of which is culled from actual recorded personal accounts and court records. Hanson impresses with his careful, engrossing presentation of material that, in the wrong hands, could easily have veered off course into gratuitous shocks and boring legalities. (Apr.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
The Spectator (London)
A terrific story . . . A riveting read.
Times Literary Supplement(London)
Makes astonishing reading . . . extraordinary.
The Sunday Times(London)
An engrossing account.
Daily Telegraph(London)
Sensational.
Publishers Weekly
An exciting, historically accurate depiction of a disastrous 19th-century sea journey and its equally horrific legal aftermath... Hanson impresses with his careful, engrossing presentation.
Times Literary Supplement
Makes astonishing reading . . . extraordinary.
Daily Telegraph (London)
Sensational.
The Spectator (London)
A terrific story . . . A riveting read.
The Sunday Times (London)
An engrossing account.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780471383895
  • Publisher: Wiley, John & Sons, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 5/1/2000
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 315
  • Product dimensions: 9.34 (w) x 6.40 (h) x 1.06 (d)

Meet the Author

NEIL HANSON is a journalist and book author who lives in theYorkshire Dales, England.He has written widely for British magazines and has authored thirty books, some under his own name and others under various noms de plume.

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Read an Excerpt



Chapter One


A cold north wind was blowing off the sea, over the wasteland of creeks, marshes and mudflats. Between the banks of reeds and coarse sea-grass, thin streams, shining silver in the light from the cloud-streaked sky, wriggled sinuous as eels across the brown, glistening mud.

    Raised wooden walkways on timber piles threaded through the marshes, linking the berths and small jetties lining the creeks. The carcasses of a few mouldering hulks lay on the mudbanks, slowly drowning under a relentless, choking tide of silt. Cormorants perched on them, airing their wings, as herons stalked across the mud, probing with dagger beaks for frogs, eels and fish.

    Tom Dudley watched the fishing smacks making their way downstream on the swirling water of the rising tide, past Shinglehead Point and out into the main channel of the Blackwater. The cries of birds filled the air and the wind carried the sour, earthy smell of the saltings to him; he could almost taste the salt tang at the back of his throat. He had learned his craft in these waters, but this was the last time he would ever sail them.

    His stance as he stood at the helm of the yacht Mignonette showed his character: feet spread, broad shoulders back, meeting chest-on anything that the sea — or life — could throw at him. His keen eyes were as grey-green as the seas on which he had always earned his living, and his red hair and beard stood out in vivid contrast to the monochrome vista of mud, marsh and water.

    The floodtide advanced across the saltings and broke against the seawall. Part of it had been breached by the winter storms and the pounding waves had scoured away a broad section of the marsh beyond it, as if some sea-monster had risen from the deeps and bitten down into the land.

    The defences were being repaired, as they had been countless times before, but all Tollesbury men knew that the sea was an implacable opponent. Whether it stole their land, their ships, their lives, by the sudden, savage assault of a single, ferocious storm, or the relentless attrition of a thousand tides and a million breaking waves, the hunger of the sea could never be assuaged.

    Away to the north, at the furthest reach of the marshes, the wooden sails of a windmill creaked and rattled as they turned, pumping fresh water for the livestock from deep below ground. The grazing cattle plodded towards higher pasture, some pausing to rub themselves against the thick baulks of timber, black as bog oaks, driven into the ground. Their trampling hoofs had turned the earth around the scratching posts into a black morass.

    The sheep grazing the saltings were also yielding ground to the rising tide, retreating towards the fenceline of up-ended railway sleepers linked by woven rushes, that gave some shelter from the bite of the wind.

    Hares lying in the sea-grass waited until the last possible moment, when the tide had almost cut them off, before turning and running in zigzag lines, ears pressed flat against their heads, their feet throwing up webs of spray as they sped inland.

    Two men were standing on a plank resting on the marsh, clearing one of the deep drainage ditches running inland from the sea wall. One sliced at the bank with a long-handled sedge-knife, the other followed behind him, lifting the cut squares from the ditch with a crome and dumping them on the bank.

    Grey smoke was belching from the lime kiln at Old Hall, and Tom could see the barges tied up at the jetty, unloading the downland chalk for burning. He had once worked there, carrying the wicker baskets of `blue billy' — quicklime — from the kiln to the waiting carts and waggons. The lime that seeped through the wicker and the coarse weave of his shirt had burned his back red raw.

    Tom was thirty-one, the youngest of three sons of George Dudley, a local customs collector turned professional yachtsman. His mother had died when he was only six, and since his elder brothers were already at sea, like their father, he and his younger sister had been taken in by relatives.

    He grew up a solitary, introspective child. His lack of inches, pale, freckled face and mop of red hair made him conspicuous among the village children, but he was brave and strong enough to face down or fight those who tried to bully him. From an early age he showed a dogged determination: when set a task he would always achieve it.

    Like most Tollesbury families, life for the Dudleys was a hard year-long grind for adults and children alike. Few could afford the twopence a week school fees, and Tom was sent out to work instead whenever there was money to be earned.

    Whole families decamped inland for the fruit-picking, pea and bean harvests, leaving the village deserted. The school boards eventually bowed to the inevitable and created an annual pea-picking holiday. The work was back-breaking but Tom earned a few pence a day, and when the harvest was gathered in, the farmers would allow him to collect the spent stalks, to be dried and used as winter kindling.

    If at all, the children were back at school only for a few weeks before there was another mass exodus for the grain harvest. After that, there was winkling, eeling, turnip-pulling and a score of other seasonal tasks.

    The school attendance officer grew weary of making fruitless calls on the cottage in Head Street, and beyond the Bible instruction at his Sunday school, Tom received almost no education at all, but when he went to sea, he took books with him, and over years of slow, painstaking effort, he taught himself to read and write.

    The only real holidays in the year were two one-day fairs: Gooseberry Fair, at the end of the fruit- and pea-picking season, and the feast held in late September to celebrate the return of the many village men who had spent the summer working as crewmen on racing yachts. It was the one time in the year when money flowed freely across the bar of the Plough and Sail and the King's Head.

    Tollesbury men were much in demand from the skippers of racing yachts. The bleak, marshy Essex coast and the prevailing cold, offshore winds were reckoned to produce tougher, more skilful seamen than the sheltered ports of the Channel coast. Yachting had boomed since the end of the Napoleonic wars. For the first time, offshore waters were safe for pleasurecraft and the rising prosperity of the middle and upper classes, fuelled by the Industrial Revolution, led to a rapid expansion in the rich men's pastimes of cruising and yacht-racing.

    Many owners were as ruthlessly competitive in their sailing as in their business dealings. Having bought or commissioned the best available boats, they were also willing to pay good wages for the best hands, including a share of the prize money. Crews were attired at the owner's expense, with shoes, oilskins, trousers and jerseys embroidered with the name of their yacht.

    The racing season began at Harwich in Essex at the start of May and the yachts then sailed clockwise around the coast, calling at the regattas at Southend, Dover and Bangor, before spending a fortnight racing on the river Clyde. They then returned to the south coast for Cowes Week and the Ryde Regatta, and the season ended in September, with a regatta and quayside fair at Dartmouth. Most of the yachts were then laid up for the winter. Their crews found employment on merchant ships and fishing smacks, or worked in boatbuilders' and repairers' yards until the following spring.

    Tollesbury was just beginning to establish itself as a yachting centre in its own right, with its own small regatta in the last week of September, to mark the homecoming of the village's men. The returning crewmen sometimes earned an illicit bonus by bringing back rum, brandy or tobacco from across the Channel. Excisemen occasionally searched the yachts, but they made no more than a token effort to curb the smuggling; they had, after all, to live among the communities they tried to police.

    Like his brothers before him, Tom went to sea, still a child, three months before his tenth birthday. He rowed out with the crew in the grey light of pre-dawn, the fading stars still reflecting in the water and the mournful cries of seabirds filling the air. His boat joined eighty or ninety other smacks crowding the fishing grounds, netting eels in their season, or fishing offshore for skate, sole, plaice, cod, whiting, mackerel, herring and sprats. The sprats were salted down in barrels for shipping to Russia, but most of the other fish was sold locally, hawked from door to door in wicker baskets.

    In winter Tom caught eels in the deep mudholes in the saltings, pulled turnips from the frozen fields or joined the ships fishing for `five-fingers' — the starfish that preyed on the oyster beds. They were sold to the farmers for manure. Other oyster predators like whelks and slipper limpets were killed and thrown overboard.

    The first smacks in at the end of the day would line the shore of Woodrolfe creek and later arrivals had to unload across their decks. The starfish were piled in baskets and driven away in tumbrils to the farms around Tollesbury.

    Tom would arrive home at night heavy with the stench of rotting starfish. It was filthy work, disliked by all the men, but there were few alternatives. When storms kept the fishing smacks at home there was no money at all and in some bleak winters the Dudleys were forced to join the forty other village families claiming poor relief from the parish.

    Tom also worked on the oyster dredges. The crew sweated over the windlasses, hauling in dredges full of culch — the pieces of dead shell to which the oysters attached themselves. They were then sorted by size into brood, half-ware and ware. The ware — the adult, full-grown oysters — were packed into barrels for sale; the brood and half-ware were returned to the seabed or moved to private dredging grounds.

    `The most valuable native oyster breeding ground in the world, or at least, the Kingdom,' was now only a memory, however, wrecked by overfishing and the sale of oyster brood to other fisheries. A few years before, over five million tons had been shipped to Whitstable alone in a single three-month period. Every Tollesbury man knew it could not be sustained, but none would step back while others continued to plunder the Blackwater. The dredgers continued to operate, but each year the catch diminished.

    Tom's fingers tightened on the helm, but before giving the order to cast off, he turned to cast a last glance behind him. Beyond the marshes, a group of low cottages huddled around the squat church tower like children sheltering behind their mother's skirts. He picked out first the school and then the reed-thatch of the nearby cottage in Head Street.

    As he had walked down through the village that morning, he had stopped outside the house. The door stood ajar and he peered into the kitchen, seeing the familiar iron range, scrubbed wooden table and worn rag rug on the bare brick floor. There was to be no farewell to his father: he was away on a year-long voyage to the Americas and no longer kept the house.

    Tom's eye lingered on the village a little longer, then he turned his back, setting his gaze out to sea. His wife, Philippa, stood alongside him in the stern, cradling their youngest child against her shoulder. She was several years older than Tom and a couple of inches taller than his stocky, powerful figure. She did not speak, not wishing to wake her sleeping baby, but she studied his face for a moment, then reached out and laid a hand on his arm. As he turned towards her, she gave him a gentle, understanding smile.

    His expression softened as he looked at her, then he raised his eyes to the horizon and paused, seeming to scent the wind. He frowned. It was backing north-westerly and freshening all the while. `I'm afraid it will not be a pleasure cruise, my dear. There's another blow coming on.'

    William Frost, the younger of the two brothers who formed his crew, stood ready at the warp tethering the Mignonette to her mooring. He had reached his fourteenth birthday only the previous week, but had been at sea since he was twelve. His brother, Jim, was four years older and already an experienced able seaman. They were also natives of Tollesbury and Tom had known them all their lives.

    `Let go,' he said.

    `Wait!'

    Tom stifled a curse as he saw a figure running along the walkway towards them. It had taken all his powers of persuasion to convince the Frost brothers to make the voyage. He did not want their father to talk them out of it now, but he could not prevent Joe Frost from making one last try.

    `You're not to be dissuaded, then?'

    Tom shook his head. `I've given my word to the owner. I'll not go back on it.'

    Joe paused, choosing his words with care. `Tom, there are few braver sailors on this coast, nor fairer men, but you're sailing across the world in a twenty-year-old yacht. She was built for inshore waters, not great oceans.'

    `You know the yard that built it. Their boats are stout-timbered and solid, and the Mignonette' — he had given up trying to adapt his broad Essex accent to the French pronunciation and called it `Miggonette' — `was built as a cruiser and fishing boat. Only later was she converted to a racing yacht. If she's properly handled, she'll do well enough on any ocean.'

    `She's an old boat and she's been lying on the Brightlingsea mud all winter.'

    Tom nodded. `And she's been fitted out since then by a man we both know and trust.'

    `My boys are on board, Tom.'

    He glanced at Philippa. `As are my wife and child. Do you think I'd risk them?'

    `But they are sailing only to Southampton, not New South Wales.'

    `And if your boys are not happy with the Mignonette after sailing her that far, they can also leave ship. You have my word on that.'

    Joe hesitated, looking from his sons to Tom. `Will you not reconsider, before this ends in disaster?'

    Embarrassed and uncomfortable, the boys barely met their father's gaze.

    Tom shook his head. `I will not. It will be the start of a new life for myself and my family, and I have given my word.'

    Joe stood with his hand half extended, then let it fall to his side. He embraced his sons and walked away, unwilling to watch as the yacht slipped from her mooring and began to drift down Tollesbury Fleet.

    Tom kept a careful eye on the boys as they went to their work, raising sail. They had said not a word, but their father's anxiety was now mirrored in their faces.

    Still backing into the north-west, the wind drove them down South Channel, past Great Cob Island. Mounds of oyster culch were spread on the shore, left to dry and bleach in the summer sun. Tom raised a hand in farewell to the men mending the sea wall from a barge. They paused to watch the Mignonette slip downstream then resumed their work, driving split elm piles into the riverbed and dumping boulders around them.

    As the yacht cleared Shinglehead Point, she lay over to the wind, driven into a swell that was short and steep even in the sheltered waters of the estuary.

    Tom's gaze was never far from the sails and he felt every tremor of the boat through the helm as he steered south-east towards the distant Kent coast. It was the first voyage in the Mignonette for all of them and each boat was an individual. Her ways had to be learned, her strengths utilized, her weaknesses protected.

    She was a thirty-tonner, a little over fifty foot long and twelve foot in beam, with a seven-foot draught. She carried sixteen tons of lead ballast and another three tons carried externally on the keel. That made her a stiff boat, slow to roll with the swell but quick to right again as the keel weight hauled her back to the vertical.

    For all her weight, she was a fast yacht and had won her share of prize money over the years. She carried a fair spread of canvas on the main mast — with her top mast up, she was rigged to sixty foot above the deck - and had three jibs rigged from the main mast to the bowsprit, and a small mizzen mast, set well aft, almost on the taft rail.

    As they cleared the Maplin Sands and began to cross the Thames Estuary, the sea was speckled with sails. Barges laden with stinking nightsoil — human excrement — hugged the Essex shore, bound for the ports where it would be sold as farm manure.

    Packet boats, clippers and barques were beating up the channel, racing to make port before the backing wind forced them to heave-to, while smaller craft — coasters, fishing smacks and pleasureboats — scurried for the shelter of shore and harbour. Only the steamers held a straight course, the wind laying the black columns of smoke from their stacks parallel to the water behind them as they ploughed through the waves towards the capital.

    The Mignonette pitched and rolled in the swell. The baby awoke, crying, and a stream of milky puke poured on to Philippa's shoulder. `Best take the child below,' Tom said. `We'll have no shelter from the wind until we round the North Foreland.'

    He set the Frosts to reef then double-reef the mainsail, but even with the jib down, the yacht still sped before the wind, its mast bent and its bowsprit plunging through the swell as water cascaded over the bows and foamed out through the scuppers.

    The sky was growing still darker and above the howl of the wind, the groan of the timbers and the relentless thud of waves against the bow, Tom heard a distant rumble of thunder. He saw a grey, opaque curtain of rain to the west, binding the black clouds to the sea. It raced towards them on the wind, lit from within by stabs of lightning.

    `Tom?' Philippa's pale face appeared at the head of the companionway.

    `There's water leaking in.'

    `How much?'

    `An inch or so, but it's still rising.'

    She tried to keep her voice calm but he heard the edge of fear in it, and held his own expression impassive. `Don't be alarmed, it's normal in a storm.' He raised his voice! `William, Jim, get forward and man the pumps.'

    They ran to the head. The leather washers inside the barrels of the pumps wheezed like consumptive lungs as they began working the hand-pumps and the stinking bilge water poured over the side. The Frosts struggled to hold their ground as the wash from the largest waves coursed over the bows, reaching almost to their thighs. Their oilskins gleamed in the spray, showing dull reflections of the lightning strikes piercing the black sky.

    The heart of the storm rolled over the ship. It was as dark as dusk. Torrents of rain cascaded from the gleaming sails, flooding the deck, and lightning forks counterpointed each peal of thunder, which came so hard and fast that it sounded like one long, booming concussion.

    Even amid the clamour of the storm, Tom heard little Julian's insistent cries. He cursed himself for bringing Philippa and the baby with him instead of leaving them safe at home in Sutton, but the chance of a cruise on the yacht without the inhibiting presence of its owner had been a rare opportunity. He was also anxious to spend every possible minute with Philippa before their parting. In seven years of marriage, she had grown accustomed to his absences at sea, but even during the racing season, when regatta followed regatta around the coast, Tom was never more than a day's sail from port. He would often catch the mail train, arriving home in the early hours to snatch a day with his family before the next regatta began.

    This time was different, a voyage of over ten thousand miles to deliver the yacht to its new owner in Sydney. Like Joe Frost, some of Tom's friends had tried to persuade him not to make the voyage, predicting danger and possible disaster, but other captains had made similar voyages in even smaller ships, and in over twenty years at sea, Tom felt he had learned enough to find a safe passage to Australia.

    The potential dangers of the voyage worried him less than the separation from his family. Once the Mignonette sailed from Southampton, Philippa would have no word of him other than a letter passed to an inbound ship, if they chanced to meet one, until they made port. He would have no way of knowing if his wife and children were well or ill until he reached New South Wales, and it would be approaching a year, perhaps even longer, before he laid eyes on them again. Whatever happened to them in the meantime, he would be powerless to provide help until they too, arrived in Sydney.

    He pushed that thought away as soon as it formed, gripping the helm so hard that the veins stood out on his arms. The storm rolled past and the thunder faded to a dull, distant rumble, losing itself in the empty reaches of the North Sea. The rain eased as the sky lightened, but the wind and the swell kept up their twin assaults on the ship.

    The Frost brothers still stood in the bow working the pumps and foul bilgewater spewed from the side in a steady stream. Tom called to Philippa. `What is the level now?'

    `The same.'

    He frowned. It was a problem that would have to be addressed, but for the moment he had his hands full simply holding the ship to its course and fighting the violent kick of the rudder as the yacht met each wave. His gaze raked the mast-top, the rigging and the straining sails, then returned to the grey march of the waves ahead of the bow. He thought about reducing canvas still further, but the gale seemed to have reached its peak and the sheltering east coast of Kent was now not far away.

    He saw Margate off the starboard beam, and a few minutes later the coastline to the south began to open up. He called the Frosts back from the pumps. `Ready to go about.'

    They released the canvas of the mainsail and held it taut ready for the swing of the boom.

    `Haul sail.' They released the bracing ropes, the boom swung over and the sails filled again with a crack.

    `Well all.'

    They returned to the head and bent once more to the pumps.

    The edge of the wind was blunted and the swell lessened as they sailed into the sheltered waters of the Downs, between the Goodwin Sands and the Kent coast. Scores of other ships had also taken refuge there from the storm.

    Tom kept the sails close-hauled and called Jim back to take the helm. The acrid smell of vomit filled his nostrils as he went down the companionway. He carried a stinking bucket on deck and tipped it over the side, then went back below.

    Philippa was sitting in Tom's cabin nursing the child on her lap. Both were wan and drawn. `I'm sorry,' she said. `I feel a little better now.'

    He took her hand in his and stroked the baby's cheek, then moved away through the below-decks, scrutinizing the planking. There was a small leak around the base of the bowsprit, but the ship's carpenter had not been born who could stop water coming in there in a heavy swell. More worrying was the steady trickle of water through the garboard strakes — the planking near the keel towards the stern of the boat.

    He watched it for some minutes. It was no more than a slow trickle for most of that time, but when Jim allowed the bow to come round a little and a big wave caught them more towards the beam, the planking seemed to twist as the hull flexed and water poured through the seams. As the ship was righted, the leak again dwindled to a slow seepage.

    Philippa was watching him. `Is it serious?'

    He shrugged. `It will be, if it's not repaired.'

    `But the boat was fitted out at Brightlingsea.'

    He nodded. `I know, I know, but ships are like sailors. Some faults only show themselves when you're at sea.'

    He paused, studying the leak again. `We've seen the worst of the weather for now. We'll make for Southampton as planned and I'll have her hauled out and repaired there. It'll eat into the profit on the voyage a little, but there'll still be a handsome return — enough to buy us a new house for a new life in Australia.' He stooped and kissed her brow. She gave him a weak answering smile before he went back on deck.

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First Chapter

CHAPTER 1



A cold north wind was blowing off the sea, over the wasteland of creeks, marshes and mudflats. Between the banks of reeds and coarse sea-grass, thin streams, shining silver in the light from the cloud-streaked sky, wriggled sinuous as eels across the brown, glistening mud.

Raised wooden walkways on timber piles threaded through the marshes, linking the berths and small jetties lining the creeks. The carcasses of a few mouldering hulks lay on the mudbanks, slowly drowning under a relentless, choking tide of silt. Cormorants perched on them, airing their wings, as herons stalked across the mud, probing with dagger beaks for frogs, eels and fish.

Tom Dudley watched the fishing smacks making their way downstream on the swirling water of the rising tide, past Shinglehead Point and out into the main channel of the Blackwater. The cries of birds filled the air and the wind carried the sour, earthy smell of the saltings to him; he could almost taste the salt tang at the back of his throat. He had learned his craft in these waters, but this was the last time he would ever sail them.

His stance as he stood at the helm of the yacht Mignonette showed his character: feet spread, broad shoulders back, meeting chest-on anything that the sea - or life - could throw at him. His keen eyes were as grey-green as the seas on which he had always earned his living, and his red hair and beard stood out in vivid contrast to the monochrome vista of mud, marsh and water.

The floodtide advanced across the saltings and broke against the sea wall. Part of it had been breached by the winter storms and the pounding waves had scoured away a broad section of the marsh beyond it, as if some sea-monster had risen from the deeps and bitten down into the land. The defences were being repaired, as they had been countless times before, but all Tollesbury men knew that the sea was an implacable opponent. Whether it stole their land, their ships, their lives, by the sudden, savage assault of a single, ferocious storm, or the relentless attrition of a thousand tides and a million breaking waves, the hunger of the sea could never be assuaged.

Away to the north, at the furthest reach of the marshes, the wooden sails of a windmill creaked and rattled as they turned, pumping fresh water for the livestock from deep below ground. The grazing cattle plodded towards higher pasture, some pausing to rub themselves against the thick baulks of timber, black as bog oaks, driven into the ground. Their trampling hoofs had turned the earth around the scratching posts into a black morass.

The sheep grazing the saltings were also yielding ground to the rising tide, retreating towards the fenceline of up-ended railway sleepers linked by woven rushes, that gave some shelter from the bite of the wind.

Hares lying in the sea-grass waited until the last possible moment, when the tide had almost cut them off, before turning and running in zigzag lines, ears pressed flat against their heads, their feet throwing up webs of spray as they sped inland.

Two men were standing on a plank resting on the marsh, clearing one of the deep drainage ditches running inland from the sea wall. One sliced at the bank with a long-handled sedge-knife, the other followed behind him, lifting the cut squares from the ditch with a crome and dumping them on the bank.

Grey smoke was belching from the lime kiln at Old Hall, and Tom could see the barges tied up at the jetty, unloading the downland chalk for burning. He had once worked there, carrying the wicker baskets of 'blue billy' - quicklime - from the kiln to the waiting carts and waggons. The lime that seeped through the wicker and the coarse weave of his shirt had burned his back red raw.

Tom was thirty-one, the youngest of three sons of George Dudley, a local customs collector turned professional yachtsman. His mother had died when he was only six, and since his elder brothers were already at sea, like their father, he and his younger sister had been taken in by relatives.

He grew up a solitary, introspective child. His lack of inches, pale, freckled face and mop of red hair made him conspicuous among the village children, but he was brave and strong enough to face down or fight those who tried to bully him. From an early age he showed a dogged determination: when set a task he would always achieve it.

Like most Tollesbury families, life for the Dudleys was a hard year-long grind for adults and children alike. Few could afford the twopence a week school fees, and Tom was sent out to work instead whenever there was money to be earned.

Whole families decamped inland for the fruit-picking, pea and bean harvests, leaving the village deserted. The school boards eventually bowed to the inevitable and created an annual pea-picking holiday. The work was back-breaking but Tom earned a few pence a day, and when the harvest was gathered in, the farmers would allow him to collect the spent stalks, to be dried and used as winter kindling.

If at all, the children were back at school only for a few weeks before there was another mass exodus for the grain harvest. After that, there was winkling, eeling, turnip-pulling and a score of other seasonal tasks. The school attendance officer grew weary of making fruitless calls on the cottage in Head Street, and beyond the Bible instruction at his Sunday school, Tom received almost no education at all, but when he went to sea, he took books with him, and over years of slow, painstaking effort, he taught himself to read and write.

The only real holidays in the year were two one-day fairs: Gooseberry Fair, at the end of the fruit-and pea-picking season, and the feast held in late September to celebrate the return of the many village men who had spent the summer working as crewmen on racing yachts. It was the one time in the year when money flowed freely across the bar of the Plough and Sail and the King's Head.

Tollesbury men were much in demand from the skippers of racing yachts. The bleak, marshy Essex coast and the prevailing cold, offshore winds were reckoned to produce tougher, more skilful seamen than the sheltered ports of the Channel coast. Yachting had boomed since the end of the Napoleonic wars. For the first time, offshore waters were safe for pleasurecraft and the rising prosperity of the middle and upper classes, fuelled by the Industrial Revolution, led to a rapid expansion in the rich men's pastimes of cruising and yacht-racing.

Many owners were as ruthlessly competitive in their sailing as in their business dealings. Having bought or commissioned the best available boats, they were also willing to pay good wages for the best hands, including a share of the prize money. Crews were attired at the owner's expense, with shoes, oilskins, trousers and jerseys embroidered with the name of their yacht.

The racing season began at Harwich in Essex at the start of May and the yachts then sailed clockwise around the coast, calling at the regattas at Southend, Dover and Bangor, before spending a fortnight racing on the river Clyde. They then returned to the south coast for Cowes Week and the Ryde Regatta, and the season ended in September, with a regatta and quayside fair at Dartmouth. Most of the yachts were then laid up for the winter. Their crews found employment on merchant ships and fishing smacks, or worked in boatbuilders' and repairers' yards until the following spring.

Tollesbury was just beginning to establish itself as a yachting centre in its own right, with its own small regatta in the last week of September, to mark the homecoming of the village's men. The returning crewmen sometimes earned an illicit bonus by bringing back rum, brandy or tobacco from across the Channel. Excisemen occasionally searched the yachts, but they made no more than a token effort to curb the smuggling; they had, after all, to live among the communities they tried to police.

Like his brothers before him, Tom went to sea, still a child, three months before his tenth birthday. He rowed out with the crew in the grey light of pre-dawn, the fading stars still reflecting in the water and the mournful cries of seabirds filling the air. His boat joined eighty or ninety other smacks crowding the fishing grounds, netting eels in their season, or fishing offshore for skate, sole, plaice, cod, whiting, mackerel, herring and sprats. The sprats were salted down in barrels for shipping to Russia, but most of the other fish was sold locally, hawked from door to door in wicker baskets.

In winter Tom caught eels in the deep mudholes in the saltings, pulled turnips from the frozen fields or joined the ships fishing for 'five-fingers' - the starfish that preyed on the oyster beds. They were sold to the farmers for manure. Other oyster predators like whelks and slipper limpets were killed and thrown overboard. The first smacks in at the end of the day would line the shore of Woodrolfe creek and later arrivals had to unload across their decks. The starfish were piled in baskets and driven away in tumbrils to the farms around Tollesbury.

Tom would arrive home at night heavy with the stench of rotting starfish. It was filthy work, disliked by all the men, but there were few alternatives. When storms kept the fishing smacks at home there was no money at all and in some bleak winters the Dudleys were forced to join the forty other village families claiming poor relief from the parish.

Tom also worked on the oyster dredges. The crew sweated over the windlasses, hauling in dredges full of culch - the pieces of dead shell to which the oysters attached themselves. They were then sorted by size into brood, half-ware and ware. The ware - the adult, full-grown oysters - were packed into barrels for sale; the brood and half-ware were returned to the seabed or moved to private dredging grounds.

'The most valuable native oyster breeding ground in the world, or at least, the Kingdom, ' was now only a memory, however, wrecked by overfishing and the sale of oyster brood to other fisheries. A few years before, over five million tons had been shipped to Whitstable alone in a single three-month period. Every Tollesbury man knew it could not be sustained, but none would step back while others continued to plunder the Blackwater. The dredgers continued to operate, but each year the catch diminished.

Tom's fingers tightened on the helm, but before giving the order to cast off, he turned to cast a last glance behind him. Beyond the marshes, a group of low cottages huddled around the squat church tower like children sheltering behind their mother's skirts. He picked out first the school and then the reed-thatch of the nearby cottage in Head Street.

As he had walked down through the village that morning, he had stopped outside the house. The door stood ajar and he peered into the kitchen, seeing the familiar iron range, scrubbed wooden table and worn rag rug on the bare brick floor. There was to be no farewell to his father: he was away on a year-long voyage to the Americas and no longer kept the house.

Tom's eye lingered on the village a little longer, then he turned his back, setting his gaze out to sea. His wife, Philippa, stood alongside him in the stern, cradling their youngest child against her shoulder. She was several years older than Tom and a couple of inches taller than his stocky, powerful figure. She did not speak, not wishing to wake her sleeping baby, but she studied his face for a moment, then reached out and laid a hand on his arm. As he turned towards her, she gave him a gentle, understanding smile.

His expression softened as he looked at her, then he raised his eyes to the horizon and paused, seeming to scent the wind. He frowned. It was backing north-westerly and freshening all the while. 'I'm afraid it will not be a pleasure cruise, my dear. There's another blow coming on. '

William Frost, the younger of the two brothers who formed his crew, stood ready at the warp tethering the Mignonette to her mooring. He had reached his fourteenth birthday only the previous week, but had been at sea since he was twelve. His brother, Jim, was four years older and already an experienced able seaman. They were also natives of Tollesbury and Tom had known them all their lives.

'Let go, ' he said.

'Wait! '

Tom stifled a curse as he saw a figure running along the walkway towards them. It had taken all his powers of persuasion to convince the Frost brothers to make the voyage. He did not want their father to talk them out of it now, but he could not prevent Joe Frost from making one last try.

'You're not to be dissuaded, then? '

Tom shook his head. 'I've given my word to the owner. I'll not go back on it. '

Joe paused, choosing his words with care. 'Tom, there are few braver sailors on this coast, nor fairer men, but you're sailing across the world in a twenty-year-old yacht. She was built for inshore waters, not great oceans. '

'You know the yard that built it. Their boats are stout-timbered and solid, and the Mignonette' - he had given up trying to adapt his broad Essex accent to the French pronunciation and called it 'Miggonette' - 'was built as a cruiser and fishing boat. Only later was she converted to a racing yacht. If she's properly handled, she'll do well enough on any ocean. '

'She's an old boat and she's been lying on the Brightlingsea mud all winter. '

Tom nodded. 'And she's been fitted out since then by a man we both know and trust. '

'My boys are on board, Tom. '

He glanced at Philippa. 'As are my wife and child. Do you think I'd risk them? '

'But they are sailing only to Southampton, not New South Wales. '

'And if your boys are not happy with the Mignonette after sailing her that far, they can also leave ship. You have my word on that. '

Joe hesitated, looking from his sons to Tom. 'Will you not reconsider, before this ends in disaster? '

Embarrassed and uncomfortable, the boys barely met their father's gaze.

Tom shook his head. 'I will not. It will be the start of a new life for myself and my family, and I have given my word. '

Joe stood with his hand half extended, then let it fall to his side. He embraced his sons and walked away, unwilling to watch as the yacht slipped from her mooring and began to drift down Tollesbury Fleet.

Tom kept a careful eye on the boys as they went to their work, raising sail. They had said not a word, but their father's anxiety was now mirrored in their faces.

Still backing into the north-west, the wind drove them down South Channel, past Great Cob Island. Mounds of oyster culch were spread on the shore, left to dry and bleach in the summer sun. Tom raised a hand in farewell to the men mending the sea wall from a barge. They paused to watch the Mignonette slip downstream then resumed their work, driving split elm piles into the riverbed and dumping boulders around them.

As the yacht cleared Shinglehead Point, she lay over to the wind, driven into a swell that was short and steep even in the sheltered waters of the estuary.

Tom's gaze was never far from the sails and he felt every tremor of the boat through the helm as he steered south-east towards the distant Kent coast. It was the first voyage in the Mignonette for all of them and each boat was an individual. Her ways had to be learned, her strengths utilized, her weaknesses protected.

She was a thirty-tonner, a little over fifty foot long and twelve foot in beam, with a seven-foot draught. She carried sixteen tons of lead ballast and another three tons carried externally on the keel. That made her a stiff boat, slow to roll with the swell but quick to right again as the keel weight hauled her back to the vertical.

For all her weight, she was a fast yacht and had won her share of prize money over the years. She carried a fair spread of canvas on the main mast - with her top mast up, she was rigged to sixty foot above the deck - and had three jibs rigged from the main mast to the bowsprit, and a small mizzen mast, set well aft, almost on the taff rail.

As they cleared the Maplin Sands and began to cross the Thames Estuary, the sea was speckled with sails. Barges laden with stinking nightsoil - human excrement - hugged the Essex shore, bound for the ports where it would be sold as farm manure.

Packet boats, clippers and barques were beating up the channel, racing to make port before the backing wind forced them to heave-to, while smaller craft - coasters, fishing smacks and pleasureboats - scurried for the shelter of shore and harbour. Only the steamers held a straight course, the wind laying the black columns of smoke from their stacks parallel to the water behind them as they ploughed through the waves towards the capital.

The Mignonette pitched and rolled in the swell. The baby awoke, crying, and a stream of milky puke poured on to Philippa's shoulder. 'Best take the child below, ' Tom said. 'We'll have no shelter from the wind until we round the North Foreland. '

He set the Frosts to reef then double-reef the mainsail, but even with the jib down, the yacht still sped before the wind, its mast bent and its bowsprit plunging through the swell as water cascaded over the bows and foamed out through the scuppers.

The sky was growing still darker and above the howl of the wind, the groan of the timbers and the relentless thud of waves against the bow, Tom heard a distant rumble of thunder. He saw a grey, opaque curtain of rain to the west, binding the black clouds to the sea. It raced towards them on the wind, lit from within by stabs of lightning.

'Tom? ' Philippa's pale face appeared at the head of the companion-way. 'There's water leaking in. '

'How much? '

'An inch or so, but it's still rising. '

She tried to keep her voice calm but he heard the edge of fear in it, and held his own expression impassive. 'Don't be alarmed, it's normal in a storm. ' He raised his voice. 'William, Jim, get forward and man the pumps. '

They ran to the head. The leather washers inside the barrels of the pumps wheezed like consumptive lungs as they began working the hand-pumps and the stinking bilge water poured over the side. The Frosts struggled to hold their ground as the wash from the largest waves coursed over the bows, reaching almost to their thighs. Their oilskins gleamed in the spray, showing dull reflections of the lightning strikes piercing the black sky.

The heart of the storm rolled over the ship. It was as dark as dusk. Torrents of rain cascaded from the gleaming sails, flooding the deck, and lightning forks counterpointed each peal of thunder, which came so hard and fast that it sounded like one long, booming concussion.

Even amid the clamour of the storm, Tom heard little Julian's insistent cries. He cursed himself for bringing Philippa and the baby with him instead of leaving them safe at home in Sutton, but the chance of a cruise on the yacht without the inhibiting presence of its owner had been a rare opportunity. He was also anxious to spend every possible minute with Philippa before their parting. In seven years of marriage, she had grown accustomed to his absences at sea, but even during the racing season, when regatta followed regatta around the coast, Tom was never more than a day's sail from port. He would often catch the mail train, arriving home in the early hours to snatch a day with his family before the next regatta began.

This time was different, a voyage of over ten thousand miles to deliver the yacht to its new owner in Sydney. Like Joe Frost, some of Tom's friends had tried to persuade him not to make the voyage, predicting danger and possible disaster, but other captains had made similar voyages in even smaller ships, and in over twenty years at sea, Tom felt he had learned enough to find a safe passage to Australia.

The potential dangers of the voyage worried him less than the separation from his family. Once the Mignonette sailed from Southampton, Philippa would have no word of him other than a letter passed to an inbound ship, if they chanced to meet one, until they made port. He would have no way of knowing if his wife and children were well or ill until he reached New South Wales, and it would be approaching a year, perhaps even longer, before he laid eyes on them again. Whatever happened to them in the meantime, he would be powerless to provide help until they too, arrived in Sydney.

He pushed that thought away as soon as it formed, gripping the helm so hard that the veins stood out on his arms. The storm rolled past and the thunder faded to a dull, distant rumble, losing itself in the empty reaches of the North Sea. The rain eased as the sky lightened, but the wind and the swell kept up their twin assaults on the ship.

The Frost brothers still stood in the bow working the pumps and foul bilgewater spewed from the side in a steady stream. Tom called to Philippa. 'What is the level now? '

'The same. '

He frowned. It was a problem that would have to be addressed, but for the moment he had his hands full simply holding the ship to its course and fighting the violent kick of the rudder as the yacht met each wave. His gaze raked the mast-top, the rigging and the straining sails, then returned to the grey march of the waves ahead of the bow. He thought about reducing canvas still further, but the gale seemed to have reached its peak and the sheltering east coast of Kent was now not far away.

He saw Margate off the starboard beam, and a few minutes later the coastline to the south began to open up. He called the Frosts back from the pumps. 'Ready to go about. '

They released the canvas of the mainsail and held it taut ready for the swing of the boom.

'Haul sail. ' They released the bracing ropes, the boom swung over and the sails filled again with a crack.

'Well all. '

They returned to the head and bent once more to the pumps. The edge of the wind was blunted and the swell lessened as they sailed into the sheltered waters of the Downs, between the Goodwin Sands and the Kent coast. Scores of other ships had also taken refuge there from the storm.

Tom kept the sails close-hauled and called Jim back to take the helm. The acrid smell of vomit filled his nostrils as he went down the companionway. He carried a stinking bucket on deck and tipped it over the side, then went back below.

Philippa was sitting in Tom's cabin nursing the child on her lap. Both were wan and drawn. 'I'm sorry, ' she said. 'I feel a little better now. '

He took her hand in his and stroked the baby's cheek, then moved away through the below-decks, scrutinizing the planking. There was a small leak around the base of the bowsprit, but the ship's carpenter had not been born who could stop water coming in there in a heavy swell. More worrying was the steady trickle of water through the garboard strakes - the planking near the keel towards the stern of the boat.

He watched it for some minutes. It was no more than a slow trickle for most of that time, but when Jim allowed the bow to come round a little and a big wave caught them more towards the beam, the planking seemed to twist as the hull flexed and water poured through the seams. As the ship was righted, the leak again dwindled to a slow seepage.

Philippa was watching him. 'Is it serious? '

He shrugged. 'It will be, if it's not repaired. '

'But the boat was fitted out at Brightlingsea. '

He nodded. 'I know, I know, but ships are like sailors. Some faults only show themselves when you're at sea. '

He paused, studying the leak again. 'We've seen the worst of the weather for now. We'll make for Southampton as planned and I'll have her hauled out and repaired there. It'll eat into the profit on the voyage a little, but there'll still be a handsome return - enough to buy us a new house for a new life in Australia. ' He stooped and kissed her brow. She gave him a weak answering smile before he went back on deck.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 24, 2000

    The Author Speaks...

    I'm Neil Hanson, the author of The Custom of the Sea, so what else could I give it but five stars! In 1837 Edgar Allen Poe wrote a novel - The Chronicle of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket - describing the ordeal of four men, shipwrecked and adrift in a tiny boat without food or water. They managed to catch a small turtle and lived on that for a few days, but soon they were once more dying of hunger and thirst. When it became clear to the captain that if nothing were done, all four men would die, he cut the throat of the cabin boy, Richard Parker, and they survived on his flesh until they were rescued. The story was pure fiction, yet in 1884, almost fifty years later, it came true in every particular, even down to the name of the murdered cabin boy. That extraordinary coincidence... or premonition is what first sparked my interest in the true story of the crew of the yacht Mignonette. Despite the gothic incident at its heart, the Custom of the Sea isn't primarily some blood soaked horror story. To me, above all else, it's a profoundly moving human drama and the more the richness of this incredible true story revealed itself to me, the more determined I was to tell it with the characterization, sense of place, pace and narrative drive of a novel, bringing to life the key figures and the half-forgotten world they inhabited. The more I researched the story, the more intrigued I was by the glimpses the case offered into an era within my own compass - my grandfather was born in 1884 - yet utterly remote from me. The deeper I dug, the more I learned about the half-lit worlds of Victorian ships, ghoulish prisons, crimps and boarding house masters, curiosity shops and the grotesque travelling freak shows of the time - all of which had a bearing on the story - and the more contrasts and tensions I uncovered between two co-existing but mutually uncomprehending worlds: the stifling strait-jacket of upper class Victorian `polite society¿ against the rough and ready world of the dockside and the lower deck; the cold precision of the letter of the law against the loose custom and practice that governed the lives - and often deaths - of seamen. Ships had been wrecking since men first put to sea in boats and even in the late nineteenth century thousands still sank every year. In response to this terrible toll of lives the Custom of the Sea had evolved, practised so often that it acquired a quasi-legal status: if men were adrift and dying of hunger or thirst, lots were drawn and the loser was killed and eaten to save the lives of the rest. To seamen it had a brutal, but pragmatic logic - better for one to be killed than for all to die - but this was never a view shared by the English establishment. To wealthy Victorians living comfortable lives far from the the terrible hardships of the sea, cannibalism was something practised by 'savages' in those far-flung parts of the globe still beyond the civilising influence of the British Empire. To be confronted with evidence that Christian Englishmen were capable of the same barbarity filled them with horror. The government had long been seeking a test case on the Custom of the Sea and the extraordinary honesty of Captain Tom Dudley gave them their chance. Unshakeable in his belief that he and his men had done nothing wrong and steadfast in his refusal to contemplate concealing the truth, he put his trust in English justice, only to discover that in their determination to uphold the letter of the law, the English legal establshment thought nothing of bending and even breaking the law themselves to secure a conviction. The trial made headlines around the world and the sentence of death imposed (though later commuted) outlawed for ever a practice followed since men first put to the ocean in boats: The Cust

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