Set in Victorian England, this is a gruesome story of shipwreck, murder, and a breach of the civilized world's last taboo. It is, in fact, a true turning point in history in that what was often referred to as the custom of the sea was to be irrevocably changed.
It begins with a simple assignment: Captain Tom Dudley is hired to take the yacht Mignonette to Australia. Even he must have had serious misgivings. The Mignonette was a racing yacht built for inland waters and not for long, hard voyages on the open seas.
When a leak was soon discovered in the hull, it cost Captain Dudley some precious time as well as members of his crew. His new crew included Edwin Stephens as first mate, Ned Brooks, and a 17-year-old cabin boy named Richard Parker.
The course that Captain Dudley selected would have been an ambitious jump for a larger ship, but was even more formidable for a yacht. After sailing for days, the yacht ran into non-typical weather which culminated in a wave tearing into the ship like a giant knife, mortally wounding the vessel.
The crew managed to board a dingy and escape. Since the storm had driven the yacht in several directions, the survivors had no idea where they were. They had no water and only a small tin of turnips for food. So they drifted, usually under a parching sun.
The cabin boy, despite the sternest of warnings, drank sea water and was descending into madness. In growing desperation, the captain killed the boy and his corpse was eaten by the three remaining men.
Three days later, the survivors were rescued by a German ship. After almost a month of terrible suffering, it might be supposed their tribulations were ended, but the English press picked up the story and ran with it, and the politicians of the day followed. What was once the custom of the sea became a circus that dragged on and on. Hanson presents all sorts of moral dilemmas to the reader, and his haunting account is lingering.
Lloyd Armour is a retired newspaper editor in Nashville.