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How the Life of Pi influenced Malaysian laws on cannibalism

11 months ago chiahoong lim



This article is for general informational purposes only and is not meant to be used or construed as legal advice in any manner whatsoever. All articles have been scrutinized by a practicing lawyer to ensure accuracy.

If you’re a cannibal, never show up late for dinner, or you may get the cold shoulder. Jokes aside, cannibalism is a major taboo in most civilizations, although cases still happen in modern times; whether as a last resort, in times of famine, or just simple curiosity.

The question of how responsible someone can be for their actions when it comes to their own survival has been questioned since civilization began, most notably in the Plank of Carneades; a thought experiment by the Greek philosopher Carneades that presented a scenario of two shipwrecked sailors (A and B) and a plank that only supports one person. If B pushes A off the plank in order to survive, is B legally and morally responsible for A’s death?

That’s pretty morbid. What has this got to do with the topic at hand and, more importantly, what does this have to do with Life of Pi?

If you remember, the name of the tiger trapped on the boat with the titular character was named Richard Parker. This wasn’t a random name invented by the author. In fact Yann Martell commented on the choice of name, saying “So many Richard Parkers had to mean something.” He was referring to a strange series of real-life and literary coincidences where people named Richard Parker have been involved in shipwrecks, a famous one being an Edgar Allen Poe novel where a cabin boy named Richard Parker was eaten by the other survivors after their whaling boat sank.

(cue Vsauce music) Hey Vsauce, Michael here. Image by giphy

Well, the case we’re about to examine involves cannibalism that the perpetrators tried to defend as necessary. This was the case of R v Dudley and Stephens which happened in the UK in the 1860’s, where the survivors of a shipwreck claimed they had no choice but to kill and eat a cabin boy named…..Richard Parker. 

And it all started because a rich guy decided to buy a boat

Or a yacht. Image by kym

Yachts are nice. Many people aspire to acquire one, it is a symbol of wealth and excess. In 1867, an English yacht called the Mignorette was purchased by a man from Australia named John Henry Want. The Mignorette was a 19.43 ton, 16m-long cruiser that was not made for long voyages. 

At that time, the only feasible way to get the ship from the UK to Australia was to sail it there. Want’s initial attempts to gather a crew to sail the yacht were unsuccessful, as the Mignorette was a relatively small vessel, and the journey was quite lengthy (24,000km).

You might say Want really want-ed to make the trip, as a crew of four was eventually assembled. They were Edwin Stephens, Edmund Brooks, Richard Parker, and the captain; an experienced yachtsman named Tom Dudley. Richard Parker was only 17 years old, and this was his first voyage out on the open seas. He has, however, sailed in inshore waters (they wouldn’t have hired him if he was a complete newbie). All of them were aware of the customary dangers of a long ocean voyage, but none of them were prepared for what was coming.


The sea is a cruel mistress

Fig 1: The thing the sailor is leaning on is a bulwark. Image by Pinterest

The crew set off on 19 May 1884. Two weeks later, a gale (wind from 50 - 102 km/h) brewed around the Cape of Good Hope, about 2500 km off the coast of South Africa. This sort of weather isn’t unusual in itself, but the Capt. Dudley gave the order to heave to (setting the ship to take a “break” or to wait out strong winds) so that the crew could get a good nights sleep. Right after that, Parker was sent down to get some tea made and the bulwark (the upper wall of the ship – see fig. 1) got washed away by a strong wave

Right away Dudley knew they were doomed and the yacht was going to go down. The crew escaped on a shabby lifeboat with some navigational tools, two tins of turnips (what a choice) and no fresh water. The Mignorette sank within five minutes of the launching of the lifeboat, on the 5th of July. 

Well, the ship’s sunk. Surely it can’t go much worse, right?

BOOM! Shark attack!

They had to fend off a shark that night. There’s the imminent starvation to deal with, too. Everyone held it in for two days until 7 July, when they shared the first tin of turnips. What about the thirst? You can’t drink seawater because humans can only produce urine that is less salty than seawater. If you drink seawater, your body will keep making urine to expel all the excess salt, and you will die as you get more thirsty.

I HAVE A REAL NEED. Image by quickmeme

That’s why when the dudes caught a sea turtle, they thought their hydration problems were over. The turtle yielded enough meat to last them about a week, along with the second can of turnips. This solved their food problem for the time being, but not their thirst since the turtle’s blood got contaminated with seawater, making it undrinkable.

It gets worse. Failing to catch any rainwater, the crew resorted to drinking their own urine to try to survive. Uric acid tea probably didn’t agree with Parker, and he later started drinking seawater and, for reasons we previously mentioned, fell sick from it around 20 July


So the men resorted to the “custom of the sea”

An illustration of what happened on the lifeboat. Image from the BBC.

Before we go into the next part of the story, let me explain the concept of the “custom of the sea”. These are customs said to be practiced by officers and crews of ships out on the open sea, and one of these customs is the practice of shipwrecked survivors drawing lots to see who gets sacrificed and gets eaten so the others have a higher chance of survival

Our Mötley Crüe (ayy classic rock fans) discussed the possibility of going ahead with this grisly custom, but it was going nowhere until 23 or 24 July. With Parker possibly in a coma, Dudley suggested that he be killed and eaten, but Brooks was having none of it. The matter was brought up again with Stephens that night, and Dudley tried to convince Stephens by saying that Parker was dying anyways, and Stephens had a family waiting for him back home. Both men agreed to wait till morning and see.

“The boy is dying. You have a wife and five children, and I have a wife and three children. Human flesh has been eaten before.” – Capt. Dudley to Edwin Stephens, quote sourced from the BBC

The next day, seeing that the prospect of getting rescued was slim at best, Dudley signaled to Stephens and Brooks that it was time to end Parker’s life. Killing Parker before he died naturally would better preserve his blood to be drunk. Parker was killed by having a pen knife pushed into his jugular vein. Dudley and Brooks consumed most of the macabre feast, Stephens had very little. Ironically, the men later managed to catch some rainwater to drink. On 29 July, the spotted a sail and were rescued by a German ship.


Aftermath and judgement

Man this is like a church fresco. Image by historyextra

Dudley was forthright about the matter and did not attempt to hide the fact that Parker was, to him, an unfortunate sacrifice due to necessity. The people in Falmouth (where they were dropped off by the German ship) were largely sympathetic towards the crew. What happened was terrible, but Dudley could always justify that they followed well-established maritime traditions.

But there’s a twist: There was a similar case ten years prior, and English authorities were looking to settle the law in regards to this custom once and for all. 

Our boys appeared before a magistrate in Falmouth, and Brooks was exonerated (cleared from fault) because he was deemed to have little to do with the planning or the murder of Parker. Dudley and Stephens, however, were arraigned (called to court) on murder charges. During the actual trial in Exeter, Judge Baron Huddleston began the trial by giving a detailed explanation as to why the law could not recognize the defence of necessity for murder. The jury was later presented with 2 choices: to find the two men guilty, or to return a “special verdict”, an unusual judicial procedure which referred the case up to a higher court. 

At the time the public sentiment generally backed Dudley and Stephens, and so the case was pushed up to a higher court, the Queens Bench. The captain and Stephens were then convicted of murder and sentenced to death. In the end, the home secretary settled on a sentence of six months of imprisonment.


So… what does this case have to do with us Malaysians?

Mom, why does this meat taste weird? Image by the Malaysian TImes

Well, this case established a precedent (where old cases are used as a reference for judgment) in the common law world in that necessity is not a defence to murder

Lets look at how the defence of necessity works in Malaysia. Section 81 of our Penal Code says:

 Nothing is an offence merely by reason of its being done with the knowledge that it is likely to cause harm, if it be done without any criminal intention to cause harm, and in good faith for the purpose of preventing or avoiding other harm to person or property.

That means that something is NOT an offence if is done with the knowledge that it will cause harm – but without a criminal intention – in order to avoid harm to another person or property. The act further explains with its own example; a person pulling a burning house down to prevent or save other people’s lives and property. 

An Indian case of Mohd. Bilal & Another v State talks about this. Basically Mohd Bilal used an electrical cable to lasso his father to prevent him from walking away when he was seething in anger, to prevent him from injuring himself. The father was consequentially strangled by accident and died. The necessity defence was invoked because Mohd Bilal only had the intention to stop his father from getting hurt, not to kill him. The court allowed the defence.

Why is an Indian case even relevant? The Indian Penal Code is similar to ours so much so that Indian law has also been referenced in Malaysian courts before. But what about the topic at hand: murder and cannibalism?

While Malaysia has (thankfully) not had a case of cannibalism due to necessity, Dr. Siti from University Malaya (Page 22 of this PDF) is of the opinion that there must be a very strong justification if it involves cannibalism as a private defence. It makes sense because cannibalism itself is taboo from a cultural standpoint, murder itself is a very grave offence, and various other factors. In a way, the question of whether you can eat someone out of necessity in Malaysia remains, like the Plank of Carneades, an academic thought experiment. 

But there’s one way to avoid putting this to the test –  if you’ve made it in life and decide to buy yourself a boat, don’t hire anyone named Richard Parker. 



criminal defence
penal code
r v dudley and stephens
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chiahoong lim

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