cover image The Custom of the Sea

The Custom of the Sea

Neil Hanson. John Wiley & Sons, $24.95 (315pp) ISBN 978-0-471-38389-5

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 Using a wide range of historical documents and research, freelance writer Hanson leaves nothing to the imagination.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.)