Eating Flesh - Cannibalism at Sea

Of all the hardships faced by shipwrecked sailors perhaps the most agonising was having to make the decision whether to feed from the flesh of their dead companions or starve to death themselves. Perhaps the most famous story of cannibalism at sea was the wreck of the French frigate the Medusa in 1816. Although the best written account is probably Owen Chase's account of the events following the wreck of the American whaleship Essex in 1820.

There has always been something about the taboo of eating human flesh that fascinates the reader or listener. In the 1860s a young WS Gilbert wrote a ballad The Yarn of the Nancy Bell which was turned down by Punch as being too cannabalistic for the taste of its middle-class readers. However, it was published in the magazine Fun and soon afterwards it was being sold on the streets as a sheet-ballad. Its chorus really captured the public's fancy.

"Oh, I am a cook and a captain bold,
And the mate of the Nancy brig,
And a bo'sun tight, and a midshipmite,
And the crew of the captain's gig"

But, of course, it was not only foreigners who degenerated into flesh eaters there are a number of accounts of islanders resorting to cannibalism in times of extreme need.


click here to read about the General Brock 1826

click here to read about the Quixote 1830

 click here to return to the causes of shipwrecks page