In 1884, the yacht Mignonette, on route from Britain to Australia, stopped for supplies in Madeira on June 2nd. Whilst there, Otilia Ribeiro, an orphaned flower seller, tried to sneak on board with the intention of getting to Australia. This resulted in Richard Parker, the junior member of the crew, hitting her on the head with a boat hook, and the captain rescuing her from drowning. The captain, Tom Dudley, refused her passage, but gave her a contact address in Sidney.
It was just as well for Otilia that she did not secure passage on the Mignonette, for on July 5th, in the south Atlantic, it sank in a storm. The crew members escaped in its dingy, and survived for twenty-four days before being picked up by a ship, only because they killed and ate Richard Parker.
Two of the others were put on trial, Regina v Dudley and Stephens, as an example, found guilty and sentenced to death, and then granted a royal pardon because of the extenuating circumstances. This is a much cited legal precedent.
Tom Dudley then emigrated to Australia with his family to start anew, without the stigma of the conviction. He ran a ships chandler shop in Sydney.
Otilia, calling herself Ricardo Parker, and as a man, travelled via Luanda and Goa and turned up in Sydney in 1887 to visit Tom Dudley. She and Dudley had an affair and an adventure on a Barrier Reef island. Donald McCormick admits that this last part is “imaginative reconstruction”.
Dudley died of the plague in 1900.
A co-incidence that was noticed at the time is that Richard Parker is also the name of the castaway sailor who is selected by lot to be eaten in Edgar Allen Poe's Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, which had been published in 1838. This became known again in 1974 when Arthur Koestler ran a competition in The Sunday Times to find the most striking co-incidence, and the two Richard Parkers, suggested by a relative of the historical one, were declared the winner.
A great story. The sinking of the Mignonette, the cannibalism, the trial and the co-incidence of the name are all true. The major problem is that the only source of the Ribeiro/Parker thread is McCormick’s book. He cites no sources, and in the early 1980s when Simpson asked about sources, he could not produce one. However he did write to The Sydney Morning Herald in July 1961 seeking information about Ribeiro/Parker in Australia.
We have met Donald McCormick before. He cited (or is that invented) a reference in The Ochrana Gazette that identified Vassily Konovalov (otherwise known as Alexei Pedachenko) as Jack the Ripper.
Paul Metcalf later retold the tale as his own.
- Donald McCormick. Letter to The Sydney Morning Herald. July 25, 1961. http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1301&dat=19610725&id=c1oVAAAAIBAJ&sjid=--UDAAAAIBAJ&pg=4119,5784254
- Donald McCormick. Blood on the Sea. London: Miller 1962.
- Leicester Cotton. “Cannibal in Sydney”. The Sydney Morning Herald. Sept 29, 1962. http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1301&dat=19620929&id=6VoVAAAAIBAJ&sjid=EeYDAAAAIBAJ&pg=4428,8489711
- W. Brian Simpson. Cannibalism and the Common Law: the Story of the Tragic Last Voyage of the Mignonette and the Strange Legal Proceedings to Which It Gave Rise. The University of Chicago Press. 1984: 44,144, 292-4.
- Paul C. Metcalf. Collected Works. Minneapolis, Minn: Coffee House Press, 1996: Volume II: 284-8, 299-312.