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Four starving men adrift in a dinghy for 19 days. Should all die together, or should one be sacrificed to save the rest? Captain Tom Dudley faced that cruel dilemma in 1884. His decision – and his honesty about it – made headlines around the world and led to a trial that split Victorian Britain in two, ranging the establishment and ‘polite society’ against the entire working class. A devout Christian, Dudley refused to lie about or conceal what he had done. His voluntary confession was the only evidence against the men.

The Custom of the Sea required starving sailors to draw lots to decide whom should be killed and eaten. It was so deeply ingrained and so frequently used that it was accepted without question by seamen – the dead boy’s own brother publicly exonerated his killers. Desperate to secure the conviction that would outlaw the Custom of the Sea, the Home Secretary and the most senior judges and lawyers in the land conspired together to bend and even break the law themselves. No jury ever convicted them, and yet Dudley and his fellow defendant were sentenced to death. Only after massive popular protests and the threat of riots on the streets of London was the sentence commuted to a term of imprisonment with hard labour. On his release, Dudley completed the voyage to Australia that had been interrupted by the tragedy and built a successful new life with his wife and small children.

The case marked the emergence of the working-class and the popular press – the powerful political forces that would shape the coming century, and established a legal precedent that is still taught to every law student today.

The themes of The Custom of the Sea – justice versus the letter of the law, truth against expediency, the individual against the state, and the human ability to transcend terrible sufferings and impossible obstacles to achieve a dream – are universal, and the role of the tabloid press, corporate greed, the huge popularity of murder trials – the reality TV of their era – and ‘freak shows’ (at which one of the defendants was paid to eat raw meat) have powerful resonances in our own age.

Get your copy of Neil Hanson’s The Custom of the Sea here!

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