True Love and Cannibalism on the High Seas

From Dr. Pembroke’s Journal – 17th February 1872
Location: Somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean

Cannibalism; the eating of your own kind. Known technically as anthropophagy, human history is littered with examples of cannibalistic behavior in the name of ritualism, medicine, vengeance and survival.

In my cramped cabin, within an antiquated wooden ship that creaks and strains as she makes her way across the vast expanse of ocean, I find myself recalling a story of such behavior. A tale of depredation, where the impenetrable standards and high morals of our upstanding society disintegrate in the face of survival, where desperation and the agony of acute hunger pushed God-fearing folk into the realm of barbarism and depravity, where even the bond of young love was reduced to unthinkable and bloody extremes…

High Seas - 01
The Melancholy Ship Wreck of the Frances Mary from St. John’s, J. Kendall Master

It’s November 10th, the autumn of 1825 and the new 400-ton Frances Mary, a medium sized timber ship, sets sail from Liverpool England to New Brunswick, Canada, to collect cargo and deliver passengers. One passenger is Miss Ann Saunders, heady with excitement, flushed with a sense of adventure, having never ventured far from the coast. She has been encouraged to travel by both her friend Mrs Kendall, wife to the captain, and her beloved companion James Frier, the ships cook. They have both consented to marriage and as her accounts attest, she is very much in love with the young suitor. Once her sea-sickness subsides, she adores every day of the successful voyage to the American continent and relishes the journey. The ship takes on fresh supplies and timber cargo, and begins the return trek back to Liverpool. The date is now January 18th, 1826.

High Seas - 02On the first day of February, luck fails, and Poseidon himself seems to revolt as the seas turn deadly. Almost immediately, gale-force winds pick up against the hapless ship and two masts are snapped off. Captain Kendall orders the ship to ‘hove too’ – that is, to steady, reduce speed in the face of the wind, and lock the steering. Such remedies are barely in place before heavy winds slam into them again, carrying away the ship’s galley and the small ferrying boat, the storm injuring five men in the process. The Frances Mary flounders heavily in the deep swell and the intense weather show no sign of abating. The crew and passengers hold on for dear life, although the worst is yet to come.

Further high winds on February 5th do the young ship no favors, battering it relentlessly; tearing away the rudder and ripping off the foremast, immobilizing the vessel in dangerous seas. The ensuing calamity destroys the anchors and the longboats – the main means of escape. Crippled, at the mercy of the seas, the stern is then holed, and the uninjured crew move what food they can save to the upper decks. It’s noted that the retrieved supplies are nowhere near enough to support the remaining crew, including the Captain’s wife and young Ann Saunders, for very long.

High Seas - 03February 6th seems to bring assistance, an American vessel, but in the high seas, the would-be rescuer could offer no help. In the days of the early maritime law, no legal obligation was in place to rescue those ships in distress, especially when such an intervention could result in the destruction of all involved.

It’s now February 21st. The supplies ran out nine days earlier, and the passengers and the crew of the wrecked Frances Mary are now surviving on so little fluids that rubbing sea water on the lips is necessary to prevent them sticking together. It’s at this point that the survivors begin to die – but prior to being committing to the deep, they are relieved of a few anatomical items – meant for the nourishment of the desperate survivors. From the Captains log of events:

“John Wilson, seaman, died at 10, A.M.; preserved the body of the deceased, cut him up in quarters, washed [him] overboard, and hung them up on pins… J Moore died […] having eaten of him, such as the liver and the heart.”

High Seas 04What we see here is, under the threat of slow physical demise, is the swift destruction of ‘proper’ morals – the flimsy, paper-thin expressions of superior philosophy superseded by the instinctual drives of the animal mind. With any dead now eligible for consumption, the sick and dying are ‘eyed with melancholy’ – including, no doubt, the cook, James Friers, fiancé to Miss Saunders.

No doubt goaded on by the surviving ship crew, for whom this natural law is practically considered to be an occupational hazard, it isn’t long before the two passengers, Mrs Kendall and young Ann Saunders, indulge in the same cannibalistic depredations.

Miss Saunders takes to a new role among the survivors; a butcher of human flesh. All while engaging in as much prayer and religious fervor as their emaciated frames can allow, Saunders carries skinning knives about her person, and is active in the preparation and filleting of each of the victims, as one after another of the crew perishes to hunger and thirst. Captain Kendall mentions:

“When the death of any company was announced, she would sharpen her knives, bleed the deceased in the neck, drink his blood and cut him up.”

In all this, she is not blind to the fading health of her betrothed. In her own accounts following the event, she stated her deep conflict towards the man she had planned to marry, and her increased fondness towards him during the voyage:

“…him with whom I expected to soon be joined in wedlock […] expiring before my eyes […] and myself at the same moment so far reduced by hunger and thirst, as to be driven to the horrid alternative to preserve my own life…”

High Seas - 05One cannot ignore the beautiful symbolism in the last morbid example of her affection. Upon his expiration, Frier’s corpse is to be treated like the others – as simple meat available for the good of the survivors. The captain recalls her dramatic response. At the moment of the young cooks death, a crew mate moves to drain the blood, but with a ‘shriek’ and a following a brief scuffle, Miss Saunders snatches the cup from the man, and herself drinks Frier’s seeping blood that ‘oozed half congealed from the wound inflicted upon his lifeless body’. She would take from him first, sipping his ambrosia, claiming ‘she had the greater right to it.’

It wouldn’t be until the 7th of March 1826, almost 20 days since the original supplies had been depleted, that they were rescued by the H.M.S. Blond. During this time almost 2/3 of the crew had been perished. At the point of rescue, the rescuing captain spied slabs of meat drying on the deck of the Francis Mary, saying “You have yet, I perceive, fresh meat!” and it is assumed he paled when informed that this was in fact the remains of a dead comrade, whose flesh was drying in preparation for the evening meal. Even Mrs Kendall the captain’s wife, had ultimately succumbed to the gnawing hunger – she herself ate the brains of a deceased sailor and remarked that it was ‘the most delicious thing she had ever tasted.’1

It appears that society largely forgave the remaining inhabitants of the Frances Mary. No charges were pressed on the survivors and all went on to live lives beyond the tragedy that had befallen them. Miss Ann Saunders however, she might not have forgotten the events so easily, suffering the memories of her actions for the rest of her life. Her survival had come at enormous cost, and although her testimonials ring with her continued intent to live a righteous life in the eyes of the Lord, she must have suffered great concerns of faith. Her ‘subsistence upon the flesh’ of her former husband-to-be would always mean, both ironically and perhaps rather touchingly, that she would always carry a part of James Frier wherever she went.

It brings to mind an old children’s poem:

Mary had a little lamb,
She ate it with mint sauce.
And everywhere that Mary went,
The lamb went too, of course…

1. The young apprentice whose brains were eaten by Mrs Kendall; as it happens this was his fourth sea-wreck. Having survived three, only to be eaten by his own crew on the fourth – this should be considered a string of singularly bad luck that is probably impossible to match.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s