Modern day technologies should prevent stranded sailors from resorting to cannibalism, a government minister hopes.
Charlotte, Baroness Vere of Norbiton, a Conservative frontbencher in the House of Lords and minister at the Department for Transport, gave the view after being pressed on the matter while discussing human rights at sea.
The conversation in the upper chamber arose after another member raised the odd legal precedent set in the late 19th century.
It harkens back to 1884, when captain Tom Dudley and mate Edwin Stephens were stranded at sea in a lifeboat following a shipwreck in the South Atlantic, off the coast of Africa.
Cabin boy Richard Parker was with the pair, and in poor health according to the sailors.
Following several weeks trapped on the insignificant and unprovisioned vessel, with their colleague close to death, Dudley and Stephens took the step to kill and eat him in order to fend off starvation.
After being rescued and returned to the UK, the pair justified their actions as a “custom of the sea”, and hoped to avoid conviction.
However, this was rejected and both men were subsequently convicted of murder and sentenced to death – although this was later commuted to a six month prison sentence by the Crown.
The case set the precedent in common law that necessity is not a defence when charged with murder.
Back in the present day, non-affiliated peer Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate said: “I recall as a young student of law many years ago the case of Dudley and Stephens in the late 19th century.
“This involved a shipwreck causing a number of sailors taking to a lifeboat and, as a result of hunger and thirst, they alleged that it was necessary to kill and eat a young cabin boy in order to survive.”
He added: “Does the minister think that, if the facts were repeated today, the cabin boy’s human right to life would still trump those of the starving sailors?”
Lady Vere said: “With modern standards for lifeboats and search and rescue I would very much hope that such a situation would not arise today.
“The shipwrecked seafarers would be rescued long before any decisions would need to be taken on who to eat.
“Modern-day search and rescue services are equipped with an astonishing range of technologies which aid both in the alerting of the rescue services that there is an issue, but also in terms of the location of persons in distress or potential distress.”