September 28, 2022
R v. Dudley and Stephens

By Khushi Yadav

The author is a first-year student at FIMT GGSIPU Delhi

regina v. dudley and stephens
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Regina vs. Dudley and Stephens delivered one of the most landmark judgments setting an example for all further verdicts on whether necessity can be claimed as a defense for murder or not.

The case finds its setting in 1884. At that time, cannibalism for survival was considered agreeable as per the customs of the sea. Four men, Tom Dudley, Edwin Stephens, Edmund Brooks and Richard Parker escaped on a lifeboat with a sparse amount of food to survive after their English yacht, Mignonette sank amidst the sea. After surviving for a few days without food and water, Thomas Dudley (captain of the ship) decided to feed upon the flesh of one of the mates so that the other three could survive. Parker who was the youngest amongst them all, an orphan and sick at the moment fell into the trap. He was killed and fed upon while he was in a coma after slitting his jugular vein. Three days later, the three survivors were rescued by a German sailing bark, Montezuma. Later, the case was brought before a five judges bench in the Queen’s Bench Division in London where they were found guilty of murder and were pronounced life imprisonment. It was held that necessity cannot be considered a defense for such an immoral act.

Any act done in self-defense is not an offense and no person will be convicted for the same but does the current scenario qualify this condition? The prime question that this article deals with is, can this cold-blooded murder be considered self-defense? Richard Parker, the cabin boy who was the weakest amongst them all, was murdered. What did he even do to instigate his mates that they ended up killing him? He was a harmless boy whose only fault was that he was young and fell sick. Self-defense only justifies the use of force when it is used in response to an immediate threat. There was clearly no sign of threat or provocation in any way from the boy, lying sick all by himself. He was barely conscious. There was no need to use force against Parker and calling it self-defense makes it even worse. 

This can, in other words, be considered a case of the superiority of life. Just because Parker did not have a family and no one could possibly be waiting for him, it doesn’t mean that his life was of any less value as compared to the others. In fact as per the maritime tradition, “The captain goes down with the ship” The captain of the ship holds ultimate responsibility for the ship and everyone embarked on it. In an emergency situation, the captain either saves those on board or dies saving them. As per this rule, Thomas Dudley was supposed to sacrifice himself to save the rest. Another tradition from the nineteenth century says, “Women and children first.” Parker was 17 years old. He should not have been sacrificed because of some random custom stating cannibalism for survival was acceptable. In conclusion, this was a diabolical act of considering oneself superior to others. It was cold-blooded murder that was tried to be hidden under the cloak of defense. The most atrocious and disgusting behavior of humans, when faced with harsh situations and their instincts to survive, is seen in this case. The verdict laid down by the esteemed court is undoubtedly a good law. It sets an example and empowers the just. It discourages people to take self-defense as an excuse. Richard Parker was eventually provided justice and his culprits were punished. A memorial stone commemorating his name is in the churchyard of Jesus Chapel on Peartree Green in Southampton, near the site of Itchen Ferry village whence he came.

Read More at LAWOGS

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Case Commentary – LAWOGS

Read More about Regina v. Dudley & Stephens

R v Dudley and Stephens – Wikipedia

R v Dudley and Stephens – Case Analysis – iPleaders

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