December 11, 2010 marked the 300th anniversary of the Nottingham Galley’s shipwreck, a case any Maine history buff should be familiar with. The Nottingham and its 14 man crew left Ireland for Boston carrying cordage, cheese and butter. They almost reached their destination before crashing into a small island off the southern coast of Maine called Boon Island. Shipwrecks during this time were not uncommon on the island, and it’s rumored that after the Nottingham incident local fishermen left provisions on the island as a “boon” for anyone that became stranded there (hence the name).
Amazingly, all 14 members of the Nottingham successfully managed to navigate the wet, icy rocks in the dark to huddle together through the night. Here is a 1978 pic of the island after the lighthouse was built and before the keeper’s house was destroyed in a storm. You can see the mainland just 6 miles away.
When the Nottingham crew landed all they had were the rocks they stood on. None of the buildings in this picture were present. Remember, it was 1710. Imagine what they must have felt when daybreak hit and they realized it was hardly an island at all, just rocks – no trees to build a fire for warmth, no buildings for shelter – nothing. The captain of the Nottingham would later write that they could see smoke and houses on the shore, teasing them the whole while.
As the story goes they were able to build a tent of sorts out of material from the shipwreck and they survived for a week on soggy cheese. Their feet and hands were becoming black with frostbite. When they took their boots off their skin went with it. After the cheese ran out and fearing the worst, the crew constructed a raft of sorts from the ship debris and two brave souls dared to make the trek to the mainland in hopes of finding help. They did not return. They were down to twelve.
Before long 2 more died from exposure and starvation. They’d been on the island for nearly 4 weeks! They were now down to ten.
As the story goes, those remaining then deliberated hard over the idea of eating their dead crew mates. Debate was had over the morality of it. Some reasoned that because they did not kill them, and given the situation, it was morally okay. Some thought otherwise, but before long, as the account goes, they cut the hands and feet off, gut them and quartered them like an animal. Because they had no fire, they ate the flesh – raw!
Even those that initially objected to the idea succumbed to their hunger and dined on raw human muscle. Later the captain stated that he had to move the body parts away from the tent in order to make the body last long enough as some had an insatiable appetite.
Cannibalism may have very well saved their lives, because unbeknown to them, wreckage from the raft that had set out for the mainland, and one of the bodies, had washed ashore and been found. The locals, suspecting what may have happened, immediately dispatched a boat to the island and found the remaining crew.
What if you had been one of the shipwrecked crew members of the Nottingham Galley?
You’re on a rock “island” in December and you’re going to die if you don’t eat your dead buddy. The mainland is in sight, so there is still a chance you might get saved, but there is no guarantee.
Do you dine?
Perhaps it’s difficult to answer until you’re in the situation. It’s easy to imagine what you might do, but after 3-4 weeks of hunger and frostbite, who knows how your thinking might change.
- Ranger Man
BTW: The story surrounding the exact events that unfolded have been subject to dueling accounts and suspicion. You can read about all of that in this book, Boon Island: Including Contemporary Accounts of the Wreck of the *Nottingham Galley*.
Any hardcore Maine history buffs reading this should consider visiting the Maine State Museum as they’re exhibiting pieces of the Nottingham wreckage through March.