Boon Island and Nottingham Galley Cannibalism – What Would You Have Done?

This post could be seen as a spin off Jarhead Survivor’s Giving Up After TSHTF post or my older People, the Other White Meat post.

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.

Survival fiction is full of disgusting accounts of cannibalism, whether it’s The Road, Parable of the Sower, Lucifer’s Hammer or some other tale. We all cringe at the idea. But now I ask:

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.

17 comments… add one
  • Jarhead Survivor March 1, 2011, 9:17 am

    I’ve actually been on islands exactly like this off the coast of Maine over the years (actually pulled wrecked boats off rocks like this) and I can’t begin to imagine how bad it must have been for them. The water temperature gets down into the 40’s and 50’s around that time of year, so swimming is not an option. It’s hard to say how someone will act when they get hungry, but if it’s about surviving I suspect you’ll eventually do what you have to do.

  • YukonBry March 1, 2011, 11:31 am

    ###Though I am highly impressed by ChefBear’s culinary knowledge, I do hope he will refrain from contributing any recipes on this particular topic. ;-)###

    Back when the History Channel was putting out quality programs, they did a show on cannibalism. A contrast was drawn between the well-known case of the soccer team stranded in the Andes mountains, and a lesser known incident of an American whaling ship captain adrift at sea with the remainder of his crew. Both the soccer team and the captain turned to eating the dead in order to survive. The reactions to their ‘crimes’ were starkly different.

    One of the soccer players stated that his family and friends went out of their way to assure him that he had done the right thing, and that he should not bear any guilt for having survived. The whaling captain became a pariah in his community, never received another command, and died a lonely man. Differences in cultures, I suppose.

    Perhaps most of us fear that consuming human flesh even in the most dire circumstance would constitute crossing a boundary into savagery from which we’d never be able to return. Though the thought is repugnant to me…yeah…I think I could do what I had to.

    By the way, I read Kenneth Roberts’ fictionalized account of the Boon Island affair when I was a teenager. It’s the reason I have had so long to think about this. And one of the reasons I didn’t turn into a quite normal adult.


    • Ranger Man March 1, 2011, 11:46 am

      Funny – you don’t want a “Leg of Man” recipe from ChefBear?

    • ChefBear58 March 1, 2011, 2:12 pm

      Thanks, honestly can’t say that I have a recipe for “leg ‘o’ man”…. but if you had to I would assume that it would be similar to cooking any other type of animal meat. Go for the best parts first… I guess… But if you had different vegetables and herbs/spices to season or flavor with, then you really don’t need to be eating your buddies leg! So a recipe would be kinda pointless. If you decide to try it, please don’t invite me over for dinner!

      • NoMEPreppy March 1, 2011, 7:33 pm

        How about serving some with fava beans a chianti?

        • ChefBear58 March 1, 2011, 9:22 pm

          From what I understand that is only appropriate when serving the liver! The “leg ‘o’ man” would probably be better suited to a hearty Merlot or if you prefer white a Pino Gris

          • Jason March 2, 2011, 11:39 pm


            So glad you did not mention rump roast ….

            The movie “Alive” is a great & true survival movie & they had to eat some of the dead in order to survive.

  • Hokie March 1, 2011, 12:10 pm

    I skipped breakfast this morning and didn’t pack my lunch today. If it weren’t for Subway I’d have probably resorted to cannibalism today.

    Great story. As it turns out my nightstand book is “The Heart of the Sea.” It’s the tale of the ship Essex and their fateful voyage off the Pacific Coast. A sperm whale kicked the snot out of their boat and through a series of unfortunate events – ate each other as described above.

    Back to the topic at hand – if I were on an island and all I could consume were my shipmates…the only real question in my view would revolve around who gets dibs on the drum sticks.

    Sketchy subject matter though, no doubt. I find it easier to simply stay within a short paddle of terra firma. If I want a sea adventure pre-shtf… I’ll order some haddock! : )

  • russell1200 March 1, 2011, 12:38 pm

    Many times people in these situations choose to starve, other times they do not. Some cultures have a history of canibalism in times of duress. Since they do not appear to have ended anyone’s life prematurely, a viable option because the cold allowed the bodies to stay fresth longer, they avoided one major stigma. The tougher question for me is would I want to save my family this way.

  • Shotzeedog March 1, 2011, 1:23 pm

    I had heard about the Donner Party a long time ago but nothing about Boon Island.

  • Spook45 March 1, 2011, 1:28 pm

    Shipwreck means wood and there had to be some to build theraft with. I would have stacked rocks to male a shelter and used the other materials as well. I would have burned at least some of the wood to get warm and dry and then I would have attempted the raft. If I only made it half way I feel that I could MAYBE have swam the rest(Irealize that this is unlikly with the advent of hypothermia, but I ma a very storng swimmer and very strong willed especialy when it comes to my life) IF not, iwould made a very large signal fire with all of the wood except enough to stay warm until I could get some help out there. I would not have been eaten I can tell you that for a fact.

    • Anonymous March 1, 2011, 1:57 pm

      I’m with you, especially if I can see civilization off in the distance. I would rather die trying to reach land………preferably BEFORE I am too weak to function properly.

    • Jarhead Survivor March 1, 2011, 2:59 pm

      I spent a couple of years scuba diving these waters through the winter and I can assure you that you would not be able to swim a mile, much less three, if you went overboard. There were two urchin divers that went in the water in winter here a few years back and they were both wearing dry suits. One of them didn’t have a hood or his gloves on and nearly died. His friend (who did have hood and gloves) managed to get him ashore on an island, break into a cottage, and warm the place up enough for his friend to survive.

      Your best bet if you go overboard is to wear a life vest and not to kick around too much. Even then you’ve only got an hour or two to survive in 45 degree water. You’re motor skills are gone long before that point though.

  • sebagosteve March 1, 2011, 3:52 pm

    I couldn’t honestly say what I would do if put into this sitsuation. Purhaps it is best if you go under before you are faced with the decision to consume your buddy. Then again starvation is a cruel way to perish so you raise an interesting question. I live in Maine and have never heard of this wreck. The Donner party and the soccer team are the only cannabilism events that come to mind.

  • Jeff March 1, 2011, 4:20 pm

    Between the Donner Party, this Boon Party and Uraguayan Air Force flight 571 which crashed in the Andes, there is enough evidence that the average person would rather eat their fellow man than die of starvation.

    So while y’all debate, pass me the ketchup (catsup?) I’m diggin’ in.

    Finger food anyone?

  • GoneWithTheWind March 1, 2011, 6:57 pm

    There are many possibilities, moral or religious beliefs would be an example of that. However when it comes right down to it there are only two possibilities and that is: 1)The individual decides to do what they must to survive and they eat the flesh of the dead. 2)For whatever reason they don’t eat the human flesh until they are too far gone to be able to do what they must to survive.

    The lesson is to recognize that if you are going to survive a terrible situation then you must commit early on to do whatever you must do to survive. Anything else is giving up. Any time wasted in denial or self pity is time lost and your body is quickly losing it’s reserves.

    • (00)77 March 18, 2016, 5:14 pm

      Just came across this and thought it was interesting that there was a Ranger Man writing about Boon Island. I spend summers as a ranger at Baxter Park and wrote the first history of the wreck of the Nottingham Galley along with historian Stephen Erickson. Titled, Boon Island: A True Story of Mutiny, Shipwreck, and Cannibalism, the book came out in 2012 and might be of interest to your readers. Andrew Vietze


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