Cannibal tales

The humple petition of Priscilla Lockier and Sara Spurgeon wifes of Hugh Lockier and George Spurgeon two of the Marriners of the Shipp the Virginia Merchant (whereof John Lockier was Captaine or Commander) is a curious document.1

Written in the formal legal prose of a London solicitor, it is a direct appeal to the justices of the Admiralty Court for the immediate payment of mariners wages. Henry Lockier and George Spurgeon, the womens’ husbands,  had not yet returned from Virginia, whence they shipped in September 1649 from London, and their wives, “having each of them a great Charge of Children to  bring up and maintaine,” were at risk of utter ruin.

At first reading the claims of the two women seem remarkable.

A captain who took on one hundred and sixty passengers in addition to thirty-five crewmen, yet who carried victuals for only six weeks, rather than the usual three months. Men and women consequently suffering famine on board ship, and reduced to paying ten shillings to purchase a single ship’s rat to eat.

Twenty-three men and women abandoned on an island by an inhumane and barbarous Captain, surviving on rain water and tree leaves, till eventually they were reduced to drawing lots as to who should be shot the next day “to serve food for the rest.” 2

The intervention of God causing the “sudden and unexpected fall of a great tree that night which killed two men and a woman of their Company: which the rest of the Company left alive were forced to eate and live upon untill such time as they were by Gods providence releived by the very heathen and by them in Canoes transported over the river to the other side and soe travelled to Virginia by land.” 3


Fanciful tales, or a dramatic statement of facts? 

Unusually for a High Court of Admiralty case, there is an independent account from outside the court, of the voyage of the Virginia Merchant.  The account was written by Colonel Henry Norwood (1615-1689), a passenger on board the same ship, and published shortly after the voyage as ‘A voyage to Virginia.’ 4

Norwood’s account corroborates the broad claims of the petition of Priscilla Lockier and Sara Spurgeon.

Badly damaged by storms, it is clear that famine and death descended upon the ship.  Rations were reduced to half a biscuit per man and woman per day and “the famine grew sharp upon us.5

Norwood even out trumps the petitioners story of the ten shilling rats:

“Women and children made dismal cries and grievous complaints. The infinite number of rats that all the voyage had been our plague, we now were glad to make our prey to feed on; and as they were insnared and taken, a well grown rat was sold for sixteen shillings as a market rate. Nay, before the voyage did end (as I was credibly inform’d) a woman great with child offered twenty shillings for a rat, which the proprietor refusing, the woman died.” 6

Norwood describes a weak Captain, who has become a pawn to the weather and who has lost full control of his crew and despairing passengers. After a meagre Christmas feast, the captain extended Norwood the favour of going in search of water at the bottoms of the empty casks in the hold. Sitting astride on a butt of Malaga in the hold, they took to drinking of the strong waters. The effect on Norwood was to refresh him, yet the captain fell, according to Norwood, into melancholy:

“The poor captain fell to contemplate (as it better became him) our sad condition; and being troubled in mind for having brought so many wretched souls into misery, by a false confidence he gave them of his having a good ship, which he now thought would prove their ruin; and being conscious, that their loss would lie all at his door, it was no easy matter to appease his troubled thoughts. He made me a particular compliment for having engaged me and my friends in the same bottom, and upon that burst into tears. I comforted him the best I could, and told him, We must all submit to the hand of God, and rely on his goodness, hoping, that the same providence which had hitherto so miraculously preserved us, would still be continued in our favour till we were in safety. We retired obscurely to our friends, who had been wondering at our absence.” 7


What of the cannibalism?

Norwood was one the men and women left on an island off the Virginian coast by the Virginia Merchant.

He estimates their number to have been nineteen, rather than the twenty-three of the petition, and describes a meagre diet of an occasional water-fowl, oysters clawed from the shore, supplemented with some sort of weed “some four inches long, as thick as houseleek, and the only green (except pines) that the island afforded. It was very insipid on the palate; but being boiled with a little pepper (of which one had brought a pound on shore) and helped with five or six oysters, it became a regale for every one in turn.” 8

Norwood confirms the eating of human flesh by the survivors, but without the drama of Lockier and Spurgeon’s description of lots being drawn to shoot a colleague for flesh to eat. Indeed, Norwood claims the idea to have been his own firm recommendation to the group.  With an etiquette which may intrigue historians of gender, the women and the men were each to eat their own.

Of the three weak women before-mentioned, one had the envied happiness to die about this time; and it was my advice to the survivors, who were following her apace, to endeavour their own preservation by converting, her dead carcase into food, as they did to good effect. The same counsel was embrac’d by those of our sex: the living fed upon the dead; four of our company having the happiness to end their miserable lives on Sunday night the _ day of January. Their chief distemper, ’tis true, was hunger; but it pleased God to hasten their exit by an immoderate access of cold, caused by a most terrible storm of hail and snow at north-west, on the Sunday aforesaid, which did not only dispatch those four to their long homes, but did sorely threaten all that remained alive, to perish by the same fate. 9


Click here to go to an annotated copy of the petition of Priscilla Lockier and Sara Spurgeon, together with Colonel Henry Norwood’s account of the voyage of the Virginia Merchant and of cannibalism.  Follow the instructions to register and to add your own annotations.


The petition of Prescilla Lockier and Sara Spurgeon, 28th September 1650 10

To the right worshipfull the Judges of the high Court of the Admiraltie:./

The humple petition of Priscilla Lockier and Sara Spurgion wifes of Hugh Lockier and George Spurgeon two of the Marriners of the Shipp the Virginia Merchant (whereof John Lockier was Captaine or Comander./

Sheweth
That the petitioners husbands were hired by the said Captaine Lockier at severall monethly wages to serve in the said shipp for a voyage to be made from this port of London to Virginia and from thense hither backe againe, which service they performed from the 6th of September 1649 untill March last being 6 monethes lacking 4 dayes, but by reason the sayd Shipp was become unserviceable at Virginia your petitioners husbands could not come home in her but are left behind to shift for themselves the said Captaine Lockier and some others coming home as passengers in another Shippe And your petitioners seeing their husbands come not home as they expected demanded their wages of the Captaine for the time they served him, but he denyed to pay the same, for which your petitioners have sued the said Captaine Lockier in the Court And whereas all Masters of Shipps that goe to Virginia use to carry 3 monethes ˹victualls˺ at the least out with them; The sayd Captaine Lockier had not layd in above 6 weekes victualls in his said shipp when she sett saile from Gravesend outward bound; which Mr George Putt cheife Mate and pilot of the said Shippe taking notice of, asked the said Captaine why he had soe slenderly victualled the shipp telling him, it would not serve halfe way; he replyed that he would take in more victualls at the Downes which he did not at all performe notwithstanding there were 35 seaman and above 130 passengers neere upon 200 persons in all in the said Shippe, whereof 62 passengers and 4 Seamen by reason of the want of provisions were starved to death before the shipp came to Virginia.

That within a fortnight next after the said Ship set saile from Gravesend both Seamen and passingers were put to their allowance videlicet the Seamen to two, and the passingers each man to one biskett a day, afterwards to halfe a biskett a day and at length to halfe a pint of parched pease a day betweene 2 men, they having neither beere nor water in the shippe to drincke but what they were Constrayned to drinke of strongwaters of their owne which they Carried with them for adventures: and the famine came soe violently upon them that divers in the said Shippe would willingly have given 10: s for one of the Shipps ratts (which some of the Seamen catched) to have eaten, their being but one small fish of the value of 6: d allowed for a meale to 15 or 20 men:/

That the said Captaine Lockier sett 23 persons ashore upon an unknowne Island to gett freshwater promising to fetch them on board againe: but after they were soe sett on shoare the sayd Captaine Lockier presently carried the Shippe away to Virginia and most in humanely and barbarously left all the said 23 persons in that unknowne place to be starved there noe manner of food to be found soe that they were forced to live a whole 3 weekes with water and the leaves of trees: And at the length the rage and violence of their famine soe much increasing and being not able to eate those leaves and longer they cast lotts which of them should be shott the next day to serve for food for the rest; which was miraculously prevented by the suddaine and unexpected fall of a great tree that night which killed 2 men and a woman of their Company: which the rest of the Company left alive were forced to eate and live upon untill such time as they were by Gods providence XXXXXXXX releived by the very heathen and by them in Canoes transported over the river to the other side and soe travelled to Virginia by land where divers of them dyed as soone as they came thense, and some dyed on that Island by famine./

That the petitioners have spent all they have even their very {XXXX} from under them in prosecution of this suite to gett their wages and are like to be utterly ruined and undone they having each of them a great Charge of Children to bring up and maintaine all which premisses your petitioners are able to prove by the oathes of sufficient witnesses

Your petitioners therefore most humbly pray that your worships would be pleased to take their sad conditions into their your pious and serious Considerations, and to order the sayd Captaine Lockier to pay your petitioners their whole wages due to their husbands forthwith or els to give your petitioners leave to give in an allegation in Court to the effect of the premisses above written: the same being altogether omitted in the allegation given in on your petitioners behalfe; and to produce and examine witnesses thereupon, that soe the iustice of your petitioners Cause and the great wrong they have received may appeare;

And your petitioners as in humble duty
bound shall ever pray etcetera

The marke of P L Prescillia Lockier
The marke of S Sara Sparges./


Footnotes

(1) TNA, HCA 15/5 f.99
(2) TNA, HCA 15/5 f.99
(3) TNA, HCA 15/5 f.99
(4) Colonel Norwood, A Voyage to Virginia (1649), in Tracts and Other Paper Relating Principally to the Origin, Settlement, and Progress of the Colonies in North America From the Discovery of the Country to the Year 1776, vol. 3 (Gloucester, MA, 1963)
(5) Colonel Norwood, A Voyage to Virginia (1649), in Tracts and Other Paper Relating Principally to the Origin, Settlement, and Progress of the Colonies in North America From the Discovery of the Country to the Year 1776, vol. 3 (Gloucester, MA, 1963), p. 17)
(6) Colonel Norwood, A Voyage to Virginia (1649), in Tracts and Other Paper Relating Principally to the Origin, Settlement, and Progress of the Colonies in North America From the Discovery of the Country to the Year 1776, vol. 3 (Gloucester, MA, 1963), p. 17)
(7) Colonel Norwood, A Voyage to Virginia (1649), in Tracts and Other Paper Relating Principally to the Origin, Settlement, and Progress of the Colonies in North America From the Discovery of the Country to the Year 1776, vol. 3 (Gloucester, MA, 1963), p. 18)
(8) Colonel Norwood, A Voyage to Virginia (1649), in Tracts and Other Paper Relating Principally to the Origin, Settlement, and Progress of the Colonies in North America From the Discovery of the Country to the Year 1776, vol. 3 (Gloucester, MA, 1963), pp. 23-24)
(9) Colonel Norwood, A Voyage to Virginia (1649), in Tracts and Other Paper Relating Principally to the Origin, Settlement, and Progress of the Colonies in North America From the Discovery of the Country to the Year 1776, vol. 3 (Gloucester, MA, 1963), pp. 24-25)
(10) TNA, HCA 15/5 f.99

 

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3 thoughts on “Cannibal tales

  1. An amazing case … thanks for sharing it. It’s a great reminder of the way the ‘extraordinary’ (cannibalism) can turn up in ‘ordinary’ sources (a petition for unpaid wages). In fact, there is a chapter in Walker and McShane (eds), The Extraordinary and the Everyday in Early Modern England (2010), which seems to overlap with this topic quite closely: Catherine Armstrong, ‘Boiled and Stewed with Roots and Herbs’: Everyday Tales of Cannibalism in Early Modern Virginia’.

    I does, however, make me wonder why the petitioners decided to include all of these details. Surely the tales of cannibalism weren’t especially relevant to the case of unpaid wages? I suppose it was probably an attempt to attack Captain Lockier’s reputation, so as to make their more mundane claims against him seem more persuasive.

    • The 1650 petition to the High Court of Admiralty with its allegations of cannibalism (confirmed in the independent account by Colonel Norwood) is interesting in the light of recent archaeological evidence confirming cannibalism in Jamestown in the “Starving Time” of the winter of 1609-10 (1). Rachel Hermann (2011) reviewed the evidence for and against such alleged cannibalism, and voiced considerable doubt (2). But it is hard to argue with the knife serrated bones of a young woman discarded in a Jamestown rubbish pit. We have looked in the HCA deposition books for the year 1650 but the case appears to have been settled or discontinued without going to the examination of witnesses. When our team has time we will check the HCA Act Books to see what procedural steps were taken in the case and how it was resolved.

      References:
      (1) http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/13/130501-jamestown-cannibalism-archeology-science/, viewed 19/05/13
      (2) Hermann, Rachel B., The “tragicall historie”:Cannibalism and Abundance in Colonial Jamestown, William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 68, no. 1, January 201 (viewable at http://www.academia.edu/428792/The_tragicall_historie_Cannibalism_and_Abundance_in_Colonial_Jamestown, viewed 19/05/13)

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