Sunday, 31 May 2009
Thursday, 28 May 2009
In 1833, Edgar Allan Poe wrote his only published novella, a fairly ordinary work titled The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. In said narrative, Pym spends some time adrift at sea with two other unfortunates on the overturned hull of the Grampus, on which he was stowing away. One of those unfortunates was a cabin boy by the name of Richard Parker - and poor young Parker is gruesomely killed and eaten by his two companions, who thereby survive to be rescued.
51 years later, the three survivors of the wreckage at sea of the Mignonette, a yacht bound for Australian shores, are adrift for 19 days in a dingy. On the 16th day of the ordeal, the 17-year-old cabin boy, who the other two survivors blame for their lack of fresh water and food (they had only two tins of turnips), and who is near death due to the effects of drinking sea water, is killed and eaten by his two companions. The young boy's name? Yup.
This remarkable coincidence may never have been brought to public notice except that, upon their rescue, the two cannibalists were arrested for murder and brought back to the United Kingdom for trial. Cannibalism for reason of survival on the high sea was, in those days, not as infrequent as one might think, and had theretofore never been treated as a crime. The two were found guilty, and the case established the precedent that the only legal defense of murder is self defense. They were sentenced to death, but due to the nature of their ordeal, the sentence was commuted to a short prison stay. The story is recorded, among other sources, on the tombstone of Richard Parker's mother.1
The tiger in the Booker Prize-winning Life of Pi was named Richard Parker in homage to this statistical blip. In somewhat less interesting coincidences, Peter Parker's father is Richard Parker, as was the British sailor who led the Nore Mutiny of 1793.
Richard Parker is a dangerous name, especially at sea.