Charles Jamrach, The Essex and The Custom of The Sea: Background information when reading Jamrach's Menagerie

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Jamrach's Menagerie

A Novel

by Carol Birch

Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch X
Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch
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    Jun 2011, 304 pages
    Jun 2012, 304 pages

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Beyond the Book:
Charles Jamrach, The Essex and The Custom of The Sea

Print Review

Jamrach's Menagerie borrows from a number of historical events and people including:

Charles Jamrach
Charles Jamrach's father was chief of the Hamburg River Police, a position that enabled him to establish himself as a dealer in wild birds and animals. When his father died around 1840, Charles moved from Germany to take over the London branch of business. Before long he was one of London's leading importers, breeders, and exporters of animals with both a shop, Jamrach's Emporium, and a menagerie.

In 1857, a Bengal tiger escaped from the Emporium, carrying off a young boy. Boy and tigerJamrach saved the boy who seemed relatively uninjured, and offered £50 in compensation, but the boy's father sued for £300. The family ended up with £60, while the lawyers got £240 (as the French would say, plus ça change!) A recently erected statue by Tanya Russell commemorates the event. You'll find it near the entrance to Tobacco Dock, an early 19th century warehouse in Wapping, London.

The Essex
The Essex was an American whaler that left Nantucket in August 1819 on a voyage to the whaling grounds off the coast of South America, which was planned to take about two and a half years. Finding the usual whaling grounds fished out, the ship traveled farther west to the South Pacific where, in November 1820, it was sunk by a Sperm whale, as witnessed by First Mate Owen Chase:

"I turned around and saw him about one hundred rods (550 yards) directly ahead of us, coming down with twice his ordinary speed (around 24 knots/28mph), and it appeared with tenfold fury and vengeance in his aspect. The surf flew in all directions about him with the continual violent thrashing of his tail. His head about half out of water, and in that way he came upon us, and again struck the ship."

Salvaging what little food and water they could, twenty-one sailors set out in three small whaleboats. One boat was lost at sea, the other two boats, with five survivors between them, were rescued over three months later.

The Custom of the Sea
To survive their ordeal, the sailors had eaten seven of their compatriots. It's not clear how many died of natural causes but some, if not all, were killed in order to be eaten - apparently by common consent (the man drawing the short straw was killed, while the man drawing the next shortest did the killing).

None of The Essex survivors were prosecuted, or even reviled for their cannibalism, because of the Custom of the Sea, a long-engrained understanding that men in such situations have no choice but to resort to killing and eating one another to survive. This unwritten understanding stood until 1884 when four crew of the English yacht Mignonette were shipwrecked. Some weeks later, two voted to kill and eat one of their company (who was unconscious from famine and drinking seawater). They were rescued four days later and the two crew members were convicted of murder - but even so, leniency was given - their death sentences were commuted to six months' imprisonment.

For literary references to this topic see "Little Bille", a nautical ditty penned by William Makepeace Thackeray; and Jack London's story, "The Francis Spaight" (1908), inspired by the real-life events following the sinking of The Francis Spaight in 1835.

This article was originally published in July 2011, and has been updated for the June 2012 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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