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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

'the honoured Custom of the Sea' - spoke Tony Fernandez

Have you heard of an ancient temple at Thiruvellarai – located around 30 kms closer to Trichy. 

Sure would have read these lines :  ‘And the wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the wolf that shall break it must die…………..For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack."  - there are various terms :  Jungle Law or the theory of   "Survival of the fittest" ; an alternative to natural selection.   Mankind has learnt wisdom over the years and is far superior to the animals !!!

Sea Faring has been ancient tradition and there existed ‘Brotherhood of sea farers’ – the unwritten code of our ancestors in the seafaring profession.  There existed in spirit what was known as ‘the custom of sea’ – ever heard of this ?  or ‘the tradition of drawing straws’.

Modern day life is far different than the one of medieval age.  In earlier days, resources were limited – only the fittest, most adventurous  and most daring men ventured into sea and when they set sail, often it would take days – none exactly knew when they would return – or whether they would return at all ?  - and imagine when ship wanders losing its navigation – again remember the navigational aids were virtually nothing but dependence on nature. So those who ventured required help from all possible sources often hoping for the best.

Now when ship meanders with no shore in sight – sure slowly the thin resources would dwindle – a stage when there would be nothing for those group of people on board – that would certainly be the most difficult of the times – No resources, No food (nothing edible); no fresh water – everything is scarce – but biologically man needs to eat to survive !  - what would they do ……. Pounce on the weakest or plot to kill others !!!

The speaker to the enlightened audience (most had worked on ship) spoke of the custom of ‘Drawing of straws’ enacted  by the Senior most of the  sea farers.

It was to be the picking from the gunnel (Gunwale – the nautical term describing the top edge of the side of a boat).  Gunwale was designed to accommodate the stresses imposed by the use of artillery.  In wooden boats, the gunwale remained, mounted inboard  and it could be synonymous with the side deck in a narrow boat.  Even on land, ‘Drawing straws’  is a selection method that is used by a group to choose one member of the group to perform a task after none has volunteered for it.   In this, the  group leader takes a number of straws and ensures that one of them is physically shorter than the others. Each member of the group draws a straw and the person who has drawn the shortest straw is the one who must perform the task.

In the custom of the Sea it was not of performance but offering ! – the one followed by floundered or ship-wrecked survivors – not on who would kill – but the one voluntarily offering self to be eaten.  ‘take my flesh, drink my blood’ the men with short straw would say !!.  It was classical expression of unique bondage of those who sailed together.  The Custom of Sea was held so high that Master at Sea shall never pass someone in trouble.  Even an enemy will not be shot at, if struggling in water !!

Would the World approve of ‘the custom of Sea’.  In a leading English Criminal case, RV Dudley and Stephens (1884), established precedence in Common law that ‘necessity is no defence to a charge of murder’.  That marked the culmination of the long history to outlaw the custom.   It was a case involving English Yacht Mignonette purchased as a leisure vessel by an Australian lawyer and set sail from Southampton to Sydney with a crew of four in 1884 !  The boat sunk midway and crew managed to escape in a lifeboat with 2 tins of turnips.  A turtle caught on the way offered some extra help.  Drinking of sea water was held to be fatal and they had no fresh water.  And at a time, when death came threatening with one of the members falling in coma, it was decided to draw lots.  The men eventually survived saved by a sailing boat and 3 men who came ashore were taken to Magistrate – public opinion reportedly was firmly behind them.

To preserve one's life is generally speaking a duty, but it may be the plainest and the highest duty to sacrifice it.  War is full of instances in which it is a man's duty not to live, but to die. The duty, in case of shipwreck, was also the sacrifice of their lives for others.  The two crew involved were sentenced to the statutory death penalty with a recommendation for mercy.  The verdict thus  turned aside what was honoured as  ‘custom of sea’ thus far.

Cannibalism is the act most deeply repugnant to civilized societies but this had been treated as survival and offering - ''the custom of the sea''  at the  extremest of situations far away from the normality.

Something on  ‘Custom of Sea’ as heard in the lecture of  Anthony W.J. Fernandez, Average Adjuster (popularly Tony) on ‘Marine Salvage Operations’ at IIMS Forum at Sea Farers Club at Chennai on 24.3.12.

This does not purport to be reproduction of what he spoke and merely represents what was understood and begotten  by Yours Truly from that informative lecture which touched upon various types of Marine Salvage, its evolution, its edifice and the various statutes that encompass rendering of assistance at Sea explained so lucidly.
Sibi Chakravarthi was a Very Great  King.

Whilst at Thiruvellarai divyadesam,  a pigeon chased by a hungry vulture fell at the feat of the King seeking protection.  Vulture claimed that the bird belonged to it and was to become its food.  The King who had to protect the bird at his feet (a duty of Kings) at the same also having to provide sustenance to the Vulture, offered his flesh to be eaten.

With regards – S. Sampathkumar.
April 2, 2012.

1 comment:

  1. good information on ancient practice and also its elimination by law later on.