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On 19 May 1884, the yacht Mignonette began its voyage from Southampton to Sydney, with a crew of four people on board. Tom Dudley – the captain; Edwin Stephens, Edmund Brooks, and among them a 17 years old, orphaned, and amateur cabin boy – Richard Parker. The Mignonette took the long South Atlantic route to Australia, instead of the Suez Canal, because the winds in the Mediterranean were unsafe for sailing ships.[i] Ironically, it was sunk in a fierce storm about halfway between the historic islands of St. Helena and Tristan da Cunha.[ii] The four men survived on the remaining cached food and water they had left with them for three weeks. After these initial three weeks began the exhausting and tiring search for sea creatures that could be eaten, with no drinking water available.

Around the week of 9th July, the men managed to spot a turtle, and for the next nine to ten days, its meat and bones. An attempt was even made to drink its blood, but because of seawater contamination, it was impossible. The crew failed to catch any rainwater and by 13 July, with no other viable source of liquid, they began to drink their urine.[iii] Parker being inexperienced, tried consuming the seawater and fell ill to a point where he was assumed to have been slipped into a coma. Dudley came up with the idea of drawing lots to choose who amongst them should die for the others to survive on his blood and meat. Stephens suggested that Parker was going to die sooner than any one of the rests and that the other three men had wives and families. On July 25th, Dudley and Stephens killed Parker, with Brooks showing neither support nor protest. The three of them were rescued on 6 September by a German ship named Montezuma. On arrival in Falmouth, the survivors attended the customs house and Dudley and Stephens entered statutory statements under the Merchant Shipping Acts, required in the event of a shipping loss and Dudley and Stephens believing themselves to be protected by a custom of the sea.[iv] Later, the trial began in Exeter before the Queen’s Bench Division on 4 December with Lord Coleridge as the Chief Justice. The trial raised the following questions for the legal fraternity and professionals all over the world:

  1. Is this act morally permissible?
  2. Does survival instinct justify culpable homicide?
  3. Even though the boy was probably going to die, can him being a victim for the benefit of others be fair and just to him?
  4. Was his consent required before killing him?
  5. What are the extensive and restricting limits on acts committed out of necessity?
  6. Whether human beings are vested with the right to decide which human life matters less or more than other human lives in cases of extremities?
  7. Is this murder ethical, by any means whatsoever?

Such dilemmatic questions put the bench in a quandary, but they also paved the way for the doctrine of self-preservation. Dudley and Stephens were found guilty and the Judge laid down that no man has the right to take another life for self-preservation unless it is for private defence. This case, known as Regina v. Dudley and Stephens cites emphasized what is to be rightly and lawfully called self-preservation.


Stated simply, the self-preservation doctrine recognizes a judicially enforced right of an individual to protect itself from serious and demonstrable harm.[v] It is also known as acts of necessity. Chapter 4 of the Indian Penal Code 1860 deals with ‘General Exceptions’ for the commitment of a crime. One of the justifiable exceptions for the accused is ‘acts of necessity.’ However, it is critical to note that this exception does not give blanket immunity to perpetrators outrightly. This implies that the doctrine of self – preservation is not an absolute right. This doctrine is thus applicable only in cases where the perpetrator had no option but to commit the crime for the sake of his private defines. Section 81 of IPC, 1860 prescribes essential conditions for the doctrine of self-preservation i.e., the acts out of necessity to be a valid exception. The doctrine of self-preservation, nonetheless, in genuine cases of self-defence and public good frees the perpetrator from liability of committing the crime.

Author’s Name: Gargi Chaudhari (Savitribai Phule Pune University)

[i], accessed 7 March 2022

[ii] Supra

[iii] accessed 6 March 2022, accessed 6 March 2022

[iv] Supra

[v],in%20cases%20of%20intersovereign%20threats, accessed 07 March 2022

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