Cannibalism and the Common Law by A Simpson

APRIL 9, 2008

7/10. Cannibalism and the Common Law: The Story of the Tragic Last Voyage of the Mignonette and the Strange Legal Proceedings to Which It Gave Rise by A Simpson, University of Chicago Press, 1984. More history than legal analysis. Interesting throughout but meandering slightly towards the end. One quote I wish to memorialize, which though rather apart from the main thrust of my book, made me wonder once again about the general tension between ‘definiteness’ (assertiveness/simplicity) and ‘correctness’, especially in the arena of public policy and democratic politics. Is it always necessary, as the quote suggests, for successful campaigns to simplify and exaggerate in order to obtain an effect?

In the period immediately before the case of the Mignonette [1884], controversies over the protection of sailors and passengers had been inflamed by the activities of the radical MP for Derby (1868-80), Samuel Plimsoll, ‘the sailor’s friend’, whose approach to the problem favoured prior intervention [i.e. regulation] … He [Plimsoll] concentrated first simply on unseaworth ships as a cause fo mortality and started a campaign to amend the law with a resolution in the House of Commons in July 1870. His most effective appeal was to public opinion through the publication of Our Seamen in 1872, attacking the ship-owners of the over-insured, overloaded “coffin ships”, which caught the public imagination. Plimsoll was no doubt careless with his facts, ill-informed, and sometimes violent in his language; but perhaps successful campaigns require devils, conspiracies and simple solutions. [emph added] In reality ships were lost for a variety of reasons, and unseaworthiness was only one of them.