A ship out of Baltimore, sailing from Charleston, found itself wrecked, on a deserted key in the Bahamas. Without food or fresh water, the survivors had to make an awful decision. They used the bodies of their fellow crewmen, the ones who had supposedly drowned, as food.

For the men on the wreck of the schooner Phaeton, it was Darwin’s polemic of the ‘survival of fittest’ made reality.

The starving men, the fittest who had survived, became cannibals in a desperate attempt to stay alive.


Deserted Island Dreams Turn To Nightmares

It took the Lucayan Indians over one thousand long years to tame the dry and unforgiving land of the Bahamas. It grew bush, and strong woods and coconut trees, but not much else. The Lucayans had to learn where to find fresh water, how to cultivate the shallow soils to grow food, and importantly, figure out what could and could not be eaten.

One wrong berry or chewing on the wrong leaf, could mean excruciating stomach pain and even death.

Yes, it took the Lucayans a thousand years of trial and error to figure out how to sustain life on uninhabited land. These were survival skills, which would not be easily learned, in a few days, for many who would find themselves wrecked, while sailing through the Bahamas.

For one privateer schooner, the Phaeton, in 1813, out of Baltimore, the only survival skill they could figure out, was to eat the flesh of dead humans. From 48 men onboard, only 4 survived to swim ashore to Ginger Key.

Out of the 4, one drowned, leaving just 3, out of 48, alive to tell the tale.

What is not elaborated on in the brief letter, but what can be speculated on now, no matter how gruesome the idea, was whether or not, the fittest on the wrecked ship survived because they did the weaker ones in, all so that they could eat them.

It seems somewhat improbable that forty-four men would just suddenly die on a wrecked vessel. Why had only 4 survived? Did a fight break out for the remaining food supplies? Was it a mutiny gone horribly wrong?


Providence, March 22, 1814.

Extract of a letter from Capt. A. C. White, to his friends at New Haven, dated at Matanzas, December 26.

“On my way down the Bahamas Bank, I took from a small uninhabited Key, three men, who had been wrecked on the east part of the bank 15 days before, in the schooner, Phaeton, of Baltimore from Charleston.

They remained on the wreck 10 days, subsisting on the dead bodies of their Comrades. When drifting near Ginger Key, four of the stoutest on the wreck left it, and swam for the shore, three of whom succeeded, viz. Mr Maxwell, second mate, William Hawker and Philip Fox seamen. Mr Schoolfield, first mate, was lost in attempting to swimming ashore.

Such a shocking sight I never before saw; naked and meagre, lying on the beach, two of them unable to stand through weakness, their whole bodies one continued blister from the sun. We took them on board and restored them to life and the world; they are now nearly well. The schooner was commanded by Captain James Mortimer.

They had 48 souls on board when she was cast away.

As the friends may not have knowledge of their fate, I take this opportunity of making it known.”

(The Gleaner, Friday 22 April, 1814)


List of 1812 privateer ships on which the Phaeton is listed

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