In December of 1710, the British merchant ship Nottingham Galley ran aground on Boon Island, a tiny pile of rocks off the coast from York, Maine. Although their ship was destroyed, all thirteen crew members and their captain, John Dean, made it safely onto the island.
Since the island is only 8 or 9 miles from the mainland, they initially thought someone would come and rescue them. They were mistaken. Whether because of bad weather or just bad luck, no ships came by for 21 days. Three weeks is a long time to spend on an island that's only 700 feet long, particularly when you don't have any food and it's the start of a Maine winter.
Weighing their odds, two crew members attempted to reach shore in a tiny raft they made, but died in the rough icy water. A third crew member, the ship's carpenter, died of starvation and cold.
Eyeing the dead carpenter, one desperately hungry sailor broached the unspeakable topic: should they eat him?
In the words of Captain Dean,
After abundance of mature thought and consultation about the lawfulness or sinfulness on the one hand, and the absolute necessity on the other, judgment, conscience, etc. were obliged to the more prevailing arguments of our craving appetites.
The crew couldn't bring themselves to butcher the carpenter, so Captain Dean did the hideous task for them once the sun had set.
They were rescued shortly afterward. Would they have survived long enough if they hadn't eaten their companion? There's no way to know. What decision would you make if you were in their situation?
I found this story in Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea - The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. Philbrick's National Book Award winner is about a notorious case of nautical cannibalism involving a whaleship from Nantucket. It's worth reading if you're not too squeamish.
Boon Island now has a lighthouse on it, and like so many lighthouses it has an interesting history, including a possible ghost. That's not a surprise!