Probably the best known ‘Richard Parker’ is the ship-wrecked Bengal tiger, who plays the antagonist in Yann Martel novel, Life of Pi and the subsequent hit movie.
We’ve written here before about where Martell got the name for his tiger. But we’ve uncovered a couple of new and curious additions to this story as we are completing The Synchronicity Highway. But first let’s backtrack to the original story.
In the spring of 1974, Arthur Koestler, author of The Roots of Coincidence, sponsored a contest in coordination with the London Times to find the best coincidence. Twelve-year-old Nigel Parker submitted an incredible coincidence that not only won the prize but was called the best coincidence ever by Koestler.
Nigel’s story was about a relative of his who survived a shipwreck only to become a victim of cannibalism. Seventeen-year-old Richard Parker boarded the Mignonette in Southampton, England in July of 1884 and set off on his first voyage on the high seas. When the ship reached the South Atlantic, it was pummeled by a hurricane and sank. The four survivors, including Parker, had few provisions on their lifeboat, and after 19 days adrift grew desperate.
The men discussed drawing lots to choose a victim who would be eaten by the others, but settled on Parker, who had become delirious from drinking sea water. The remaining crew survived on Parker’s carcass for another 37 days until they were rescued by the SS Montezuma, aptly named for the cannibal king of the Aztecs.
The peculiar story from young Nigel Parker’s family history became incredibly stranger when Nigel learned about Edgar Allan Poe’s unfinished sea-adventure novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, published in 1837.
In one scene, three men and a sixteen-year-old boy are adrift at sea in a lifeboat after being shipwrecked. Desperate, on the brink of starvation, they decide to draw lots to determine which of them will be killed and eaten. The cabin boy, Richard Parker, picks the dreaded short straw and is promptly killed and eaten. The novel was written forty-seven years before the true story of cannibalism occurred that involved another teenage cabin boy named Richard Parker. In essence, fiction transcended the imaginative realm and became a full-blown scene from real life, complete with details closely matching the fictive version.
Martel knew the story of Richard Parker, both Poe’s fictional version and the real-life version. So his novel was a salute to the strange story, but not a synchronicity. However, in describing his book on Amazon.com, Martell not only notes Poe’s literary connection to the Richard Parker tragedy, but also writes that another ship, the Francis Speight, became disabled at sea 1846–nine years after Poe’s novel was published–and there were deaths and cannibalism aboard. One of the victims was a Richard Parker. That makes three Richard Parkers, all eaten by their fellow sailors.
What would Poe make of these coincidental events, if he knew about them? It seems that he gave us a hint in the following quotation from The Viking Portable Poe. “There are few persons, even among the calmest thinkers, who have not been occasionally startled into a vague yet thrilling half-credence in the supernatural, by coincidences of so seemingly marvelous a character that, as mere coincidences, the intellect has been unable to receive them.”
In other words, synchronicity! We were fascinated to discover this quote, because it clearly shows Poe’s awareness of meaningful coincidence.