FULL of fear and fantasy, the Hollywood blockbuster Life of Pi weaves a magical tale.

But behind the make-believe is a gruesome, real life, Southampton story, which invokes a dark and taboo subject.

In previous centuries, cannibalism was an unspoken subject among superstitious sailors, but in the cruel chronicles of seafaring it was not unknown and was considered one the “Customs of the Sea”.

In dire circumstances, shipwrecked sailors would draw lots to see who would be killed so the remaining crew might survive.

Author Yann Martel wrote his award-winning novel, Life of Pi, after learning of the terrible fate of a teenage cabin boy named Richard Parker, who was a crew member on the Southampton yacht, Mignonette, which sank off the Cape of Good Hope in the 19th century. In what became a Victorian ‘cause celebre’, the sailors, who were cast adrift in a flimsy lifeboat, decided to kill Parker for food so they would survive.

Now turned into a major new film , which was nominated for nine BAFTAS and won two at last night's ceremony, Life of Pi recounts a similar story of how a young man survives a disaster at sea and is thrown into a lifeboat, which he is forced to share with a fearsome Bengal tiger.

In a twist to the real story, Martel gives the prowling big cat the name of Richard Parker, so reversing the role of the victim to become the life-threatening force in the boat.

The author said: “People have asked me how the tiger in my novel came to be called Richard Parker, but I didn’t just pull the name out of a hat.

“In 1884, Mignonette, a yacht, set sail from Southampton, England, for Australia with a crew of four, but in the South Atlantic, the seas were heavy, and the boat broke apart and sank. Captain, mate, hand, and cabin boy managed to scramble aboard a dinghy, but without water or provisions except for two cans of turnips. After 19 days adrift, starving and desperate, the captain killed the 17-yearold cabin boy, who was unconscious and had no dependents, and the three remaining survivors ate him.”

Lack of fresh water was the major problem for those in the lifeboat who studiously avoided drinking the salty seawater, which, at the time, was thought to be fatal.

The crew also consistently failed to catch any rainwater and by July 13, with no other source of fluid, they began to drink their own urine.

It is thought Parker became so desperate through his raging thirst that he was forced to drink seawater making him delirious.

Martel said: “The cabin boy’s name was Richard Parker. His fate, in itself, is not particularly noteworthy as cannibalism on the high seas was surprisingly common at the time. However, the reason Richard Parker or, more accurately, the case of the Mignonette, has gone down in history, is that upon their return to England, the rescued survivors were tried for murder, a first. Up till then, murder committed under duress, because of severe necessity, was informally accepted as justifiable. But with the Mignonette, the powers-that-be decided to examine the question more closely.”

The surviving seafarers were tried and condemned to death for murder, but owing to the terrible suffering they had undergone, they were reprieved and given a short term of imprisonment.

The tombstone telling the tragic story of Richard Parker was placed on the grave of the boy’s mother, who is buried in the graveyard of Pear Tree Church in Southampton.

By coincidence, the name Richard Parker also features in two other stories of cannibalism.

The first is a fictional account of a shipwreck in the macabre novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym by Edgar Allan Poe, published 50 years before the sinking of Mignonette, in which a character called Richard Parker is eaten.

Then there was the Francis Speight, a ship which foundered in 1846, and again there were deaths and cannibalism aboard with one of the victims named Richard Parker.

Yann Martel said: “So many victimized Richard Parkers had to mean something. My tiger found his name. He’s a victim, too – or is he?”.