Cannibalism and the Colonial World


I doubt if there is another book quite like this one. An international team specializing in anthropology, literature, and art history discuss the historical and cultural significance of the west's fascination with cannibalism - not so much ritual, survival, or mortuary practices, but the rabid and insatiable hunger for human flesh - in a categorization designed to dehumanize and subdue the exotic Other and justify colonialism.

There is a fascinating introduction by editor Peter Hulme in which he debunks the classic hoax of Caribbean cannibalism. During Columbus's second voyage to the New World in 1493, a contact party ransacked a recently deserted village in Guadeloupe, acquiring 4 or 5 human leg and arm bones, several parrots and other curiosities. The shipboard doctor surmised that they must indeed be in the lands of the fabled Caribe, the flesh eaters of Arawak legend. As Hulme says, this initial account was elaborated and embroidered and a myth was born. After passage through various hands and interpretive processes (in all cases by people who never landed at Guadeloupe or visited the Caribbean), the Guadeloupian village scene was reworked into a `virtual human butcher shop' with a blood-soaked child's head hanging on a post, cooking pots with limbs strewn about, and feverish cannibal feasts. Here lies the origin of the international usage of the Carib word barbecue, which in the European imagination became human flesh broached on a spit.

Such fantasizing and invention lends support to William Arens' belief that the empirical evidence for cannibalism is embarrassingly slim. In this book, as a follow-up to his controversial text `The Man-Eating Myth,' Arens once more criticizes the well-known and widely accepted `evidence' of cannibalism amongst the Fore of New Guinea, who are believed to have contracted the Kuru virus as a consequence of eating human brains. There simply are no reliable ethnographic accounts in support of this theory - no matter how far one looks back.

As to the `well-documented' cases of cannibalism from the Pacific, Obeyesekere discusses the propensity for American whalers to spin exotic tales and propagate the myth of cannibalism, and he hypothesizes that cannibalism was a new experience for Pacific Islanders, a response to the European presence. While not denying that cannibalism ever occurred, Obeyesekere describes how the Maori practice was exaggerated, sometimes in play as part of a dialogue with Europeans, and in reality as a weapon of terror, one of the few weapons they possessed in an unequal contest. Obeyesekere argues that cannibalism must be viewed as part of a discourse of alterity, confirming an already established picture of the ferocious savage.

If I had one criticism of this book it is that the collection of essays should make a stronger statement of the continuing importance of this topic in the political realm. For instance, in the 1990s in Australia, member of parliament Pauline Hanson delighted in publishing the `facts' on Aboriginal cannibalism in her book `The Truth' as though this were pertinent in the debate over native title and property rights. Her message was clear cut: Aborigines do not deserve special rights because they are or were at one time, flesh eaters. As Franz Fanon writes in `Black Skin White Masks,' "Face to face with white men, the Negro has a past to legitimate, a vengeance to exact: face to face with the Negro, the contemporary white man feels the need to recall the times of cannibalism."

In this volume, Huggans, in an informative discussion of Fanon's thesis restates the view that cannibalism was the alibi for a history of racial oppression. He agrees that such notions must be confronted, then surmounted, before being banished to the past. In my view the text as a whole did not fully accomplish this, and while the anthropological contributions are powerful and relevant, some of those on art history and literature seemed to detract from the overall thrust of the opening chapters. This book, however, remains an important and challenging collection of essays and is highly recommended by this reviewer.

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