José María Hernández Gutiérrez. Journal of World History. Volume 30, Issue 3, September 2019.
Travel writing had a significant impact on the way cannibalism was to be interpreted and diffused from the sixteenth century onwards. By analyzing how much our current understanding of anthropophagy owes to the discourse of travel writing and the simultaneous interaction between concept and medium, a better understanding of its implications in philosophical, political and scientific discourse can be perceived. It also elaborates on how we built self-identification through the uses of fears and cultural stereotypes. A quick glance at the structure of travel writing helps conceptualize how the encounter with Native Americans by Christopher Columbus transformed the Western perceptions of cannibalism and determined relations with other peoples in the following centuries, from Polynesians to Africans. The repercussions of this dialectical process are still palpable today.
The act of traveling has always had a hold on the human imagination, almost as much as the idea of cannibalism, a form of cultural transgression that would become both the prime symbol and signifier of the idea of ‘barbarism’ or the savage for many centuries. The former has made people put down their experiences and thoughts into words, bringing about the popular and influential literary genre known as travel writing; a complex exercise looking to portray the unknown to the reader as convincingly as possible. The latter meanwhile has incited both fascination and disgust, making people dwell on their own nature and question the limits of what is (or should be) socially and culturally acceptable.
When the collision between traveling and anthropophagy that took place as Christopher Columbus encountered the Caribs in the sixteenth century (under different circumstances from those first described by the likes of Herodotus and later Marco Polo) happened, it reset the framework about how bodily margins were going to be discussed and interpreted. It also invested future debates with a higher sense of the role that power and danger played within them. Beforehand, cannibalism’s typology resided in the world of mythology and moral philosophy, a concept whose literal existence was acknowledged but never urgently experienced. Traveling meanwhile was up until the late Middle Ages a spiritual process of broadening the mind and finding fulfillment, symbolized by the pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Prior to that, description and knowledge had taken preponderance until late antiquity, with traveling historians, geographers and navigators using the self as a ‘source’ and dwelling upon the accumulated data of the journey.
When cross-cultural encounters took place under these circumstances, and anthropophagical behaviour was alluded, the dialectical process of cross-cultural conversion began developing the image of the man-eater under the discourse of barbarism [barbaroi] and its connotations of cultural inferiority. We can see it first within the Greek conception of the family of Man (the oikumene) and later in the Christian ideal of the congregatio fidelium, the brotherhood of all men in Christ. Travel literature dealt with this situation by relying on both mythology and philosophical speculation to make cannibalism familiar within its exotic strangeness. In other words, the associated imagery was apprehended on an abstract level of knowledge, without a real, tangible example to substantiate its existence. This all changed when Europeans encountered Native Americans from the sixteenth century onwards; in particular the Caribs and Tupinambás.
How did the cannibalism of Native Americans change the cultural meaning of anthropophagy and what role did travel writing play in transmitting this new conception? Did future interpretations of the act have a similar relationship with travel literature, and if so, how much did it influence ethnographical discourse and rhetoric? How much does our current understanding of cannibalism depend on the way it was portrayed and discussed in modern travel books? The complexity of the questions at hand leads us to analyze travel literature (specifically travel books) and the cannibal act separately before looking into their interaction and impact as a whole. Consequently, the first part of this work is dedicated to understanding the essence of travel writing and the structures in which it took place up to the sixteenth century, as well as the relationship with ethnography and its rhetoric, and how it changed as the social, cultural and intellectual context evolved. The subsequent section will deal with the portrayals of cannibalism from the encounter with Native Americans onwards, taking into account its implications in philosophical, political and scientific discourse while tracing the alternating attribution of the act from Native Americans to Polynesians and then Africans. The dynamic of this latter aspect was facilitated through the discursive interplay of travel narrative and the constraints that society imposed on the writer/observer at the time. How this interplay came about and what its ramifications in our current perception of anthropophagy are is dealt in the last part of this article.
Travel Literature: Unconscious Ethnography?
Travel writing is a complex exercise that attempts to portray the unknown to the reader as convincingly as possible. Here, the self plays an important part in the genre’s ambivalent structure as a necessary rhetorical presence. Throughout the text, the egocentric expression of the self jostles between the journey and its setting, which usually make up the form and posture of the narrative, as they become the main forces of its articulation. In the end though, the independent perspective of the narrator, who usually follows his instincts and opportunities over the conventions dictated from home to describe what he sees, gives the text its power and attractiveness. Over time, the traveler’s gaze becomes enhanced, leading to a denial of coevalness towards the Other by not pronouncing judgment on what it thinks and does and instead classifying its actions and mentality.
Before the sixteenth century, the ethos of the traveller and his writing style were defined by contrasting ideas about travel, be it for example the chivalric ideal of the quest (a consequence from the failings of the Crusades) or the attainment of divine grace through material difficulties reflected in the hagiographic myth of a spiritual journey. What all these notions had in common was tendency of regarding all data as figurative and susceptible to allegorical understanding. With time, description became more prevalent, slowly introducing an ethnographical gaze to the structure of travel writing while beginning a slow demystification of what was actually being represented. The conflict between mythic expectation and mundane facts, along with the one between narrative and description, has continued to this day. Subsumed by this contention was also a moral discourse about the Other, and the objective and subjective practices of its ontological representation for and by ethnography.
Thanks to a new reading of Herodotus’s work in the sixteenth century, and the rediscovery of his empirical and historical method of making the familiar strange and the exotic quotidian, travel writing entered a new phase: curiositas (curiosity about the world), deemed up until the late Middle Ages as a sin in Christian dogma and culture, displaced pure religious contemplation as the narrative’s main focus. This opened the way for scientific enquiry and the idea of seeking knowledge, and consequently description, to play a more integral part in the construction of travel accounts, just like it did during ancient times. As a result, the conventional form of travel accounts became a combination of first-person narration, recounting one’s trip, with a description of the encountered flora and fauna of the regions passed through, as well as the manners and customs of the inhabitants contacted.
How truthful or ‘objective’ were these accounts? It is difficult to assess properly, particularly since the anomalous (later defined as the exotic) enhances the travel account by distinguishing it from ethnographical works, which dissolve the strange into the moral ecology of the society studied. The description of cannibalism and meetings with physically deformed peoples (one-eyed Arismapi, Pygmies, dog-headed Cynocephali, Mermaids, Blemmynae, big-eared Panopis, etc.) are part of this tendency of tall tales and weird stories that only rarely represented actual encounters and cultural exchanges. And yet the increased predominance of the ethnographical gaze cannot be easily separated from the inevitable consequences of creating a system of classification where anomalies appear. Ambiguity must be fitted to harmonize with the prevailing pattern while discordance is rejected. In other words, narration had to co-exist with description. As the latter became more engrained within the structure and style of the travel account, empirical representation of what was being observed took hold of the main discourse while replacing moral judgments with moral assessments. Here we can see the influence of Humanistic thinking in the development of travel writing, with the discovery of classic literary models and the attainment of new philological tools making the traveler a factual authority of high esteem thanks to his precise and systematic remarks.
As empirical curiosity and practical science became the main paradigm of travel, a unique combination of intellectual renewal and the colonial expansion towards the Atlantic initiated by Portugal and the Kingdom of Castile opened new horizons (literal and metaphorical). It questioned old assumptions about the workings of the world and the creatures inhabiting it, leading to a realignment of the idea of truth and myth. Cannibalism, which up until this time (late fifteenth, early sixteenth century) was dealt with as a theological and philosophical aberration or, a threat to the divine plan of salvation, started to be seen within a sharper conceptualization of exterior realities; where natural law defined the act of eating human flesh as an epistemological deficiency. Diversity of customs was treated as the result of convention rather than nature; whose law was universal.
Travel writing had to adjust to these changes, particularly with the discovery of America forcing the accepted grand scheme of the world to be modified so that previous assumptions were to be proven true. When this did not happen, as historical discourse keep putting a heavier strain over the pervading theological system and its cosmological tenants. Consequently, clearer standards of empirical plausibility were developed to start demystifying the contents of travel accounts. However, the language of the marvellous, and therefore the representation of new peoples and environments, remained dependant on old concepts that when used in analogies brought about stereotypes, reinvigorating certain words with new meanings. Writing formed a relation with the Other, bringing both history and ethnology together for the first time, which helped build up the idea of identity as an explicit and justified notion, with its boundaries of inclusion and exclusion changing its meaning and value. The act of cannibalism had a dialogical reciprocity in this context with travel writing that would forever determine its perception and discussion.
Breaking Down the Myth and Encountering the Flesh-Eaters, Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries
When Columbus first heard about the ‘Canibals’ (Caribs) and their treatment of other Indians, namely the consumption of their flesh, he originally expressed doubt about the veracity of such claims; wondering if a fear of the strange, the same which clouded much of his own perceptions about the people he encountered, was behind these statements:
Y sobre este cabo encavalga otra tierra o cabo que va también al Leste [sic], a quien aquellos indios que llevava llamaron Bohío, la cual dezían que era muy grande y que avía [sic] en ella gente que tenía un ojo en la frente, y otros que se llamaban caníbales, a quien mostraban tener gran miedo; y desque [sic] vieron que llevaba este camino, diz que no podían hablar, porque los comían y son gente muy armada. El Almirante dize que bien cree que avía algo d’ello [sic], mas que, pues eran armados, serían gente de razón, y creía que avían captivado algunos y que, porque no bolvían [sic] a sus tierras, dirían que los comían. Lo mismo creían de los cristianos y del Almirante, al principio que algunos lo vieron. (November 23rd, 1492) [Beyond this cape there stretched out another lad or cape, also trending east, which the Indians on board called Bohio. They said that it was very large, and that there were people in it who had one eye in their foreheads, and others who were cannibals, and of whom they were much afraid. When they saw this course was taken, they said that they could not talk to these people because they would be eaten, and that they were very well armed. The Admiral says that he well believes that there were such people, and that if they are armed they must have some ability. He thought that they may have captured some of the Indian, and because they did not return to their homes, the other believed that they had been eaten. They thought the same of the Christians and of the Admiral when some of them first saw the strangers.]
The approach taken here by Columbus places the discursive narrative of cannibalism within the field of hearsay and myth, philosophical speculation about something that has been known but never seen. At the same time however, the sense of fear and suspicion also echoed the uncertainties of the Spanish towards the alien people they have just encountered. This created a reciprocal yet asymmetrical perception of anthropophagy. In other words, the term ‘Canibal’ apprehended by Columbus became a normative representation of the transgressive Other as it served to uphold the Christian identity of the European conqueror/settler against the strangeness of the American environment; with the initial dialogism of its inception being concealed in the process.
The paradox that underscores this and future understandings of cannibalism was both the result of the needs of dealing with a hitherto unknown part of the world and previously held notions about the consumption of human flesh. The resulting conflict between facts and expectations was also present in the framework of travel writing. Columbus and future travellers to America got then a proper space where they could dwell on the ontological nature of Native Americans, particularly what their relationship with Europeans was according to both natural and human law (lex divina and lex humana). The discourse of cannibalism thus became part of the identification of the Other, and ingrained itself to the Ciceronian idea of savagery, which reinforced the view of America as a barbaric and untamed environment in contrast to the ‘ordered and civilized’ Europe.
Columbus’s subsequent referrals to cannibals, while still tinged with a sense of scepticism, would eventually rely on this preconceived identification of the Other (the Carib) as dangerous and antithetical to his own person; i.e. the civilized Christian. At first, he believes the natives are referring to the people of the Great Khan, who mistake the pillage of towns with human-hunting; while additionally questioning their claims that they looked like one-eyed Cynocephali:
Toda la gente que hasta oy [sic] ha hallado disque [sic] tiene grandíssimo temor de los caniva o canima [sic], y dizen que biven [sic] en esta isla de Bohío, […] seg[notdef]un le parece [to Columbus], y cree que van a tomar a aquellos a sus tierras y casas, como sean muy cobardes y no saber de armas. Ya esta causa le parece que aquellos indios que traían no suele poblarse a lacosta de la mar, por ser vezinos [sic] a esta tierra, los cuales dizque después que le vieron tomar la buelta desta tierra no podían hablar, temiendo que los avían de comer, y no les podía quitar el temor, y dezían [sic] que no tenían sino un ojo y la cara de perro, y creía el almirante que devían de ser del señorío del Gran Can, que los captivavan. (November 26th, 1492) [The Admiral says that all the people he has hitherto met with have very great fear of those Caniba or Canima [sic]. They affirm that they live in the island of Bohio, […] The Admiral understood that those Caniba come to take people from their homes, they being very cowardly and without knowledge of arms. For this cause it appears that these Indians do not settle on the seacoast, owing to being near the land of the Caniba. When the natives who were on board saw a course shaped for that land, they feared to speak, thinking they were going to be eaten; nor could they rid themselves of their fear. They declared that the Canibas had only one eye and dogs’ faces. The Admiral though they lied, and was inclined to believe that it was the people from the dominions of the Gran Can [sic] who took them into captivity.]
It is only upon meeting with the cacique Guacanagarí after the shipwreck of December 26th on the north side of Hispaniola that a plausible explanation arises: the ‘Caniba’ are actually called ‘Caribes’. While the change in nomenclature may not look that meaningful on the surface, it represented an important shift in the way cannibalism was discussed; since for once an actual group could knowingly be ascribed such a practice. When Columbus promises that the Kings of Castile will send people to destroy and capture the Caribs, he finally vouches for the existence of anthropophagi, subsequently talking about them as if they are what he has been told. It is at this instance, that cannibalism begins to be described and justified as the result of innate characteristics, both secular (innate aggression) and religious (innate vice).
From this point on, anthropophagy is viewed as a savage transgression that constantly threatens the enterprise of discovery and later conquest, becoming a representative and stereotypical characteristic of Native American culture in general. The articulation of power over the referent (the cannibal) that resulted here was achieved through travel writing and the rhetorical devices at its disposal, with many authors playing with the boundaries between eyewitness testimony, second-hand information, and outright invention. This left many readers unsure of the veracity of what was being told. However, the imagery of the cannibal, as referenced later by the descriptions of Dr. Diego Álvarez Chanca (Columbus’s second voyage 1493-1494) and Amerigo Vespucci (Mundus Novus, 1504), somehow managed to overcome the scrutiny and be accepted forthright, serving as the main foundation for later textual and visual anthropophagical representations.
It did not matter if the cannibal was American, African or from the South Pacific: from this point on, the concept that they cooked their victims and collected their bones as well, was fixed into the European consciousness. The encounter with the Tupinambás of Brazil, as reported by the likes of Jean de Léry, André Thevet and Hans Staden in the mid-sixteenth century, enhanced these ideas even further. In particular the experiences of Staden, who was held captive by the Tupis for nine months (Warhaftige Historia, 1557), emphasized the cultural gulf between European and American peoples through the practice of consuming human flesh. Between their own anxiety about being eaten, as well as the threat of cultural dissolution in their role as captives, Hans Staden and other Europeans who were caught fell into a disadvantage in which cannibalism became an act intended to induce terror. The struggle led to a reaffirmation of their Christian identity in a time of religious turmoil occurring in Europe at the time: the split of Christianity into Catholics and Protestants.
As Staden was Protestant, his views of the Tupis were mediated by the conflicts, both political and theological, about Man’s relationship with God and the true source of one’s faith. Thus, he viewed the cannibal act as an important communal affair of symbolic significance, similar to the notion of Eucharistic consubstantiation, but consonant with the savage state they lived in. His descriptions are to the point without intentionally undermining the Tupis own humanity: they are certainly different, but aside from their skin hue, going about naked and plucking their facial hair, they physically resemble Europeans. It helped that his overall portrait of the Tupis was highly favourable; realizing fully the etymology of ‘travel’ as ‘travail (work)’, which gave the account and the customs it describes in it a veracity that was difficult to question. Here, the roles of ethnography and travel writing overlap each other, with narrative stimulating the literary production of detail and enhancing the moral discourse; be it in the form of judgments or assessments.
In contrast Montaigne, a Catholic, viewed in his essay Des Cannibales (1580) the assimilation of the Tupinambá cannibal practice to the Christian belief as an obstacle for their humanistic embrace. He accepted that both rituals (the Christian Eucharist and the Tupí sacrifice of captives) were communal and related to the worship of the dead but stopped short of making a literal homology present in the moment of transubstantiation. For him, their cannibalism was a symbolized form of revenge; no less brutal, than the way Europeans treated their prisoners; anthropophagy, and consequently barbarism, was thus inherent in European cultural traditions: ‘so we can indeed call those folk barbarians by the rules of reason but not in comparison with ourselves, who surpass them in every kind of barbarism’.
Montaigne’s observations were the result of conversations with both Native Americans (via translator) he met in Rouen as gifts for King Charles IX circa 1562, and one of his servants who lived in Brazil during France’s failed colony there. His insights are thus closer in form to the modern ethnographical report, albeit under the guise of a philosophical self-portraiture. Hence the moral assessments he makes come about as a result of a self-conscious analysis rather than first-person observation; a divorce between the narrative tropes of travel writing from ethnographical experience and its recounting.
By the seventeenth century this separation became more evident not only within travel writing, as new insistence on the responsibility of the traveller to check the accuracy of his reports was enforced by the reading public, but also in the way cannibalism was perceived and treated as the latter gained a fundamental role in the discourse of European colonialism. It differed between the various Atlantic powers: while the Spanish dealt with Native Americans philosophically by questioning their humanity and their place in the world, slowly distancing the language of Christianity from that of civilization, the English, relative newcomers in the colonial enterprise, took more pragmatic considerations towards them. With regards to their anthropophagy, they disassociated the ‘cannibal’ sign from its intrinsic feature, man-eating, and instead emphasized the otherness that the practice foregrounded by displacing and nullifying the Amerindians’ own presence. In other words, cannibalism was treated as a boundary marker that justified both the presence and the enterprise of colonization. Its significance as a specific cultural or religious practice was subsumed into the identity assigned to Native Americans as barbaric ‘Others’.
By the end of the century, despite remaining an essential component in the allegorical iconography of the continent, anthropophagy became all but imbedded within the concept of primitivism. The practice not limited to America but was expected of any group not living according to European ‘civilized’ standards. It was treated less as an ‘exoticism’ and more as a social norm that ‘naturally’ arises within the developmental process of every human group living in a savage state. Here, the influence of a new scientific conception that redefined Europe’s relationship with its past over the accepted Christian cosmology, inextricably united with issues of moral renewal and scepticism, influenced how cannibalism was seen and explained. Travel writing played an important role here, as it slowly brought erudite and popular practitioners together to tackle the problem of ethnic and cultural diversity through the myriad of empirical discourses (Aristotelian definitions of Man, philosophical images of mankind, theological assumptions on the dissemination of humanity) that attempted to explain it.
Cannibalism between Philosophy and Reality, Eighteenth-Nineteenth Centuries
By the eighteenth century, as the exotic and the fantastical became synonymous with the Other and subjected to colonial control, cannibalism was mediated by a conflicting set of discourses about savagery. They evocated both its dangers and celebrated its beauty; sometimes concurrently. Here, travel writing began to be superseded by more technical publications that emphasized direct observation and proper ethnographical discussion over simple narration and philosophical speculation. In fact, it was through the work of philosophers rather than travel writers that the concept of anthropophagy was defined and discussed, with the latter being used as empirical evidence of intellectual speculation.
Hence, the Noble Savage, an idealization of the state of savagery that emphasized the physical attractiveness of the Other, downplayed the barbaric role of cannibalism similarly to Montaigne but continued to accept its polarizing place as a symbolic cultural practice opposed to the notions of refinement, modernity and Western civilization; particularly during the Enlightenment. Concurrently, cannibalism was also being interpreted as a political metaphor by the likes of Denis Diderot (Supplement to the Voyage of Bougainville, 1796) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, 1755); the incarnation of a certain type of justice within a universal project of moral reform. Voltaire went even further with this idea by discussing how burial somewhat legitimized the practice, particularly since in Europe the dead are more respected than the living:
Les Nations qu’on nomme policées ont eu raison de no pas mettre leurs ennemis vaincus à la broche; car s’il était permis de manger ses voisins, on mangerait bientôt de ses compatriotes; ce qui serait un grand inconvénient pour les vertus socials [sic]. [The so-called civilized nations were right not to put their defeated enemies on the spit; for if it were permitted to eat one’s neighbors, one would soon eat one’s countrymen as well, which would be a big inconvenience when discussing social virtues.]
In this context travel literature, despite losing its place as the main source of information about diverse peoples and cultures to the speculative works of philosophers, scientists and essayists, had become an important part in understanding the identification of the Self and the Other in regional and national spaces. It was also an essential element in the earliest stages of the content-based education that came about at the end of the seventeenth and throughout great part of the eighteenth century.
In many ways, the description of the natural environment started to supersede the narrative and create a sense of great longing, where nature was possessed without subjugation and violence. With the Other relegated to objectified ethnographic portraits, their behaviour lost the shock it once inspired and was dealt as a direct result of where they lived in, albeit still interpreted through a rhetoric reliant on the glow of the exotic and the fantastical and a need to ‘domesticate’ the savage. Consequently, a double image resulted in which individuals could be seen as sympathetic (‘the Noble Savage’) but collectives were treated with suspicion.
Cannibalism was thus viewed and talked about in travel writing not as a specific act of savagery but as a cultural activity with a particular importance to the society that practiced it. One can see this in the way the German geographer and philosopher Alexander von Humboldt, traveling through the Americas between 1799 and 1805, explained why the natives of Guiana supposedly still engaged in such acts at the beginning of the nineteenth century:
If the Guiana Indians eat human flesh it is not because of privations, or during rituals, but out of vengeance after a victory or, as the missionaries say, ‘out of their perverted greed’. Victory over an enemy horde is celebrated with a feast where parts of prisoners’ corpses are eaten. […] Civilization has led man to sense the unity of the human race, the bonds that link him to custom and languages, which he does not know. Wild Indians hate all those who do not belong to their tribe or family. Indians who are at war with a neighbouring tribe hunt them as we would animals in the wood.
Humboldt’s anthropological explanation suggests that ignorance of the civilized norms on conviviality result in constant warfare, bringing about an endless cycle of vengeance that is ‘celebrated’ in the eating of parts of the prisoners’ corpses; hence the importance of the concepts of ‘civilization’ and ‘wild’ in this passage. In other words, the Amerindians natural state makes them inclined to commit odd and disgusting acts, justified under their cultural environment but possible to eliminate only through the influence of reason and civilization.
Alexander von Humboldt represented a new vision of travel writing, one where nature and the people are thoroughly observed and studied. The authority of the discourse laid in a totalizing project that lives in the text, a fusion of the specificity of science and the aesthetics of the sublime that apprehends the diversity of phenomena and understands the underlying unity of nature. Some critiques still remained about the superior truthfulness of field observation and their reliability: comparative anatomist George Cuvier for example questioned von Humboldt’s insights, viewing travel as a limited path to understanding the world due to a lack of drawing comparison which the sedentary naturalist has when working in his study:
If the sedentary naturalist does not see nature in action, he can yet survey all her products spread before him. He can compare them with each other as often as is necessary to reach reliable conclusions … He can bring together the relevant facts from anywhere he needs to. The traveller can only travel one road; it is only really in one’s study [cabinet], that one can roam freely throughout the universe, and for that a different sort of courage is needed. (1807)
Nonetheless, by the nineteenth century travel writing became a much more ‘objective’ enterprise, backed-up by a system of cross-reference to other sources and the possibility for coherent criticism. At the same time the concept of cannibalism appeared to be free of political undertones and easily applicable to supposedly ‘savage’ people who had resisted or did not have contact with ‘civilized’ European mores and customs; which at the time meant one place in particular: Africa.
Although the image of Africa as a land of mystery and extremes, where the arid and sterile lived side by side with the fecund and teeming, had been part of the European imagination since Antiquity, it was not until the end of the eighteenth century that a true interest developed as to the peoples and characteristics of this particular continent. Though as early as the sixteenth century cannibalism was believed to be practiced there, both in accounts and in maps, in general it was often taken to be a myth when reports of such a practice where heard; however, this did not stop travelers from citing mentions of anthropophagus behavior when they came across it, always giving benefit of the doubt even when their veracity was dubious.
By this time self-realization had become more and more the topos of travel, and the means by which it was portrayed, rarely engaged with the environment from an ethnographical standpoint. The narrator had once again regained control as to what he/she saw and how he/she saw it; never judging the consequences of their appearance or realizing the fragility of the natives’ respect and trust towards them when writing about them. This went parallel with the nineteenth century’s ongoing debate over the origins of man, first taken up by philologists and anatomists, and later by physical anthropologists and biologists, and explained through a historicist principal of continuity that transformed the temporal hierarchy into a developmental or evolutionary cultural series. The combination of these strands led to a perception of human behaviour which was deemed ‘different’ (and this included the act of eating human flesh) and the way it was depicted led interpreting the Other and its relationship with the West through material aspects and concerns; with clearly defined physical characteristics. In other words, everything from physical appearance to behavioural traits were scrutinized thoroughly, under a new guise that espoused cultural and moral development with biological transformations. Here, anthropophagy was but a sign implying moral decay and the need to intervene for the sake of the people practicing it; it was a deformed and self-involved Humanitarianism, if you will.
Cannibalism thus remained a relevant topic within the discourse of travel writing even if it was put into question. For travellers to Africa in the nineteenth century, it appeared as a sign of danger, a reminder of the unexpected perils lurking within the unexplored reaches of a vast continent of deserts, jungles, rivers and savannahs. As with the conquistadors in sixteenth century America, the tales of cannibal tribes that were heard seem to be the result of one group describing the atrocities their enemies commit, looking to convince Europeans to help them. Evangelical missionaries and later colonial entrepreneurs made these stories seem palpable in order to acquire support for their purposes, be it evangelization or imperialistic expansion.
Some explorers like Mungo Park were wary of accepting such information as truth but constant repetition in different places, and that all of it seemed to refer to a particular specific group, led him to think that an actual man-eating tribe existed around the Niger River during his first voyage to the area (1795-1797):
I am well aware that the accounts which the Negroes give of their enemies ought to be received with great caution; but I heard the same account in so many different kingdoms, and from such a variety of people, whose veracity Ihad no occasion to suspect, that I am disposed to allow it some degree of credit. […] I cannot conceive why the term madummulo (man-eaters) should be applied exclusively to the inhabitants of Maniana.
By contrast John Hanning Speke, who was looking to discover the source of the Nile (1860-1863), and Henry Morton Stanley, on his trip around Lake Victoria and Lake Tanganyika to find the source of the Congo River (1874-1877), took their existence for granted, attributing it to the innate violence of the people living there. Here, a language of naturalized typification and essentialized difference hardened into a negative racism that became almost too common within the discourse of nineteenth century travel writing. It got to the point where Africans were mentioned mainly as part of the landscape or as obstacles to the exploration. They were all but un-important to the narrative of the traveler. Talk about cannibalism was but a way to remind the reader both of the existence of the natives and their difference, of their own savagery and otherness.
In Speke’s particular case, he thought to have found concrete proof of their existence; for when hearing the story he was being told, he believed it referred to the same people, the Niam-Niams, that his friend John Petherick had encountered in an earlier expedition (1858):
A man from Rûanda then told us of the Wilyanwantû (men-eaters), who disdained all food but human flesh; and Rûmanika confirmed the statement. Though I felt very skeptical about it, I could not have helped thinking it a curious coincidence that the position they were said to occupy agreed with Petherick’s Nyam-Nyams (men-eaters).
Authentication of information by a previous explorer was rarely recalled in such instances since Victorian travel writers looked to place their own observations as the main evidence of the discourse; descriptions and all. All travel writers of the time in fact were self-centred, only interested in arousing the reader’s imagination with their own experiences and expectations; at times with the help (though not always welcomed) of the editors in charge of publishing the book.
Even their rhetoric, representing both their own perspective and that of the social-political (imperial) context in which they wrote, maintained the same tropes and devices. This included the image of the ‘savage’ cannibal that had been in use since the sixteenth century. Despite some appeals to a ‘humanitarian’ call for better relationships with the Other and the development of anthropology and ethnography as new disciplines that made them more understandable, the reality was that the perception of otherness in travel writing during the nineteenth century all but stalled. Not surprising, since in the end both the traveler and ethnographer do not write for the people and places experienced but for person and profession.
Meanwhile the figure of the cannibal had all but disappeared from philosophy and become imbued with a sense of danger that once again made it synonymous with the concept of savagery. So, when for example Henry Morton Stanley placed the fear of being attacked by hostile tribes over the possibility of contracting a tropical disease (a constant menace in nineteenth century African exploration) as more threatening, a negative image of the Africans is given a sense of veracity; and when the adjective of ‘bloodthirsty’ is added, anthropophagy immediately comes to mind:
This day we dedicated to rest and a feeling of gratitude to Almighty God who has wonderfully preserved us through manifold dangers, from ferocious savages whose fierce hearts thirsted for our blood, from the sickness which has overtaken so many of our fellows, from hunger which has killed numbers of our people.
Conclusion: Cannibalism and Travel Literature Today
As the cultural and psychological frontier in which cannibalism operated became more fluid, with its character being more associated with humour than fear, the concept regained a particular sense of exoticism similar to the one that it had in the sixteenth century but working under the name of ‘primitivism’: heavily influenced by evolutionary theory, historicism and ethnographical observations, it posits the idea of an original, socially simple and natural character. Cannibalism here is but a behavioural transgression with deep-seated roots in the human experience; a type of practice that represents an earlier stage in the development of humanity which must be overcome. The idea that many societies in Africa and the Pacific continued to partake in it (according to both explorers and ethnographers) well into the last century was mistakenly taken to represent the gulf of how much Western civilization had advanced both in terms of self-control and acceptable (‘civilized’) social norms. Travel writing and its supposed reliability actually played a key role in this development.
Today, while still maintaining the gaze of curiosity and bewilderment, the travel writer has now given away to self-reflection and rarely engages with the environment from an ethnographical standpoint. Anthropologists and ethnographers have now taken their place as the sources for understanding and interpreting cultures, though they now face competition from the more commercialized accounts aimed at tourists which have downgraded the discourse into simple presentation and description.
As the figure of the cannibal returned to the realm of myth, once again being brought into question by the same medium that made it popular in the first place, travel writing is now in the hands of bloggers and travel sites, of people simply describing the world as they see it and inviting other to experience it. The original discursive interplay between society and travel narrative, with all its tensions and constraints, has been tamed for public consumption. There is little interest in causing shock in order to maintain a sense of authenticity and come across as transparent and honest; simplifying complex ontologies and moral uncertainties into inoffensive bits of curiositas.
Nonetheless, the way we perceived other cultures and their specific customs, and therefore ourselves, as well as the various devices (rhetorical, descriptive, discursive) we used when writing about it, are in part the result of the portraits and descriptions of cannibalism that started in sixteenth century travel writing and developed from there on. At the same time, our ideas of travel and utilization, discovery and the body, have been influenced by this discourse and the dialogical reciprocity of its themes. They all share the same fascination of looking for the new and the weird much like travellers did when encountering hitherto unknown behaviours and attempted to rationalize them according to their own standards: Eurocentric, Christian, Patriarchal, and ‘civilized’.
Anthropophagy remains a byword for uncontrolled, irrational behaviour, of the everyday violence existing within our own selves. It is a multifaceted concept that is based on the legacy of supposed encounters and descriptions from hearsay by a myriad of writers, navigators and explorers discovering and trying to understand the world; born out of a process of making sense of the strange that is still ongoing, and incredibly unresolved. Its history gives us insight at how travel can forge our minds and begin to change our perceptions; but in order for it to affect and have a more lasting impact, critical apprehension of what we are seeing and reading is needed. Self-discovery, a better identification of who we are, both with ourselves and society, remains paramour in overcoming our fear of the Other and our fascination with self-consumption, both physical and metaphorical. We remain enthralled and repulsed by our own humanity until we accept ourselves as unique equals in a very diversive world.