Thursday, 23 August 2012

A Discussion on Cannibalism

So, I'm reading this rather magnificent book (large, thick and really brilliant) by Professor Anne Salmond called The Trial Of the Cannibal Dog which I am planning to review when I've finished reading it. But I keep hitting points of interest which are I can see are going to keep sending me here to you.

As you can see (hopefully) from the image of the book cover above, this book is a true and exceptionally well-researched account of Captain Cook's voyages into the South Pacific Ocean (Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa) and the collision of cultures that transpired. Anne Salmond has issues with imperialist presumptions in the historical accounts to date and this book is very much a balancing act; a bringing into the frame the people and cultures already existing and sailing in the "empty" lands and oceans being "discovered" by the Imperialist project.

But this is not the review yet. Not supposed to be anyway. I have a long way to read. Rather as I'm making my way through this journey of a book I, and Captain Cook, Joseph Banks, Tupaia (the priest from Tahiti who chose to accompany Cook etc) and the sailors of the Endeavour, keep hearing stories about cannibalism. And in Aotearoa/New Zealand, at Totaranui (named by Cook as Queen Charlotte Sound) they find their first actual evidence of the practice.

(rather large) Excerpt/s from the Book:

"As Cook examined one of these bones, he realised in consternation that it might be from a human forearm. He asked one of the family members if these were not dog bones, but in answer the man took hold of the flesh of his own forearm and pretended to chew it.

Joseph Bank noted later: Tho we had from the first of our arrival upon the [New Zealand] coast constantly heard the Indians acknowledge the custom of eating their enemies we had never before had a proof of it, but this amounted almost to demonstration: the bones were clearly human, ... and on the grisly ends which were gnawed were evident marks of teeth, and these were accidentally found in a provision basket.  

... Tupaia asked these people, 'What bones are these?' They answered, 'The bones of a man.' 'And have you eaten the flesh?' 'Yes.' 'Have you none of it left?' 'No.' 'Why did you not eat the woman who we saw today in the water?' 'She was our relation.' 'Who is it then that you do eat?' 'Those who are killed in war.' 'And who was the man whose bones these are?' '5 days ago a boat of our enemies came into this bay and of them we killed 7, of whom the owner of these bones was one.'

When they returned to the ship, they told their shipmates about what they had seen. Judging from their journals it made a tremendous impact. No one on board was indifferent to cannibalism, although their reactions varied widely" (p142)

Anne Salmond goes on to discuss the cultural implications. Eating human flesh, she writes, was not a theoretical matter for sailors during this period. When ships were wrecked or burnt at sea, or when men took to the boats or were marooned, they were known to eat each other. Apparently human flesh might be eaten in Europe in times of famine (would this not be sensible, don't you think? or not?) or during riots. Remember, we are talking eighteenth century era here. People believed in witchcraft and believed that witches and warlocks sacrificed and ate human flesh during their rituals.

I would like to point out that I am (mostly) vegetarian so I don't really eat meat much anyhow, no matter what the animal. But when you think about it, who and why was it decided that eating other people was so bad. Cook and his crew kill Polynesian people for theft with impunity in this saga, and even though Cook sometimes has feelings of remorse over this, the killings don't really stop. No one is held to account over killings though they may get flogged over thefts. Is killing and leaving the body to rot on a beach more moral than killing and then cooking the human kill. Isn't just burying a body wasteful? In precolonial Aotearoa/New Zealand there were no mammals save whales and seals, some Maori dogs (kuri) and kiore (native rats). Can we liken Maori culture then, to famine-ridden Europe or marooned sailors?


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  2. This is fascinating - didn't realise there was no native meat source in NZ before colonists introduced sheep etc. What about birds? Where did the native population get their protein? Will try to get hold of this book from the library (not exactly light relaxing reading though!)

  3. Heaps of birds actually but once the Haast Eagle had gone extinct (and that would probably be eating the people rather than the other way around) and they'd eaten all the moa, well the rest of the birds were sorta small and lean I guess.

    No, not light reading but quite absorbing I think.

    1. The reason I don't eat human flesh is I don't want to be thought of as having 'emotional problems' or worse still an eating disorder.

      According to the psychiatrist, Heinrich Wilmer, the German cannibal Armin Meiwes, who killed Bernd Brandes and then ate at least 44 pounds of his flesh, is suffering from “emotional problems.”

      We might say the same, I suppose, of Brandes, who answered Meiwes’s Internet advertisement for “a young, well-built man who wants to be eaten” — though his problems are now past curing. Brandes also had a slightly offbeat sense of humor. On discovering that both he and Meiwes were smokers, he reportedly said, “Good, smoked meat lasts longer.”

      This is true it does.

      The problem with cannibalism is that it would be undoubtedly be frowned upon if your dinner had not reached the age of consent (to be eaten that is)- whereas, as every soldier knows - babies are the most tender meat, oh yes - they just melt in your mouth, but we will never have the pleasure of consuming this human equivalent of veal, which is a real shame I think don't you?

    2. I think that was a step too far really - I just can't swallow that one!