Popular Science Monthly/Volume 26/December 1884/Cannibalism as a Custom


THERE is a certain weird attractiveness about the subject of cannibalism, a grim fascination in its grisly horrors, that is not easily to be explained, but which, although few of us will admit it, most of us have experienced. Perhaps it is in subjective cannibalism alone that this uncanny attraction exists; objective cannibalism may not possess the same eerie charm. But the very fact that cannibalism either exists now, or ever existed, is, however, denied by some skeptical persons—mostly strict and rigid vegetarians, one would think—who argue that wild and natural races of men can not and do not lust for flesh. The fact remains the same.

It seems that this time-honored practice—crime, many unthinking and unjudicial people would call it, whose opinions have been formed without consideration of the relation of crime to custom—has, at different times, existed in almost every part of the earth. It seems to have lingered longest in the most beautiful regions of it—in Polynesia, namely, where the writer of this, but for a fortunate and timely warning, would himself have fallen a victim to the custom for which he has a feeling of respect, if not exactly of affection.

Our remote, possible forefathers themselves, the prehistoric cavemen of Europe in the Quaternary period, were addicted to this habit, which a pious feeling of respect for our ancestry should alone prevent us from characterizing as a crime. Evidences of their occasional little anthropophagistic failings, in the shape of scraped and chipped human bones which, besides being cooked, are broken in a manner too scientific and skillful to be the work of animals, are not infrequent, though it is believed by paleontologists that the custom was more of an exception than a rule. Animal food being plentiful at that time in these cold northern latitudes, the greatest incentive to cannibalism was wanting, and the very practice of it shows a tendency to epicurean indulgence and luxury that already (from a very long way off) pointed to the future extinction of their race. The ancient Irish, too, in more recent than Quaternary times, ate their own dead; and our own Saxon forefathers must have possessed a knowledge of the custom if they did not in early times actually practice it, as is shown by the Saxon word manceta, which occurs not infrequently in their literature.

Tales of cannibalism have also come down to us from classic times, which prove that the Greeks were at least not ignorant of it. Polyphemus in the "Odyssey" was a man-eater; and Herodotus tells us of a race of men, the Massagetæ, who ate their aged parents, going only a step further than the Feejeeans, who simply buried theirs alive. The Padæi, the father of history also tells us, ate their relatives when they became incurable; and the Issedones did the same, resembling, in this particular, the Tupis of Brazil, who, when the pajé (chief) despaired of a man's recovery to health, killed and ate the invalid—a rough-and-ready method of proving that their respected chief and medicine-man could not be mistaken in his diagnosis of the case.

Our own hero-king, Richard Coeur-de-Lion, is said to have eaten human flesh during the Crusades; the popular belief of the time being that the cooked head of a Saracen had restored him to strength and activity from a bed of sickness. A verse of a contemporary ballad records this:

"King Richard shall warrant
There is no flesh so nourissant
Unto an Englishman,
Partridge, plover, heron, ne swan,
Cow ne ox, sheep ne swine,
As the head of a Sarazyne."

The probable causes for this strange variation from normal appetite are more numerous than would be supposed. Famine and the consequent insistent demands of hunger are the likeliest primary causes of this as well as of most things—the necessity for food being the first and most urgent incentive to action of all sorts. Modern stories of shipwreck, when the survivors have taken to the boats and all food is gone, or of travel in the barren wastes of Australia, show how naturally this means of prolonging life suggests itself to the minds of men ravenous with hunger, and from whom the thin cloak of civilization, with which we all hide the natural animal, has fallen away.

Enmity, hatred, and revenge are also excellent reasons for the origin of cannibalism, which would be almost as likely as hunger to have suggested it, as famine is not a constant factor in savage life, and we are led to suppose that hostility and rancor are. What more satisfactory method for the expression of detestation and contempt can be imagined, than that one should cook and calmly eat an enemy when one has slain him? The thing is then complete, finis coronat opus, the termination rounds and finishes the deed to a perfect whole; without this climax it were but half accomplished and entirely unsatisfactory. The happy and peaceful mind and the satisfied and replete body of a savage who has killed and cooked his foe, and eaten him, can easily be imagined, and they present a pleasant picture to the mind that is marred by no sense of incompleteness.

In many places, however, where food was plentiful, and where the people were otherwise amiable and gentle, and far advanced toward an admirable civilization—for instance, Mexico and Peru before the Spanish conquest—this custom of cannibalism prevailed, and to an extent that necessitated frequent wars for the providing of the requisite victims. Here the cause was of a more complex nature than the simple expression of hatred or contempt, or the supply of necessary food. The custom was closely associated with their religious observance; the eating of the flesh by the people, after the blood and quivering hearts of the victims had been offered to the deity, partook of the character of a sacrament as well as of a banquet. Prescott, in his "Conquest of Mexico," tells us, in his picturesque language, of the awful sacrifices to the war-god Huitzilopotchli, to whom hecatombs of human beings were usually sacrificed; and of the more epicurean and delicate Tezcatlepoca, who required but one victim, but insisted that that one must be "distinguished for his personal beauty, and without a blemish on his body."

"The most loathsome part of the story," Prescott goes on to say, "the manner in which the body of the sacrificed captive was disposed of, remains yet to be told. It was delivered to the warrior who had taken him in battle, and by him, after being dressed, was served up in an entertainment to his friends. This was not the coarse repast of famished cannibals, but a banquet teeming with delicious beverages and delicate viands, prepared with art, and attended by both sexes, who, as we shall see hereafter, conducted themselves with all the decorum of civilized life."

This shows that the custom of cannibalism in Mexico must be laid to the charge of religious feeling. The step is an easy and natural one that would lead a people who followed a strictly anthropomorphic worship to the consumption of the sacrifice which they were led to believe was acceptable to the gods. Prescott notes the same thing: "One detestable feature of the Aztec superstition, however, sunk it far below the Christian. This was its cannibalism, though in truth the Mexicans were not cannibals in the coarsest acceptance of the term. They did not feed on human flesh merely to satisfy a brutish appetite, but in obedience to their religion. Their repasts were made of the victims whose blood had been poured out at the altar of sacrifice. This is a distinction worthy of notice."

But with Aztecs, as with other peoples, the appalling appetite only grew by what it fed on, and a morbid and overmastering craving for this awful diet prompted them to frequent cannibal feasts, in which desire alone, and no religious ceremony, was the cause. Men having once tasted human flesh, like the man-eating tiger, always hanker after it with a strange and morbid pertinacity that seems almost unconquerable, as is shown in the case of Feejee, where the traditional and immemorial custom was habitually practiced (and is continued to this day in remoter parts) long after the introduction of pigs.

In the Feejee and other Polynesian islands, where there are no indigenous animals, cannibalism may be allowed, perhaps, some excuse. Man is by nature carnivorous as well as graminivorous, and the natural promptings of his physical wants would suggest the food that we, with our plethora of beef and mutton, too unadvisedly stigmatize as unnatural and monstrous. It is not to be gainsaid that in Feejee the habit quite exceeded necessary requirements; but, without wishing to deny that fact, there is much, when the question is considered judicially, to palliate the offense in those parts. Until the introduction of pigs, toward the end of the eighteenth century, the only animal indigenous to Feejee and the adjacent islands was a rat. Birds and fish there certainly were, but no other animal, and the turning to profitable account of the body of an enemy slain in battle is, under those circumstances, perhaps very easily understood and condoned with. A friend of the writer's, who settled, very early in the history of that colony, on the banks of the Wai-ni-mala River, has related to him, with graphic simplicity, many deeds of horror that he has witnessed within very recent years; how bacōlo, as human flesh is called there, was sent from one chief to another, much as one gentleman sends game to another in our country; and how the sound of the death-drum—heard only once by the writer, but beaten then for himself—was so frequent in his district as to pass almost unnoticed by him.

The same excuse can not be urged in defense of the inhabitants of the West Coast of Africa, who, with a supply of animal food sufficient for all their wants, still indulge, much more frequently than is credited, in this strange flesh, even in those parts where for more than half a century the elevation and improvement of the native races have been the constant labor of the resident white traders, missionaries, and inhabitants. Hutchinson, who was for many years H. B. M. consul on the Gold Coast, writes in 1861, "People in England would scarcely believe that in these days, while I write, cannibalism is almost as rampant on the West Coast of Africa as it has ever been." He quotes, in support of this statement, from the report of the sixty-eighth anniversary of the Countess of Huntingdon's Connection in that colony: "Mr. Priddy, who is employed by the society, stated that the cruel and barbarous practice of cannibalism was still indulged in during the late war; and that he saw hampers of dried human flesh carried on the backs of men, upon which they intended to feast." Mr. Hutchinson goes on to say that "cannibalism exists in the Oman country, up the Cross River; and I am informed that the Boole tribe, who reside far interior to Corisco Bay, come down the river to get some of the sea-shore-dwelling people to make "chop" of them, because they are reputed to have a saltish, therefore a relishable flavor." This last statement only shows how taste varies in different quarters of the globe, for Feejeeans prefer a brown man to a white one on the very grounds that a white man is saltish, and therefore not so pleasant.

Until Mr. Hutchinson wrote it was not generally credited that the Western Africans were addicted to cannibalism, but his evidence is not to be doubted. "In 1859," he says, "human flesh was exposed as butcher's meat in the market at Duketown, Old Calabar." It almost seems that some religious grounds may actuate them, as the same writer says: "In Brass (or the Mimbe country) cannibalism often occurs. Even within the last year a chief of that district, named Imamy, killed two of the Acreeka people before mentioned, who were sacrificed to the manes of his father. In Brass, as in Bonny, they eat all enemies taken in war; and they put forth, as a justification for this, that devouring the flesh of their enemies makes them brave." The account given by the same writer of the killing of a native for the purposes of cannibalism, of which he was an eye-witness, is most admirably graphic and striking, but it is, unfortunately, too long, if not too terrible, to quote in these pages.

Nor is cannibalism confined to the Ethiopian and Polynesian races alone; it is prevalent to an astonishing extent among the inhabitants of the Malayan Islands, Java, Sumatra, and Borneo. Some of the earliest voyagers to the Eastern seas came back with stories of how the people of those parts were man-eaters; but, however much credence their tales may have received at the time, they have been greatly doubted since. But Marsden and other writers prove that the statements of those early pioneers of travel and observation were entirely correct. Marsden, in his account of Sumatra, says that, although he had heard reports of the cannibal habits of some of the tribes, he had always discredited them until the truth of the statement was made entirely clear to him. He says that the Battas, one of the peoples of Sumatra, eat human flesh regularly, not to satisfy the cravings of hunger, but as a sort of ceremony to show their detestation of certain crimes by this most ignominious punishment, and as a savage display of revenge and insult to their unfortunate enemies. People killed or badly wounded by them in war are eaten, and the captured sold as slaves. These same Battas show a certain amount of culinary art in the preparation of this food, for they broil the flesh over a brisk fire, and flavor it with salt, lemon, and red pepper.

A friend of the writer's, who for more than forty years has been in the employment of the Dutch Government, bears personal witness to the prevalence of the custom in Sumatra up till recent times. He was once making scientific investigations in the interior of that island, and was being entertained in the most hospitable manner by the native rajah, or chief, of the place he was then in. A feast had been made to which he was bidden, and to which he went, taking his own native servant with him. The banquet had proceeded for some time without interruption, when at last, as crown of the feast, a beautiful brown roast joint was brought from the back of the house to the open, airy place where the repast was being held. This was cut up without remark and handed round, and the Dutch gentleman was on the point of eating his portion, having raised part of it to his lips, when his servant rushed forward and stopped him, saying, "Master, master, do not eat; it is a boy!" The chief, on being questioned, admitted, with no small pride at the extent of his hospitality, that, hearing that the white man would feast with him, he had ordered a young boy to be killed and cooked in his honor, as the greatest delicacy obtainable, and that the joint before them was the best part, the thigh.

One is too apt to associate all sorts of ferocious qualities, cruelty, deceit, brutality, and inhospitality, with the mere word cannibal, thus stigmatizing with these vicious qualities whole races of people who do but retain this one among other ancient habits and customs; whereas in reality cannibals are much the same as other folk whose food is of a less barbarous nature. The very Caribs themselves, from the Latinized name of whom the word is probably derived, the arch-types of what cannibals should be, are described as possessing very different qualities. Their tribes, the remnants of which still linger in one of the West India isles, inhabited the northern part of South America and many of the Antilles before the arrival of the Spaniards, who destroyed almost the whole race. The description their conquerors give of them is more like that of a nation of lotos-eaters than of a sanguinary and ruthless people. "They are quiet, calm, and sedentary, and given up to idleness and day-dreams," say their historians, "but are well made and possess great powers of endurance." The testimony of the writer must be given on the same side; he has had the pleasure and privilege of knowing many cannibals, Feejeean, New Hebridean, Solomon-Islander, and others, and he has, on the whole, found them gentle, quiet, and inoffensive when not engaged in the practice and observance of the special principle that they uphold. It must be confessed, however, that he had not the same appreciation of their character upon the one occasion when he ran the narrowest chance of ministering to'what he then considered a very depraved and morbid appetite.

Early travelers in New Zealand always express astonishment, when they discover the cannibal propensities of the inhabitants, that so gentle and pleasant-mannered a people could become upon occasion such ferocious savages. Earle, who wrote a very readable, intelligent, and but little known account of the Maoris very early in the present century, speaks of the gentle manners and kindly ways of a New Zealand chief, whom afterward he discovered to be an inveterate cannibal. He relates that he visited the place where was cooking the body of a young slave girl that his friend had killed for the purpose. The head was severed from the body; the four quarters, with the principal bones removed, were compressed and packed into a small oven in the ground, and covered with earth. It was a case of unjustifiable cannibalism. No revenge was gratified by the deed, and no excuse could be made that the body was eaten to perfect their triumph. Earle says that he learned that the flesh takes many hours to cook, that it is very tough if not thoroughly cooked, but that it pulls in pieces, like a bit of blotting-paper, if well done. He continues that the victim was a handsome, pleasant-looking girl of sixteen, and one that he used frequently to see about the pah. To quote his own words: "While listening to this frightful detail, we felt sick almost to fainting. We left Atoi" (the chief who had killed the girl), "and again strolled toward the spot where this disgusting feast was cooking. Not a native was now near it; a hot steam kept occasionally bursting from the smothered mass, and the same dog that we had seen take the head of the girl now crept from beneath the bushes and sneaked toward the village: to add to the gloominess of the whole, a large hawk rose heavily from the very spot where the poor victim had been cut in pieces. My friend and I sat gazing in this melancholy place; it was a lowering, gusty day, and the moaning of the wind through the bushes, as it swept round the hill on which we were, seemed in unison with our feelings."

Earle goes on to relate how he, and three other compatriots whom he summoned from the beach for the purpose, with the Englishman's usual impertinent interference and intolerance of customs differing from his own, determined to frustrate Atoi's intention. They together visited the hill where the flesh was cooking, and, destroying the oven, buried the remains in the earth. They found the heart put on one side for the special delectation of their constant friend and companion, Atoi. Earle was afterward good-humoredly told by the chief that their interference had been of no avail, as they had found the grave where the flesh had been buried, and opening it, soon after he and his friends had left, had finished cooking it and eaten it all. Earle argued long, and probably loudly, with the chief upon this question. Atoi asked him what they did with their thieves and runaways in England, and he told him, "Flog them or hang them." "Then," replied the Maori, "the only difference is that we eat them after we have killed them." The same chief told him that before the introduction of potatoes the people in the interior had nothing to eat but fern-roots and kumera (another edible root); fish they never had in the rivers, so that human flesh was the only sort that they ever partook of.

Another early traveler in New Zealand, Ellis, who had admirable opportunities for arriving at the real motive for this custom, tells us that the Maoris "eat the bodies of their enemies that they might imbibe their courage"; and that they exulted greatly at the banquet upon the body of a great chief, for they thought that they would thus obtain his valiant and daring spirit.

The eastern Polynesians made war chiefly for the purpose of obtaining bodies; hence, when clearing away the brushwood from a place where they expected to engage an enemy, they cheered each other with cries of "Clear away well, that we may kill and eat, and have a good feast to-day!" Their haughtiest threat was always, "We will kill and eat you!" and to be eaten was always the greatest dread of the exiled and conquered. Dr. Turner, in his most interesting work on Samoa, tells us that in New Caledonia "it was war, war, war, incessant war," and that all the good bodies were picked out from the dead for the oven, while the bad were thrown away. If it was a woman, they ate only the arms and legs. On Maré they devoured all. Their appetite for human flesh was never satisfied. "'Do you mean to say that you will forbid us the fish of the sea? Why, these are our fish!' This is how they talked when you spoke against cannibalism."

When white men first landed in Australia the degraded natives received them with the greatest respect; they considered them to be the embodied spirits of their own dead. The Australians were, and still are, in the less-known northern parts, habitual cannibals, and always eat their own dead, for fear of wasting good provision. The black bodies being scalded, when being prepared for the oven, became white as the black cuticle came away. Thus, when Europeans first presented themselves to their astonished visions, they simply and reverently received them as the materialized spirits of their scalded ancestry.

Among the Indians of America the custom does not ever seem to have been a universal one, although it was general among certain tribes. Schoolcraft relates, in his great work on the "Indian Tribes," that the Sioux will eat the heart of an enemy, and that all the war party will try to get a mouthful, believing, with the Maoris, that they gain courage thereby. Back, too, in his "Arctic Expedition," tells of a Cree Indian who had killed and eaten his wife, daughter, and two sons, and would have killed the youngest, a boy, and fed upon him also, had he not come upon Back's encampment. But this can hardly be cited as a case typical of the cannibal instincts of that tribe, as it was only brought about by the direct famine. In Terra del Fuego the otherwise unreasoning natives show a spirit of intelligent economy by always eating, in times of great distress and want, the oldest women of the tribe, as being of much less value than their dogs, which they will not kill until all the grandmothers are consumed.

But one of the strangest phases of cannibal lore has yet to be touched upon, that, namely, with which all the greatest thaumaturgists and necromancers have been accused from the days of Hadrian, who is known to have sacrificed many young lives in the prosecution of his unholy inquiries, to our own. There is some foundation for this belief in the fact that for some of the deeper and wilder mysteries of the black art an innocent life had to be offered up, from the emanations of whose spilled blood the disembodied spirits of the invoked dead could materialize themselves, and answer the queries of those daring seekers who stopped at nothing to gain their unhallowed ends. It is related that the necromancers of Thessaly added the blood of infants to that of black lambs in their incantatory rites, that the evoked spirits would render themselves objective from the exhalations of the blood. In the present day Hayti is charged with being the home of a secret sect of devil-worshipers, the Voodoos, who practice most mysterious and impious solemnities, in which children are killed and offered up, and the bodies eaten by the adepts as part of the awful ceremonial. The Russian, Polish, and indeed all the Slav races, credit the Jews with the use of this rite to this day, and it is one of the many groundless reasons that they hold for the constant persecution of that race. They believe that at the Passover a child is killed and eaten with many dark and unheard-of observances. How thoroughly this absurd tradition is credited may be learned from the perusal of the recent criminal trials in Hungary.

It has been a pleasant task to the writer to attempt, in the above pages, to excuse the habit of cannibalism among its votaries. It is always unpleasant to remain silent when one hears a comrade unfairly aspersed; just so it has been with the writer when he has read or heard of the unjust estimation in which all cannibals are held. Many, in fact most writers improperly and wrongly charge cannibalism with being a morbid and unnatural appetite; in most cases it is nothing but the expression of a natural want. The demand and desire for human flesh would die out in nearly all places were the other flesh obtainable. In those regions where cannibalism still flourishes much may be done, and is done, by the example of the first white settlers—the traders—and the teaching of the missionary, but teaching and example alone will never suffice to remedy the evil; the root of the matter must be gone to; and, to cure it, many and varied animals that are fit for food must be introduced, when the thing will right itself.—Gentleman's Magazine.