The myth of cannibalism
Rewriting our history
By Dr. William Para Riviere, Historian
Official surrogates and academic apologists of Europe's colonial powers have long justified colonizing activities and the brutal genocide of West Indian indigenous peoples by inventing myths, that is to say, falsehoods and misrepresentations concerning the true nature and character of our first peoples. Two such myths stand out. One is that the island Kalinago was a "man-eating cannibal". The other is that the Kalinago was "primitive and uncivilized", as a result of which they did not display orderly relations as between and among themselves. In other words, they lived in a state of disorder, largely as individuals, rather than in community.
Both myths have given rise to the idea that pre-Columbian native inhabitants lacked the ingredients from which History is made. In the event, the Kalinago, like other indigenous peoples would have lived in times described by European intellectuals as pre-historical. That was the case, insofar as the region's history was said to have begun with the coming of European conquest and colonization. And the substance of its history would not have been the experience of native peoples accumulated over generations but, rather, a compilation of outstanding events, episodes and facts arising from the confrontation at various stages between the colonizer and the colonized. English historian, Lord Acton, summed it up this way:
"The Persians, the Greeks, the Romans and the Teutons are the only makers of history … other races … attain to a certain state of civilization which they are unable either to communicate or to increase. They are a negative influence in the world … the Chinese are a people of this kind … so the Hindoos; being Pantheists, they have no history of their own, but supply objects for commerce and for conquests … a nation can obtain political education only by dependence on another … Theorists who hold it to be wrong that a nation should belong to a foreign state are therefore in contradiction with the law of civil progress".
The myth of the Kalinago "cannibal" most probably originated in evidence said to have been discovered in a village in the neighbouring island of Guadeloupe, by Spanish invaders attempting to occupy the island in the early 17th century. The supposed evidence would have been spoken of from generation to generation and, uncontested, would have been elevated to the level of truth. Recounted in Thomas Gordon's History of America, published in the early 19th century, the discovery was this:
From the rafters hung human skulls which hung like Scandinavian heroes, they converted into drinking cups and household utensils; human limbs were suspended in the sun that they might be cured for food; and in one cabin, the head and other parts of a young man were being boiled, with the flesh of parrots and geese, while other parts were being roasted … the inhabitants not only fed on the bodies of their enemies taken in war, but also they instituted the chase for the sake of the game. Males only were deemed worthy of this fate, the women were reserved for slaves and concubines. Captive boys were raised to man's estate and then fattened for the table, being deprived of their virility to render them more tender and palatable.
This discovery constituted, as far as the author of the publication was concerned, the "horrible proofs of the cannibal propensities" of the island's aboriginal inhabitants.
If author, Thomas, and others before him who voiced a similar opinion had examined the finding of the "human skulls" within the context of the Kalinago total way of life, they might have arrived at a different conclusion.
This was precisely the approach taken by French missionary, Pere Labat, and, afterwards, by American anthropologist, Robert Myers. And needless to say, they arrived at a conclusion opposed to Thomas'.
Labat had in January 1700 spent seventeen days in Dominica. In his Memoirs, an English translation of which was done by John Eaden and published in London in 1931, he wrote that it was a mistake to perceive our indigenous inhabitants either to have been cannibals or to have engaged in warfare "for the express purpose of capturing prisoners in order to devour them". While conceding that in the very early days of colonizing activity many Englishmen and Frenchmen might have been "killed, boucanned and eaten", his opinion was that this was due to the "inability of the Indians to take revenge on the Europeans for their injustice and cruelty". He proposed, further, that it was "impotent rage and not custom that urged them to commit this excess after being hunted from the islands and done to death with unheard-of tortures". Labat would also suppose that upon killing an enemy the native peoples would "often boucan his limbs and fill calabashes with fat". The intention here, he asserted, was to keep these human parts as "trophies and proof of their victory and courage". It was emphasized that "though the Caribs do boucan the limbs of the enemies they have slain, it is only done to preserve the memory of the fight and rouse them to future vengeance, and not with any idea of eating them". A further reason for the Kalinago supposedly boucanning male captives might have been so as "not to take the trouble of making them prisoners".
In support of his case, Labat referred to Kalinago treatment of captive women and children. He witnessed a high level of civility. He wrote: "when they capture women, no matter what race they may be, they always treat them kindly and, if they marry them, regard them as belonging to their nation. When they capture children they bring them up as if they their own". The priest's account of his stay among the Kalinago left the impression of a proud independent people who fed on crabs, fish, manioc, yams and a fermented potion called ovicou, rather than on human flesh.
Myers was more conclusive. In his book entitled Island Carib Cannibalism he states the following: "Available data do not allow an absolute conclusion, but all the evidence in weak, circumstantial and largely second-hand. If the Caribs were on trial for cannibalism, they would be acquitted".
Two facts are beyond doubt. The first is that, so far as is known, no archaeological evidence in terms of drawings, paintings, sculpture, cooking utensils, tooth structure or otherwise has been uncovered and presented to even remotely support the claim of Kalinago cannibalism.
The second fact is that the claim put forward by Thomas properly served the ends of colonial conquest. While the Arawaks inhabiting the Northern islands of the West Indies at the time of the European coming were easily decimated, the natives of the "Lesser Antilles", including Dominica's Kalinago, were not so accommodating. They represented a major obstacle to the European colonizing project. In these circumstances, the myth of cannibalism provided strong justification for military strategies aimed at the extermination of a stubborn and wily enemy.
Not surprisingly, this fallacy that indigenous peoples were "man-eating Cannibals" would be revived years later in the context of European slave-trading of Africans. In his two-volume work entitled Slaves Who Abolished Slavery, celebrated Jamaican historian, Richard Hart, writes: "One of the favourite themes of the propagandists for the slave trading interests was cannibalism. Stories of African cannibalism were widely circulated in Europe, no doubt with the object of making more credible the propaganda of the slave traders that by removing the slave from Africa to the West Indies they were improving his lot. The slave trader William Swelgrave, in his New Account of Guinea, had published what purported to be an eyewitness account of cannibalism among conquering Dahomeans. In the following year John Atkins, the Royal Navy Surgeon, contradicted Swelgrave. He expressed doubts that cannibalism as a regular form of diet had ever been known in Africa".
The Jamaican scholar concluded that this myth of African cannibalism "illustrates so perfectly the lengths to which the spokesmen of the slaving interest were prepared to go in providing for the intelligentsia the rationalization they needed to stifle their consciences and accommodate themselves to the continuation of the slave trade and slavery".
Copyright © William Para Riviere May 2017