There were no known ‘cannibals’ — Native Americans who practiced ritual human consumption as a religio-social practice — in early modern England. Nonetheless, they seem to have been everywhere. Readers encountered North and South Americans holding dismembered body parts in travel reports, cosmographies, and woodcuts. If the writings of polemicists were taken literally, then cannibals could also be found in parish communities, in Catholic churches, and in the court itself, where metaphors of ripping bodies apart resonated with deep social and economic change in England. Although specifically rooted in the colonial enterprises following Columbus’ 1492 voyage to America, the term ‘cannibal’ became widely adapted in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to denote a wide range of social, religious, and political transgressors.
The fifth-century BC Greek author, Herodotus, was one of the earliest chroniclers of man-eating: ‘Beyond the desert the androphagi dwell’, he wrote. ‘The androphagi have the most savage customs of all men: they pay no regard to justice, nor make use of any established law. They are nomads and wear a dress like a Scythian … and of these nations, are the only people that eat human flesh’. The essential trait of the world’s most ‘savage’ inhabitants was the willingness to consume human beings. The essence of the man-eater lay in his name: anthropo, meaning human, and pophagy, feeding on or consumption. The recurrent associations between cannibalism and brutal savagery were ones that appeared almost universally in subsequent texts. Invoked in philosophical treatises, travel narratives, epic poetry, and political works by Aristotle, Pliny, Herodotus, and Juvenal, man-eating described those who lived on the margins of civil, and therefore political, societies. While anthropophagi appeared in Greco-Roman literature, Columbus’ term for the Caribs he encountered in the West Indies provided the linguistic base from which canibe or cannibal was likely derived. Although notions of man-eating had a wide geographic reach prior to European activity in the Atlantic, therefore, the term ‘cannibal’ itself was a product of these voyages.
Beyond ethnographic difference, ‘cannibal’ came to be used to an overwhelming extent in the seventeenth century to describe political chaos and the breakdown of community relationships. This complicates scholarship on the cannibal as the ultimate ‘other’, whereby cannibals are understood purely in terms of European dominance and power. It is true that a distinct relationship existed between the conquest of other territories and peoples, and the (supposed) proliferation of cannibals in those regions, as the literary scholar Stephen Greenblatt and the anthropologist William Arens have argued. George Peckham, promoting English activity in North America in 1578, professed that ‘Christians may … justly and lawfully ayde the Savages against the Canniballs’. This should not, however, distract from the fact that English authors appropriated the term to a remarkable level to critique English behaviour, while cases of English colonists resorting to eating human flesh during the Starving Time of 1609/10 in Jamestown, reported by John Smith and George Percy, complicated neat dichotomies of ‘civil’ Englishmen and ‘savage’ others.
Protestant writers in England frequently used ‘cannibal’ to describe the Catholic belief in transubstantiation, in which the bread and wine of the Eucharist became the body and blood of Christ. Protestants scathingly ridiculed the literal embodiment of the sacrament. ‘If the Canibals are to be abhorred, because they devour and eate mans flesh, their enimies whome they take in the warres’, wrote Thomas Lupton, ‘are you then much more to be detested, that are not ashamed to eate and devoure … the very bodie of Christ your great & high friend?’ Faithful Christians eschewed violence in favour of love, wrote Thomas Sanderson in 1611, rejecting the ‘mysticall and spiritual kind of murder and mangling’ that came from ‘a corporall feeding … [like] brutish Cannibals’.
In other contexts, the ‘cannibal’ described the larger societal divisions that emerged from the Reformation and the expansion of the early modern state. Accused of being a Catholic and facing a deprivation of arms, the soldier Gervase Markham protested in court that ‘he was no more a papist than an atheist or cannibal’, placing the cannibal outside accepted societal values while reinforcing his own place in the commonwealth. Those who practised enclosure, wrote the cartographer and surveyor John Norden in his popular devotional works, ‘were as good to say, hee would eate his flesh like a Canniball … Alas, what will a poore mans carkasse profit you?’ Ben Jonson’s plays, scathingly critical of money-grabbers and hypocrites, includes The Case is Altered, in which the miser Jacques cries to his daughter, ‘Wher’s my gold? … O thou theevish Canibal,/ Thou eatest my flesh in stealing of my gold’. In Jonson’s The Staple of News, performed in 1625, Lickfinger is a cook and projector who proposes to go to America to convert cannibals. Hotly puritan and desiring to advance ‘the true cause’, Lickfinger acknowledged that it was ‘our Caniball-Christians’, rather than the ‘[s]avages’, who had to learn to ‘[f]orbeare the mutuall eating one another,/ Which they doe doe [sic], more cunningly, then the wilde/ Anthropophogi; that snatch onely strangers’. For cannibals to only to eat strangers, while the English devoured their native countrymen through their own greed, went to the heart of the projecting and surveying culture that pitted the English against their own communities.
Cannibal vengeance stood in stark opposition to the ‘civilizing’ initiatives of the early modern state, where the ‘reformation of manners’ accompanied tighter parish jurisdictional control. As such, authorities and policy-makers categorised self-serving individuals who detracted from the authority of the king as cannibals. The figure of the king was embodied in two entities, the physical body and the body politic, and the seemingly anarchic violence of cannibalism acted as a shorthand for discussing the rightness of monarchical sovereignty. In 1606, the author and soldier Barnabe Barnes linked incivility to disorder, attacking the enemies of the realm who ‘disturbe or diabolically roote up the publike State’ through a thirst for civil blood, inducing them like ‘canniballes to feed upon the flesh, and to drinke the blood of such noble persons’. The civil lawyer John Hayward denounced all those who believed the ‘wil of the people’ could ever maintain stability. ‘Are you of civil either nature or education?’ he asked. ‘Who under the name of Civilian do open the way for all manner of deceits …? What are you? For you shewe you selfe more prophane then Infidels; more barbarous then [sic] Caniballs’.
One of the few English ‘eyewitness’ accounts of cannibalism came from John Nicholl’s An houre-glasse of Indian newes (1607). Shipwrecked on St Lucia in 1605, the English passengers of the Guiana-bound ship the Olive Branch found themselves in open conflict with the Caribs. Of the sixty-seven individuals who landed on the island, nineteen survived. Recording his experiences in an account published in London two years later, John Nicholl recalled watching his shipmates die, believing he and his companions, left ‘onely with a companie of most cruell Caniballs’ were ‘seeing as in a Glasse, the utter ruine and Butcherly murthering of our owne selves’. What is striking in Nicholl’s account, and in most narratives by Englishmen purporting to encounter cannibals first-hand, is the absence of any description of actual man-eating. Failing to recount any rituals of consumption, it was the extremity of violence that most disturbed Nicholl. The ‘cruell Caniballs’ were ‘strange’ and ‘ugly by reason they are all naked, with long blacke haire hanging downe their shoulders, their bodies all painted with red … which makes them looke like divels’. In this popular pamphlet, the text served a didactic function not unlike early seventeenth-century writings on English captivity in the Ottoman Empire. The experience reinforced the Christian, usually Protestant, fidelity that brought deliverance in the face of hardship. ‘[L]et the Christian Reader judge’, Nicholl wrote, ‘in what a perplexed state we were plunged … without hope of ever having any meanes to recover the sight of our native and deare countrey’, until, through divine aid, friendlier peoples on the island provided succour. Nicholl’s account revealed that the English found the transgression of natural law through extreme human violence more significant than the flesh-eating itself.
The French essayist Michel de Montaigne famously used Brazilian cannibals in his essay, ‘Of Cannibals’ in 1578-80, to critique his own society’s mores, specifically in the context of the French wars of religion. ‘[A]s farre as I have been informed’, Montaigne posited, in the translation of his essays into English by John Florio in 1603, ‘there is nothing [in Brazil] that is either barbarous or savage, unlesse men call that barbarisme, which is not common to them’. Montaigne juxtaposed the supposed ‘barbarous horror’ of cannibalism to the French wars of religion, where ‘I think there is more barbarisme in eating men alive, then to feede upon them being dead; to mangle by tortures…a body full of lively sense, to roast him in peeces … as we have not only read, but seene very lately, yea and in our own memorie, not amongst anciente enemies but our neighbours and fellow-citizens; and, which is worse, under the pretence of piety’. Montaigne’s essay is a remarkable critique of French society. However, the glamorisation of indigenous societies to serve an inward-looking function, elevating le sauvage — the wild man — to a status of Edenic simplicity, was a rare appearance in England, even in translations of European books.
The Englishman Anthony Knivet was perhaps the only Englishman to portray cannibals as benign, even friendly people: not as a trope, as Montaigne did in his essay, but after actually living among Tupí groups in Brazil for several years in the 1590s. Befriending a man named Quarasipsinca, ‘the yellow Sunne’, Knivet found that ‘[n]ever man found truer friendship of any then I did of him’. Knivet’s account contained detailed descriptions of the habits and fashions of different indigenous groups in South America, where ‘I lived eighteene moneths, and went naked as the Cannibals did’. To Knivet, the existence of man-eating Native Americans was not a rhetorical device, for his relationships with them marked him in deep ways. His encounters with different groups revealed a complex system of affiliations, conflicts, and friendships that transcended the overarching label of ‘cannibal’.
Shakespeare’s Caliban in The Tempest, whose name may be a studied play on ‘cannibal’ or its many variants, has generated much discussion of English understanding of cannibals. Written around 1610-11, it is very much a product of a culture that avidly consumed travel accounts, such as one of its possible sources — William Strachey’s ‘True Reportory’ (c. 1610), about the wreck of the Sea Venture in the Bermudas in 1609. There is a telling ambivalence in its representation of Caliban as being strange and other, yet ‘familiar’ and revelatory in the raking light he helps throw on the ‘civilised’ European people who find themselves on the island. This provides the setting for the action, and their social and moral negotiations. His characterisation shifts among multiple points. He is both new (a ‘strange fish,’ II.ii) and old (his mother is the witch Sycorax of Algiers (I.ii)). His actions move from savagery (he is accused by Prospero of attempted to rape Miranda, I.ii), and gullibility (‘[a] most poor credulous monster,’ Trinculo calls him in II.ii), to striking lyricism (‘the isle is full of noises,/ Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not,’ III.ii). Prospero’s words about him in the final scene of the play (‘[t]his thing of darkness I acknowledge mine,’ V.i) has been the focus of a significant body of scholarship that reads him as a part of an emergent colonial discourse.
For English writers in general, however, the cannibal simply remained a shorthand for a host of evils: from murder to treason, enclosure to court corruption, and even participants in the growing trend for anatomising bodies. ‘The physicians who cut up the carcasses of dead men,’ wrote the anatomist Helkiah Crooke in 1615, committed profane acts, ‘savoring of Caniball barbarisme’ and turning empirical inquiry into ‘butchery’. In the same year, a ship’s master John Skinner reported from the Indonesian islands that the Dutch behaved more ‘like cannibals than Christians’ in murdering local inhabitants in Macassar.
While recent scholarship has examined cannibalism through the lens of medical history, diet and food pathways, the rise of consumerism and proto-capitalism, and religious confessional differences, the physicality of cannibal behaviour should not be overlooked. It was the visceral embodiment of degeneration and the breakdown of civil society that most haunted English writers, whereby the communal acts of tearing apart other human beings represented the frightening promise of chaos and war: a vision that must have seemed particularly terrifying to the English as they watched the wars of religion ravaging the Continent in the decades between the French war of religion and the Thirty Years’ War. It was only on the other side of the civil war, and particularly into the later seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, that citizens began to portray governments, particularly the monarchy, as cannibalistic.