Friday, 16 November 2012

Fiji - Cannibalism or just a misunderstanding?

I didn’t realise, until I started researching for this blog, that Fiji once had the nickname ‘the Cannibal Islands’ or that Fiji and the islands of the South Pacific had such a terrible reputation for cannibalism.

I’d come across the origins of the word cannibal before, when I was blogging about JamaicaCannibal is a corrupt form of Carib, the people Columbus first came in contact with as his ship reached, what is now, the Caribbean.  It’s quite telling that the word has its origins in Europe’s first contact with the New World and came into use at a time when Europeans wanted to de-humanise the peoples that stood in the way of New World colonisation.

In his book, Cannibal Talk : The Man-Eating Myth and Human Sacrifice in the South Seas (2005), anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere talks about how our taboo around ‘eating the flesh of other people’ is one of the things that has been used to define us, as humans, but also as a ‘civilised’ society.  Of course, taboo is another interesting word, coming from the Pacific (including Fijian) tapu, which means something sacred.  Spanish conquest of the Americas was quick and ruthless and, before long, accusations of cannibalism shifted to the newly discovered islands of New Zealand and the South Pacific.
Illustration of a Cannibal Feast by de Bry

Building on the work of other anthropologists, such as William Arens (The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy - 1979), the premise of Obeyesekere’s book is that cannibalism wasn’t as widespread a practice in the South Pacific, as is commonly believed.  As well as a cruel justification for ‘civilising’ the wild natives  (totally racist from a 21st century point of view) Obeyesekere goes even further and claims that the perceived cannibal practices of the South Pacific reflected European obsessions about man-eating and, indeed, were inspired by the practice of cannibalism by Europeans themselves

The Pacific is a BIG place – I remember that from my research into Kiribati.  In a place as big as the Pacific, European ships could get hopelessly lost, run into hostile territories, run out of food and water or be taken over by mutinous crews.  It wasn’t unusual for Europeans to find themselves shipwrecked, many miles from civilisation.  Obeyesekere asserts that, whilst hard evidence for cannibalism amongst South Pacific islanders is scant, we do have evidence of shipwrecked Europeans turning to cannibalism, in an attempt to stay alive. 

Perhaps the reality of having to eat a fellow human was too horrific to relate to other Europeans and the very real fear of falling victim to (or engaging in) cannibalistic practices, led Europeans to project their fears onto the savage ‘others’, who already seemed suitably wild enough to eat other people?

Cannibals Papua from a 1910 postcard
Obeyesekere differentiates between cannibalism and anthropophagy.  For Obeyesekere, cannibalism relates to the fear that other people will eat you and anthropophagy is the actual, often ritualistic, consumption of human flesh.  Interestingly, he doesn’t deny that anthropophagic practices existed in Fiji and amongst the Maori of New Zealand, but he denies that cannibalism was widespread in the South Pacific, as contemporary Europeans believed to be the case.  The exaggeration and myth-making around cannibalism gives him the concept which is the title of his book – Cannibal Talk.

By all accounts, European obsession with cannibalism goes back a long way and manifests itself in those staples of European horror movies – Vampires and Zombies.  I share my culture’s sense of taboo regarding cannibalism and I find the topic an unpleasant one to think about!  Nevertheless, people do eat other people, in extreme circumstances, such as the Andes flight disaster (Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571) in 1972, or accounts of human-flesh eating, in recent wars in Liberia and Congo.  Some of the West’s most feared monsters (whether real like Jeffrey Dahmer or fictional like Hannibal Lecter) were made famous by eating parts of their victim’s bodies.
Burne-Jones' The Vampire

Obeyesekere also makes the point that the European belief in South Pacific cannibalism could simply have been a culture or linguistic misunderstanding.  When Europeans arrived in the South Pacific, including New Zealand, they had no language with which to communicate with the native peoples.  Obeyesekere posits the possibility that accounts of native Pacific islanders making gestures that suggested eating human flesh, could just have easily have been mirror gestures to initial European questions.  If Europeans were so obsessed with cannibalism that they made gestures to find out whether the locals engaged in ‘man-eating’, it’s quite possible that the locals thought these strange, white people were asking them for human flesh.  There are accounts of early European contact with the Hawaiian islands, which suggest that the islanders feared that the Europeans might be cannibals.

I guess foreign cultures often frighten us with their weird eating habits – whether it’s Koreans eating dogs, the French eating snails or the Chinese eating everything, we quite happily assume that the rest of the world is constantly gorging on unthinkable ‘delicacies’.  I experienced this myself when I went to Uzbekistan – everything I read about the country indicated that I would regularly be offered sheep eyeballs, as the honoured guest at meals.  I can assure you that I was never once asked to eat a sheep’s eyeballs, brains or any other delicate part!  Perhaps modern travel writers, just as much as their 19th century predecessors, engage in a bit of exaggeration, in a bid to sell more copies of their books?

Image credits:

All images have been taken from Wikimedia Commons and are in the public domain
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