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'The Eucharist of Hell'; or, Eating People is Right: Romantic Representations of Cannibalism

  • Peter J. Kitson

…plus d’informations

  • Peter J. Kitson
    University of Dundee

Corps de l’article


Recently a number of critics of Romanticism have explored the thought and literature of the period in the context of Britain's imperial history, bringing to bear, with differing degrees of sophistication, some of the insights of contemporary post-colonial thought.  [1] The period roughly coincided with the sustained historical process that was to culminate in Britain's domination of roughly one quarter of the surface of the globe in the later nineteenth century. The acceleration in this material process that had begun in the sixteenth century brought with it a sustained awareness of human variety and difference, both cultural and physical, as well as a growing anxiety about the status of European civilization. Increasingly subjects of the metropolitan centre sought to define themselves against a non-white and non-Christian 'other'. This construction of an imperial subjectivity coincided with the growth of the sciences of human taxonomy, which we recognize today as the beginnings of the 'race idea'. Frantz Fanon, some time ago, demonstrated how colonial subjects are produced by colonial ideology and discourses.  [2] Other post colonial theorists have argued that this subject is characterized as 'other' through discourses such as primitivism and cannibalism, establishing the binary separation of colonizer and colonized and, at the same moment, confirming the naturalness of the colonizing culture and its ideology. Cannibalism, one might say, is the most notorious process of colonial 'othering', both as an alleged practice and as a critical construct. It is clear that cannibalism was used as process by which imperial Europe distinguished itself from the subjects of it colonial expansion while concomitantly demonstrating a moral justification for that expansion. This essay discusses the use of the cannibal trope in a number of Romantic period works in an attempt to investigate how this process of 'othering' functions in both colonial and domestic writing. The process is not confined to the colonial encounter itself, but is apparent in a number of separate overlapping discourses. Rather than simply functioning as a psychic adjunct to the material process of nineteenth-century colonial expansion, the cannibal trope, I argue, is used to shore up a white Christian subjectivity against the anxieties that haunted the Romantic self, during a period when extreme hunger and starvation made the prospect of 'white cannibalism' a very real possibility or, at least, a very palpable fear. This anxiety is particularly pronounced in the practice of survival cannibalism at sea. In using the word 'cannibal' anthropologists usually denote the social practice of the eating of human flesh in the form of a ritual.  [3] The eating of human flesh is then a socially significant act, which is a part of a larger system of signs. Cannibalism in Levi-Strauss's terminology is thus confined to the sacred. This is the subject of most anthropological work on the topic; by and large anthropologists do not find the subject of the other main type of cannibalism, survival cannibalism, to be a fruitful area of debate, despite the fact that survival cannibalism is well-documented and clearly occurs, whereas there is scepticism about the extent and significance of ritual or social cannibalism. My concern in this essay is with these two forms of cannibalism, ritual and survival and their representation in Romantic period texts.

There have been at least four influential explanations for ritual cannibalism which derive from Enlightenment discussions of the subject.  [4] The first stresses the importance of the word or symbol over the deed. This argues that ritual cannibalism resulted from social vengeance. Montaigne claimed, in his essay 'Des cannibales' (first published in 1580), that the Tupinamba Indians were cannibals for reasons of revenge and they were thus easily assimilated into an aristocratic code of honour.  [5] They could thus serve as a foil to point out the deficiencies of European civilisation. Similarly Daniel Defoe's 'Man Friday' is a cannibal for reasons of vengeance. His people 'no eat mans but when make the war fight'. Neither the Tupinamba of Brazil nor the Amerindian Friday enjoyed the eating of human flesh per se and thus they were capable of nobility and redemption, assimiliable to a European code of honour. This view of cannibalism is present in the work of contemporary anthropologists such as Marshall Sahlins and Peggy Reeves Sunday, who argue that the practice is a part of the broader cultural logic of life, death and reproduction.  [6] This was also the thrust of Tzetan Todorov's The Conquest of America (1984), which argued that Cortes was able to defeat the Aztecs because he mastered their sign system concerning ritual sacrifice. The Aztecs, hampered by a religious literalism, were not able to improvise, mistaking the thing for the thing signified, whereas their Spanish invaders were ironic and adaptable.  [7]

The second major explanation for social cannibalism became current during the Enlightenment. This argued that social cannibalism resulted from food shortage, especially protein deficiency, and was most obvious on island economies and in South America, where livestock was limited. Both Voltaire and Diderot put forward this view. In his Essay on the Principle of Population (second edition, 1803), the Reverend Thomas Malthus identified cannibalism as one of the necessary checks on population expansion, similar in function to war and dearth. Malthus believed that cannibalism 'undoubtedly prevailed in many parts of the new world' and that it had its origin in 'extreme want, though the custom might afterward be continued from other motives'. It is possible that revenge and rancour might also provide explanations for the phenomenon but 'the goad of necessity' is paramount.  [8] This view was also revived in contemporary anthropological thought. Marvin Harris, for instance, explains Aztec cannibalism as a utilitarian resort to protein deficiency.  [9] This idea tended to detract from the heroic nature of Montaigne's cannibal but it also removed the moral stigma, as all civilisations were potentially cannibalistic.

The third hypothesis to explain cannibalism was that concerning race and degeneration. This view was assimilated in the nascent Enlightenment sciences of ethnology and anthropology. The eighteenth-century natural historian Buffon accounted for human variety in terms of a process which he called degeneration and which he described as occurring through the influence of climate and environment. Humanity was originally white with European features but it degenerated into various other races. The most influential theorist of race in the period, J. F. Blumenbach, following Buffon, argued that human variety resulted from this process of 'degeneration', evidenced not just by skin colour but also by the totality of human anatomy, especially the shape of the skull. Blumenbach argued in 1775 in his treatise On the Natural Variety of Mankind that the originary race of human beings were white and beautiful and that all present varieties descended from these, with the European or Caucasian as the least degenerate and the Ethiopian and Mongolian or Calmuck as the most degenerate.  [10] Thus the figure of the 'cannibal' in the Romantic period and beyond becomes an instance of racial and moral degeneration.  [11] From being an arbitrary mark of difference indicating savagery, cannibalism came to represent a natural sign of racial or class depravity. This hypothesis was available in Kant's writings on race and is typified by Hegel's comment in The Philosophy of History that 'the eating of human flesh is quite compatible with the African principle; to the sensuous Negro, human flesh is purely an object of the senses, like all other flesh'.  [12] Although not specifically mentioning cannibalism, Coleridge, in later years, speculated about how the African's physical characteristics were symbolic of a moral degeneration.  [13] This view the young Darwin applied to the alleged cannibalism of the natives of Tierra del Fuego in his Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of the Various Countries (1846)  [14] and which chimes in with his developed notions of race in The Descent of Man (1860).  [15] Cannibalism like blackness and the shape of the skull came to be regarded as a signifier inscribed on the body itself of a degenerate race. Cannibalism thus acquires the status of an inherent racial characteristic, a specifically racial lust, rather than simply being a savage or barbaric practice, and one that is associated not just with Africans but also with the Irish and the lower classes. This is certainly the case in later nineteenth-century fictions such as H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines (1885) and She (1887), and H. G. Wells's The Time Machine (1895) and The Island of Dr Moreau (1898), and, more ambiguously, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1902).

The final hypothesis to explain the phenomenon, and the most controversial, is one of straightforward denial. As Geoffrey Sanborn has recently shown accounts sceptical of the existence of cannibalism were available from the early eighteenth century (Sanborn 30-8). Allegations of cannibalism among the Africans had been made in William Snelgrave's pro-slavery A New Account of some Parts of Guinea, and the Slave-Trade in 1734. Snelgrave's claims were challenged in John Atkins's A Voyage to Guinea, Brasil, and the West-Indies in His Majesty's Ships, the Swallow and the Weymouth (London, 1735). Atkins doubted that, outside of the exigencies of famine, 'whether there be any such men on the face of the Earth'.  [16] Atkins's scepticism was echoed later in the century by Enlightenment men such as Joseph Banks and Captain Cook (until he was convinced by his own observation of evidence of Maori cannibalism), and most notably, in the early nineteenth century, by Sir John Barrow, the second secretary to the Admiralty, in a series of ironic reviews of travellers tales and voyages for the Quarterly Review (Sanborn 33-8). This sceptical explanation suffered from the apparently substantial flow of empirical data throughout the nineteenth century that supposedly established the existence of the phenomenon within the bounds of certainty. It was, however, unexpectedly revived in recent years by William Arens's anthropologically iconoclastic The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy (1979). Arens's surveyed the famous case studies of cannibalism from classical times to the present with a coruscating irony, in particular discussing the alleged cannibalism of the Aztecs, which is often taken for granted. Arens famously concluded his work by stating that he 'was dubious about the actual existence of this act as an accepted practice for any time or place'.  [17] Arens argued that he could find no reliable eye-witness account of the practice existing at any time. Standard accounts mostly had a clear motive for stigmatising certain societies as cannibal and the texts in question were usually heavily revised and mediated for a particular audience, often being full of inconsistencies that would make them unreliable. Frequently these texts were redacted or second-hand texts. For Arens the imputation of cannibalism was simply a way of denigrating a society's cultural achievements. This was certainly true for the Spanish who destroyed a sophisticated and highly civilised Aztec culture. It functioned as a way of creating a boundary between the civilized and the savage and that boundary was always fluid. This stigmatization had occurred from early times when the Greeks first designated those who lived beyond the Black Sea as 'Anthropophagi' (literally eaters of human beings): as much a term of moral as political geography. The early Christians of the second century were also said to be, in Andrew MacGowan's phrase 'the ancient cannibals par excellence'.  [18] This may also have been due to a misunderstanding of the nature of the Eucharist. Arguably the first literary allusion to the Eucharist is a cannibal scene, the eating of Eumolpus in Petronious's Satyricon. This use of 'cannibal' to demonize is common. The Guardian in 1982 reported the fears of Argentine soldiers that they would be eaten if captured by the British. As Jan Nederveen Pieterse concludes, 'Cannibalism is an allegory which establishes a centre and a periphery within a moral geography'.  [19]

Arens work has led to a lively debate within anthropology and literary studies. Marshall Sahlins, among others, has instanced eye-witness accounts of cannibalism in Fiji and New Zealand, witnessed by no less an authority that Capt. James Cook (who it is often alleged was himself a victim of Polynesian cannibalism).  [20] It is thus very likely that cannibalism has been practised as a socially symbolic act in some cultures but that the imputations of cannibalism to a society crucially includes much more than a descriptive statement. The very term 'cannibal', as Peter Hulme's Colonial Encounters (1986) demonstrates, relates to the linguistic morphology of the word 'Carib'. The word was used to describe the people of the Antilles, which passed into Spanish as 'Cannibal' and thence into other European languages. Gradually 'cannnibal' (eater of human flesh) became distinct from 'Carib' (native of the Antilles). This process was completed in English in 1796 (the first OED entry for the word). Columbus who was himself responsible for the confusion remained sceptical as to whether the Caribs were in fact cannibals. Hulme's own position is rather complex. Although he does not validate or deny the imputations of cannibalism to West Indian societies he accepts the existence of cannibalism as a discursive practice: 'Cannibalism does exist. It exists as a term within colonial discourse to describe the ferocious devouring of human flesh practised by some savages'.  [21]

Unlike the ritual variety, survival or famine cannibalism, sometimes referred to as 'white cannibalism', appears to need no explanation other than of necessity. It is universally admitted to occur and is well documented. We have reports of its occurrence in periods of famine from ancient times onwards. Celebrated instances include the Medusa shipwreck (versified by Byron in Don Juan Canto II); the ill-fated Donner Party of 1846 (stranded on its migration westward on the Rocky Mountains); the final expedition of Sir John Franklin in 1845 to discover the North-West Passage, the siege of Leningrad, the case of the last voyage of the Yacht the Mignonette in 1884; where two seamen were sentenced to death for killing and eating their young ship mate Richard Parker (leading to the celebrated case of Regina v Dudley tried by Lord Coleridge), and the Andes Plane Crash of 1972 told in Piers Paul Read's Alive and the recent film version of that story.  [22] By and large post-colonial critics of cannibalism have perhaps been overly concerned with the site of the colonial encounter between two cultures and have not yet given a similar sustained critical analysis of the use of the cannibal trope in domestic discourses.  [23] When we look at the use of the figure in certain Romantic period discourses we can see how it also is haunted by anxieties of empire.


Cannibalism as a fact and a figure is chiefly prominent in five overlapping discourses of the writing of the Romantic period: political writing, pro-and anti-slavery literature, colonial fictions, shipwreck narratives, and Gothic fiction. In this essay I will briefly discuss the first four of these forms of writing, indicating how they exploit the cannibal trope in ways that reveal the tensions that underlay its use.  [24] I am also concerned to see how such representations fit into the post-Enlightenment anthropological discourse of cannibalism that I have just outlined. Allegations of cannibalism, real or metaphorical, were not simply ethnic slurs but they also operated in a wide field of signification. For Edmund Burke, for instance, the practice of cannibalism appeared to have no racial signification, although it did relate to conceptions of nationality. Cannibalism was a sign of the savage and unnatural. This seems to be the case in his descriptions of the North American Indians employed by the British to scalp the colonists in the American War of Independence.  [25] Burke also famously attacked the revolutionaries in France as adhering to a cannibal philosophy'. They are unnatural monsters who 'make no scruple to rake with their bloody hands in the bowels of those who came from their own'. In his First Letter on a Regicide Peace of 1796 he defined the French mob as cannibal: 'By cannibalism, I mean their devouring, as a nutriment of their ferocity, some part of the bodies of those they have murdered; their drinking the blood of their victims, and forcing the victims themselves to drink the blood of their kindred slaughtered before their faces'. The French government was thus represented as a 'cannibal republic'.  [26] Burke's rhetoric here eerily pre-empts Freud's collective myth of the origins of civilization in Totem and Taboo, where the band of brothers kill and eat the father to assimilate his strength and wisdom and to share out his women, thereafter proscribing the act as taboo.  [27] Equally familiar, perhaps, is James Gillray's caricature of September 1792. 'Un Petit Souper a la Parisienne - or - A Family of sans-Culotts refreshing after the fatigues of the day'. The cartoon is a response to the news of the September Massacres and presents the Parisian family engaged in an unnatural cannibal feast. The image is dependent on the conflation of two discourses: that of survival cannibalism and the Burkeian political discourse that locates the centre of political and moral deformity within the family. This image also has strong generic links with the Gothic and the unnatural family in such novels as Lewis's The Monk (1797) and the story of the Scottish cannibal family of Sawney Beane.

Of course the same rhetoric was open to radicals as well as conservatives. Paine in The Rights of Man could describe primogeniture as a system of cannibalism by constraint: 'Aristocracy has never more than one child. The rest are begotten to be devoured. They are thrown to the cannibal for prey, and the natural parent prepares the unnatural repast'.  [28] Like Burke's cannibals, those of Paine prey on the family and the body politic. Paine here is locating, as Burke, the origins of political deformity in the family. Coleridge, looking back in 1803 on his period of radical dissent, also recalled his use of the cannibal trope as an index of political and moral savagery. In a letter to Sir George and Lady Beaumont, he adverted, perhaps imaginatively, to a political address:

Speaking in public at Bristol I adverted to a public Supper which had been given by Lord——— I forget his name, in honor of a victory gained by the Austrians, & after a turbid Stream of wild Eloquence I said—"This is a true Lord's Supper in the communion of Darkness! This is a Eucharist of Hell! A sacrament of Misery!—over each morsel & each Drop of which the Spirit of some murdered Innocent cries aloud to God, This is my Body! & this is my Blood!  [29]

In this satanic, inverted Last Supper, Coleridge envisages the victims of the counter-revolution devoured by the European coalition against the Republic. Here the Eucharist is treated not as symbolic, but as literal, whereby the counter-revolution devours the victims of it atrocities, rather than symbolically celebrating, affirming and incorporating Christ's message as the Protestant tradition of exegesis of the Eucharist would have it.  [30] In 1795 Coleridge's radical tract the Conciones ad Populum had attacked the tactics of Major John Butler (the subject of Burke's censures) who in 1788 led an expedition of 400 Loyalists and 500 Indians in a massacre of the settlers of Wyoming Valley. Coleridge tells how 'English Generals invited the Indians "to banquet on blood": the savage Indians headed by an Englishman attacked' the 'American paradise'. Again the point is that of Montaigne that the 'savage' Indians here were less truly 'savage' than the barbaric English, the 'banquet of blood' perhaps recalling the Eucharist. In Shelley's Laon and Cythna (1817) it is a similar triumph of the counter-revolution itself that leads to a literal and symbolic cannibalism:

There was no corn—n the wide market place
All loathliest things, even human flesh, was sold;
They weighed it in small scales—and many a face
Was fixed in eager horror then.  [31]

Shelley's horror at this market in human flesh is complicated by his vegetarianism, which has a close relationship with his political opinions.  [32] In all such examples it is usually the figurative aspect of cannibalism that is to the fore. But as always a troubling sense of literalness haunts the figure. We know that in times of siege and famine humans were driven to literal cannibalism. There were times of famine in France during the Revolution. A few years before Shelley wrote Laon and Cythna, Napoleon's Grand Armée had resorted to cannibalism in the disastrous retreat from Moscow. None of the examples from political discourse as yet seem to be racialized, nor do they appear to be explained as a resort to necessity, due to scarce resources. Rather the 'white cannibals' of Burke, Paine, Coleridge and Shelley suggest that their unnatural feeding is as much an expression of lust as a resort to need and therefore morally quite inexcusable. Here cannibalism is a barbaric practice, resulting from a moral but not yet, perhaps, a physical or somatic degeneration, despite the degeneracy of the lower class that is perhaps indicated in Burke and Gillray's caricatures of the cannibal sans culottes.


It is in the area of colonialism and the debate over the slave trade that the cannibal trope is most visibly employed. I have already mentioned William Snelgrave's allegations of cannibalism against the Africans and John Atkins's sceptical rebuttal of 1735. The vehemently racist Edward Long in his History of Jamaica (1774) repeated the allegation. He describes Angolan 'custom' of 'butchering a vast number of human victims … feasting on human flesh, and preferring it to any other'.  [33] Long's fellow West-Indian, the more moderate Bryan Edwards, in his The History, Civil and Commercial, of the British Colonies in the West Indies (1793) also believed cannibalism was widespread in the West Indies and he detailed the drinking of the planters' blood during the slave revolts.  [34] Of course the imputation of cannibalism to the African was a handy justification for slavery. Long's History argued that the African was a separate species from the rest of humanity and therefore the Africans' cannibalism was just another sign of their bestiality. Various travel accounts such as that of Robert Norris described the horrors of the Kingdom of Dahomey in the period. Dahomey was notorious for its excessive practice of human sacrifice. Norris reported in his Memoirs of the Reign of Bossa Ahàdee (1788) how the victim of the sacrifice 'is almost wholly devoured, as all the mob below will have a taste of it'.  [35] Norris was notorious as a participant in the slave trade who aided first the opponents of abolition before being bribed by the merchants of Liverpool to act in defence of the trade.

This kind of rhetoric was also available to the opponents of the trade who frequently employed the metaphor of cannibalism and the topos of 'blood as sugar' in their writing. William Fox argued that in every pound of West Indian sugar we consume, we 'may be considered as consuming two ounces of human flesh'.  [36] Robert Southey's sonnets on the slave trade make the same point to the consumer: 'O ye who at your ease/Sip the blood-sweeten'd beverage'.  [37] One of the most interesting uses of this kind of rhetoric is in Coleridge's 'Lecture on the Slave Trade', given at Bristol in 1795. Coleridge is here keen to deconstruct the binary opposition of savagery and civilization which fuels the economy of the cannibal trope: 'the Savage eagerly seizes every opportunity of intoxication—and hence the polished Citizen lies framing unreal Wants and diverts the pains of Vacancy by the pestilent inventions of Luxury'.  [38] Here, in the time-honoured tradition from Montaigne's 'Des cannibales' onwards, civilised (or 'polished') life is shown to be in no way superior, and in many ways inferior, to so-called savage life. Coleridge's 'Lecture' constitutes an indictment of contemporary manners, leading to his powerful attack on fashionable sensibility. What Coleridge does is to reverse the qualities the civilized European ascribes to the savage African, in this case the common identification of the African with the cannibal:

Gracious Heaven! at your meals you rise up and pressing your hands to your bosom ye lift up your eyes to God and say O Lord bless the Food which thou hast given us! A part of that Food among most of you is sweetened with the Blood of the Murdered. Bless the Food which thou hast given us! O Blasphemy! Did God give Food mingled with Brothers blood! Will the Father of all men bless the Food of Cannibals—the food which is polluted with the blood of his own innocent Children? Surely if the inspired Philanthropist of Galilee were to revisit earth and be among the feasters as at Cana he would not change Water into Wine but haply convert the produce into the things producing, the occasioned into the things occasioning!

Lectures 248

He accuses the European of cannibalism which travel accounts from Columbus onwards had attributed to the savage races. In Bhabha' s essay 'Signs Taken for Wonders' we are given, as an example of the 'hybridisation' of colonial writing, the instance of the Missionary who reports the case of the Indian who accepts the Hindu translations of the gospels but refuses to take the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper because the Europeans eat dead cow's flesh: 'How can the word of God come from the flesh-eating mouths of the English?'. Thus, argues Bhabha, 'the trace of what is disavowed is not repressed but repeated as something different —a mutation, a hybrid'.  [39] Hayden White, in an argument based on Freud's treatment of cannibalism and incest in Totem and Taboo, demonstrates how European taboos of cannibalism, nakedness, community of property, lawlessness and sexual promiscuity are common in European reports of the savage. He argues that, 'this may be, in the European commentators, a projection of repressed desires onto the lives of the natives … but if it is such it is desire tainted by horror and viewed with disgust'.  [40] Coleridge's question relating to the grace, 'Will the father of all men bless the Food of Cannibals', in implicating the European in act of cannibalism, pre-empts White's theory of taboo and repression; arguably, it functions in the same way as Bhabha's notion of hybridity; it turns 'the gaze of the discriminated back upon the eye of power'.  [41] The ex-slave Oladauh Equiano does something similar in his The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Oladauh Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789) when he remembers, upon embarking on the slave ship, how he asked his fellow slaves 'if we were not to be eaten by those white men with horrible looks, red faces, and loose hair'.  [42] In an analogous incident, the explorer Mungo Park records in his Travels in the Interior of Africa (1799) how when he attempted to save the life of a young African boy who had been shot through the leg, by suggesting amputation everyone started with horror supposing him 'a sort of a cannibal for proposing so cruel and unheard of an operation'.  [43]

For an outsider, and for many an insider, the sacrament of the Eucharist condones cannibalism, the very atrocity that the West has displaced onto the other. As Peter Hulme brilliantly speculates on the fourth Lateran Council's literalist interpretation of the Eucharist in 1215, 'boundaries of community are often created by accusing those outside the boundary of the very practice on which the integrity of that community is founded' (Hulme 85, 187-91). At a self-conscious level the cannibalistic trope functions to deconstruct Coleridge's audience's ideas of civilization and savagery. For the Unitarian Coleridge a true, contemporary miracle that the 'inspired Philanthropist of Galilee' might perform would be to make the eighteenth-century consumer aware of the production processes of sugar: 'he would not turn Water into Wine but haply convert the produce into the things producing, the occasioned into the things occasioning', giving us 'instead of sweetmeats Tears and Blood, and Anguish—and instead of Music groaning and the loud Peals of the Lash' (Lectures 248). In fact Jesus would do no more today than that which 'truth-painting Imagination' achieves. In Timothy Morton's words, 'the blood sugar topos reverses consumption into production'.  [44] Certainly Coleridge's 'Lecture' is as much concerned with defining his own Unitarian version of dissent in attacking the sacraments and outlining the modern day miracles of a messiah who is nor more than an 'inspired philanthropist'. Nevertheless its author does try to make his audience aware of both the horrors of the slave trade and of the processes of representation itself.  [45] Ultimately in this lecture, Coleridge is trying to refute the charge that the two radical indicators of savagery, absence of language and cannibalism, apply to the African.


Robert Southey was a believer in the existence of cannibalism, especially in the South American context. His History of Brazil (1810-19) carefully collected the accounts of cannibalism in that area The History includes the standard accounts of Brazilian cannibalism, in particular those by Hans Staden and Jean De Lery, important founding descriptions of the practice and sources for Montaigne's famous essay. Southey's earlier epic poem, Madoc of 1805, used the colonial encounter between twelfth-century Welshmen and the New World Aztec civilization as a means of exploring, or affirming, early nineteenth-century imperialist attitudes. The Aztecs, in his account, were ritual cannibals. His poem describes how Madoc, the youngest son of Owen Gwyneth, leaves his native land when the throne is usurped by David. David is a strong but Machiavellian ruler whose alliance with the Saxons is regarded by Madoc as a threat to the racial and religious purity of the Welsh. Madoc and his band thus emigrates to Florida where they found a settlement. This brings the Welsh into conflict with the indigenous Indians, the Aztecs. Unlike the Spanish, Madoc's motives are pure, 'not of conquest greedy, nor of gold'.  [46] The Aztecs are twice defeated in battle by the superior weaponry of the Welshmen, before migrating to found their Mexican Empire. The poem closes with Southey's anticipation of their conquest by 'the heroic Spaniard's unrelenting sword' (II.xxv.395), apparently without any irony. In the nineteenth-century context Madoc's group represents Protestant English colonialism, the kind of ethos Southey celebrated in his Life of Nelson (1817): another 'Lord of the Ocean'. Both the Saxons and the Aztecs, with their superstitions and priestcraft, in this scheme of things can be seen as different representations of European Catholicism. Following the accounts of the Spanish historians of the Conquest, such as Bernal Diaz del Castille's The Conquest and Discovery of New Spain, Southey depicts the Aztec as cannibals for reasons of superstition, a comparatively unusual explanation for the practice in the Romantic period.  [47] They enslave the native tribe of Indians, the Hoamen, and use them as sacrifices. In what may be another parodic reference to the Eucharist the Aztec priest claims the children of the Hoamen. They are said to 'lay them on the altar of his God/ Pluck out their little hearts in sacrifice,/And with his brotherhood in impious rites,/ Feast on their flesh!' ( 51-3). The Gods in the Aztec pantheon are devourers of human flesh and blood. Part Two Canto Ten of the poem describes the festival when the Aztec God Tezcalipoca appears in human form:

Lo! as Tezozomoc was passing by
The eternal fire, the eternal fire shot up
A long blue flame. He started; he exclaim'd,
The God! the God! Tezcalipoca's Priest
Echoed the welcome cry, The God! the God!
For lo! his footsteps mark the maize-strewn floor.
A mighty shout from all the multitudes
Of Atzlan rose; they cast into the fire
The victims, whose last shrieks of agony
Mingled unheeded with the cries of joy.

II. x. 206-16

It is clear that in the form of their religion, with its blood sacrifice, idolatry and superstition, the Aztecs are meant to recall the practices of Catholic Church, which Southey, as a Protestant Englishman, finds superstitious and repulsive. The reader is meant to draw a comparison between this Aztec worship and the form of Christianity that Madoc fled his home to escape. The usurper David is criticized for making an alliance with the Saxons. Part One, Canto 15 of the poem describes an excommunication, whereby the great Saxon Prelate 'the mitred Baldwin' attempts to excommunicate the dead and buried Cyveilioc the Prince of Powys for his refusal to take part in the Crusades.

Let him feel the curse
At every waking moment, and in every act,
By night and day, in waking and in sleep!
We cut him off from Christian fellowship;
Christian sacraments we deprive his soul;
Of Christian burial we deprive his corpse;
And when that carrion to the Fiends is left
In unprotected earth, thus let his soul
Be quench'd in hell


Madoc responds that although Gwynedd may bow its neck to 'the yoke of Rome', Baldwin can tell his Pope he shall not strike a topsail 'for the breath of all his maledictions' (I.xv.111, 115). The reader is surely meant here to draw an analogy between David's Catholic-oppressed Gwynedd and the Aztec Empire. Similarly we are encouraged to see the Aztec's imperial ambitions as reflected in the Crusades of Catholic Europe against the allegedly barbarous nations. So too when King David's bride-to- be is described 'as a sacrifice to/To that cold king-craft' (I.ix.55-6), we are made to draw a comparison between her plight and those of the Aztec sacrificial victims. Again the implication is that Catholic Europe is worse than the barbarous Aztec because it has perverted the truth, while the Aztecs have been directly corrupted by the Devil himself, in the form of one of his demons, the Snake God which Madoc later slays. However when attempting to represent Madoc's benevolent imperialism Southey is no more convincing. The Welshmen, although they claim not to be motivated by gain, do colonize the lands of others. In this case the peaceful Hoamen, the third term of the colonial encounter, welcome them. Ultimately Madoc wins every encounter through force of arms. The Hoamen are easily converted to Madoc's anticipated Protestant Christianity. His religion is primarily Christological in the Protestant tradition:

But who can gaze
Upon that other form, which on the rood
In agony is stretch'd? … his hands transfix'd,
And lacerate with the body's pendent weight;
The black and deadly paleness of his face,
Streak'd with the blood which from that crown of scorn
Hath ceased to flow; the side wound streaming still;
And open still those eyes, from which the look
Not yet hath pass'd away, that went to Heaven,
When, in that hour the Son of Man exclaim'd,
Forgive them, for they know not what they do!


Southey no doubt would intend his readership to see in this grisly sacrificial account a positive counterpoint to the ritual human sacrifices of the Aztec. Both Madoc's God and the Aztecs' Tezcalipoca require bloody sacrifice. Theologically both are sacrifices to appease an angry deity. Both are figuratively cannibal Gods. The only thing that gives Madoc's Christian account any validity is his military success, his 'conquering arm'. In response to Madoc's prayer, Queen Erillyab of the Hoamen answers:

My people, said the Queen, their God is best
And mightiest. Him to whom we offered up
Blood of our blood and of our flesh the flesh,
Vainly we deem'd divine; no spirit he
Of good or evil, by the conquering arm
Of Madoc mortal proved.


Southey's attempts to disentangle Anglican Protestantism from Catholic and Aztec superstition here collapses into representational confusion. His desire to draw the boundary between civilised and degenerate by, in Hulme's formulation, 'accusing those outside the boundary of the very practice on which the integrity of that community is founded' (Hulme 85, 187-91) simply becomes a statement that Western Protestant might is right and Aztec ritual weak and wrong.


Finally I would like briefly to comment on the issue of survival cannibalism, or 'white cannibalism'. As A. W. Brian Simpson and others have pointed out, this was not an exotic or furtively-discussed subject but, indeed, a 'socially accepted practice' among sailors for which there was a wide variety of sources and narratives.  [48] Such cannibalism was presented as not cannibalism at all, but a response to extreme circumstances, it was not an instance of lust, revenge, or superstition and was not ceremonial or ritualistic. This facing of the cannibal, however, does not derive from the colonial encounter per se, that Hulme and others have focused upon, but from narratives and discourses that are more domestic in orientation. What should be appreciated is that eighteenth-century European societies, especially in times of warfare, were subject to periods of famine and the concomitant resort to survival cannibalism. The superstitions and taboos that surrounded the eating of human flesh were all the more potent and powerful because of the very real possibility that one might, in certain circumstances, face extreme hunger and starvation. Rather than focusing on the element of aggression (as Hulme and other post-colonial critics) this kind of writing relates more to anxieties that, at base, Europeans will resort to the same primitive urges that characterise the savage.  [49]

The most notable example of this situation in the literature of the Romantic period is surely to be found in Canto Two of Byron's Don Juan (1819). As well as the accounts of the Medusa wreck of 1819 and the controversy surrounding them, Byron also drew on Sir J. G. Dalyell's Shipwrecks and Disasters at Sea (1812) which contains several accounts of sailors resorting to cannibalism, depicted as a last resort. The vessel in which Juan is travelling is shipwrecked, the crew and passengers take to a long boat and, after much suffering, resort to cannibalism; first Juan's spaniel and then his tutor, Pedrillo, are eaten by the crew. Byron's treatment owes much to the scandal of the wreck of the French frigate La Méduse in 1816 which ran aground of the West African coast due to the criminal incompetence of its Royalist Captain. The survivors took to a raft and later resorted to cannibalism, an event portrayed by Géricault's famous painting The Raft of the Medusa. Géricault refrained from depicting cannibalism itself (though this was featured in some of the preliminary sketches for the work), yet he hinted at it in his depiction of the father who holds the body of his dead son which alludes to Reynolds's and Fuseli's versions of Dante's representation of Ugolino, condemned to cannibalism in Hell.  [50] For Géricault the survivors were heroes rather than degenerates. Byron's treatment of the incident, however, is grimly ironic, pointing out the discrepancy between the primary animal needs of humanity and its rationalizations of such desire: 'But man is a carnivorous production'. On the seventh day afloat, 'the longings of the cannibal arise/ (Although they spoke not) in their wolfish eye'.  [51] They decide in time-honoured fashion to draw lots for 'flesh and blood/ and who should die to be his fellow's food'. The sailors use Julia's love letter to Juan for this purpose.

The lots were made, and mark'd, and mix'd and handed,
   In silent horror, and their distribution
Lull'd even the savage hunger which demanded,
   Like the Promethean vulture, this pollution;
None in particular had sought or plann'd it,
   'Twas nature gnaw'd them to this resolution,
By which none were permitted to be neuter—
And the lot fell on Juan's luckless tutor.

He requested to be bled to death:
   The surgeon had his instruments, and bled
Pedrillo, and so gently ebb'd his breath,
   You hardly could perceive when he was dead.
He died as born, a Catholic in faith,
   Like most in the belief in which they're bred,
And first a little crucifix he kiss'd,
And then held out his jugular and wrist.

The surgeon, as there was no other fee,
   Had his first choice of morsels for his pains;
But being thirstiest at the moment, he
   Preferr'd a draft from the fast-flowing veins:
Part was divided, part thrown in to the sea,
   And such things as the entrails and the brains
Regaled two sharks, who follow'd o'er the billow—
The sailors ate the rest of poor Pedrillo

ll. 593-616

In representing the incident with a mixture of grim irony and extreme pathos, Byron uses the motif of sacrifice. Pedrillo is sacrificed, but this time the victim consents through the use of that symbol of chance, the lottery. Like Southey's Aztec rituals, Pedrillo's sacrifice is related to Christ's, although in a more sympathetic and poignant manner. In this case the sacrifice is individual, the result of necessity and not the result of a social system: 'None in particular had sought or plann' d it'. The scene is still horrific and those who partake of the feast go 'raging mad'. Juan, of course, does not feast. Having refused earlier to eat his spaniel for sentimental reasons he feels unable to 'dine with them on his pastor and his master' (l. 624).

Commenting on this scene, Philip Martin questions why Byron apparently sanctions the superstition, derived from Dalyell but not from the Medusa narratives, that those who eat human flesh become degenerate and mad, a practice which 'sorts so badly with the post-Enlightenment scepticism exhibited' in his work as a whole.  [52] As Sanborn points out this superstition indicates that 'white people who ate human flesh would either go mad and die or develop a lifelong addiction to the substance'.  [53] For Martin, Byron's shipwreck is not descriptive but an example of Byron's political discourse. Thus although Byron's account of cannibalism is ostensibly an Enlightenment version, we can see how the distinction between ritual and survival cannibalism breaks down.  [54]

However the presentation of survival cannibalism is usually ritualistic. In an important discussion concerning the representations of the death of James Cook, Gananath Obeyesekere argued that cannibalism, although it existed in the South Seas, was in fact a British fantasy exported onto the Polynesians, a projection of European aggression.  [55] Obeyesekere, exploiting the Freudian notion that cannibalism is a form of oral aggression deriving from the primal scene, argues that Europeans displaced their own cannibal obsessions onto non-white societies.  [56] In the culture of seafarers like Cook, shipwreck, starvation and survival cannibalism were regular phenomena, represented in countless ballads of the sea.  [57] In this seafaring culture cannibalism became a reality, so much so that sailors began to accept the literal idea of consuming the body and blood of a victim chosen by lots. Thus the Europeans shifted their cannibalism onto that of a society characterized by pronounced anthropophagy. Obeyesekere argues that the British had a developed discourse and practice of cannibalism, which involved ritual sacrifice (the business of the drawing of lots and the selection of a victim) followed by the convention of the feasters going mad from their repast. This discourse was probably far removed from the reality. In Conrad's strange tale 'Falk: A Reminiscence' (1903), the narrator is very disappointed when the survival cannibal Falk tells him that that these conventions are not true: the sailors did not draw lots for their victims but preyed off each other as individuals with the strongest surviving in the end.  [58]

What we have in these writings is a series of overlapping discourses relating to politics, race, theology (chiefly regarding the Eucharist), colonialism, popular fictions and folklore. As H. L. Malchow comments in his discussion of popular cannibalism, 'the nineteenth-century image of the racial cannibal was built upon, interwoven with, and sustained by domestic discourse' (Malchow 42). It may be that the rigid distinction between survival cannibalism and ritual cannibalism is not justified anyway and that the attempt to maintain it is a form of ethnocentrism which exports all the worst aspects of the European's psyche on to the colonial other. Cannibalism, as taboo, fact and metaphor is so common in Western literature and culture that it encourages us to think in terms of reversal. Our myths of sacrifice are validated by our culture; their myths are primitive and degenerate. Although a signifier of barbarity for other cultures in the Romantic period, for many years the cannibal feast was the central symbol at the heart of Western Christian thought and practice. The recognition that Europeans in the period were figurative cannibals (Christologically) and often literal cannibals (in times of famine and disaster) had to be abjected onto that which became other to quell the anxiety that the self was prey to savage desires. This resort to cannibalism, however understandable in the circumstances, must nevertheless be inflected with implications of primitive lusts and presentments of punishment. Eating people was therefore right, or at least allowable, but only if the consumption conformed to certain discursive practices.

Parties annexes