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Insatiable Appetites: Imperial Encounters with Cannibals in the North Atlantic World.

Insatiable Appetites: Imperial Encounters with Cannibals in the North Atlantic World. By Kelly L. Watson. (New York, NY: New York University Press, 2015. Pp. xii, 239. $40.00.)

In this analysis of the confrontation between fifteenth-century European imperial ideologies and New World peoples, the indigenous groups were perceived as "other," and as practitioners of inhumane life philosophies. Among the most damning accusations was cannibalism--often involving assumptions about the weaker vessel (i.e., woman and her sexuality). Humans eating humans was a denotative pejorative, often justifying the destruction of native groups in order to save them. Native women, moreover, were sexually unacceptable to Bernal Diaz and his cohort until superficially converted to Spanish Catholicism. Documented evidence of flesh eating was (and is) difficult to produce; Bernal Diaz's tale of the "fat cacique's" territory mentions blood sacrifices but not cannibalism. Although the Spaniard's favorite literary reference was the Amadis saga, earlier cartographic marginalia from mappae mundi had perpetuated one-eyed or oe-footed or cannibalistic creatures, which fired the imagination of explorers beyond the edge of the known world. Meso-American blood rituals only hinted at consuming both heart and flesh.

Northward among the English, a contemporary chronicle reported cannibalism during the "Starving Time" at Jamestown when a villager killed his wife, salted her, and dined on her preserved flesh. Investigators dispatched from London had never heard of "such a dish as Salted Wife." Cannibalism in North America also was attributed to the Iroquois peoples who were adept at terrorizing their enemies; word of their pot roasts was accepted as gospel by peoples who had not yet met them.

Farther west, La Demoiselle became the soup course for French-allied Indians bent on destroying the chief's pro-English trading policy. The "middle ground" of New France also included the "windigo psychosis" of the North Woods. Winter's protein deficient, isolated existence reportedly sparked killing and consumption, both among native groups and their French-Canadian neighbors. Documents at the William L. Clements Library describe a group of villagers seeking revenge on traders who had killed and eaten some of their relatives the previous winter. The same file reports a young French-Canadian trapper who offered the flesh of his thigh to his cabin mate in exchange for survival.

On the other hand, as useful as the long-studied Jesuit sources may be, they still represent a European worldview, closely identified with martyrdom. There is irony, too, in European Catholicism's repugnance toward cannibalism, since one of the church's sacred acts was a form of sacramental cannibalism in which believers ingested the symbolic body and blood of a messiah, thereby incorporating his qualities into their lives. How different is that from eating the heart of a warrior to enhance your bravery? The question remains: How much and to what degree was cannibalism actually practiced by New World peoples? Moderns of Irish barbarian descent might remember that their own ancestors were labeled cannibals by their civilized Elizabethan conquerors. As a reading in an Atlantic World graduate seminar, this work will spark intellectual debate; general readers and undergraduates will find it uphill-going. It is recommended for graduate libraries and historical specialists.

James H. O'Donnell

Marietta College
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Author:O'Donnell, James H.
Publication:The Historian
Date:Dec 22, 2017
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