How often do we find, that when we happen upon a new book—invoking a fresh set of ideas—it changes our perceptions of familiar books? This has been, once again, my experience over past semester, as I taught an undergraduate course based on my forthcoming book, Early America in a Dangerous World (Johns Hopkins, in process). In the next few blogs, I will introduce readers to some exciting new texts that have inspired me to reimagine some of the classics in the considerable literature of discovery. In this piece, we will look at Kelly L. Watson’s excellent study, Insatiable Appetites: Imperial Encounters with Cannibals in the North Atlantic World (NYU Press, 2016).
I happened on Watson’s fascinating examination of cannibalism, Insatiable Appetites, and decided to try her ideas out in the undergraduate course. Watson is interested in the evolving concept of the cannibal, rather than the practice, so there was no need for a trigger warning. I told my students that they would not find much gore—to the relief of some and the disappointment of others, it appeared.
Watson observes that since the time of Herodotus, Western writing has described peoples
who inhabited the edges of the “civilized world” as man-eaters, and his has framed
“within colonialist literature . . . an assumption that the binary construction of civilization versus savagery and barbarism defines the world.” Particularly revealing is her connection between Western assertions of cannibalism and savagery on the one hand and constructions of gender on the other. As she writes:
Implicit within ideas about barbarism in the early modern world was the inability
of barbarians to conform to the established norms of gendered power and sexual
practices. Cannibalism, then, existed alongside the perception of inappropriate
cultural practices in the writings of European men. The formation of masculine
and, later, racist imperial power insisted on the perceived presence of
cannibalism. In the early centuries of conquest, cannibalism above all else
determined savagery, and savagery established one’s place within the hierarchy
on which civilization and imperialism rested.
There is much more to Watson’s study—particularly her ability to situate the construction of barbarism within ideas of gender--and I encourage readers to pick up a copy for themselves.
Insatiable Appetites is the kind of book that changes how we might think about the early American Indies Trade and voyagers such as the ill-fated Samuel Patterson, a prominent character in my own work. Patterson (1785- ) traveled the Pacific on three voyages over six years (1802-1808), touching at Australia in 1808, marooned on Fiji after shipwreck for six months, and raising a family on Hawai’i. Returning from the sea, broken both physically and psychologically, in 1817 he produced Narrative of the adventures and sufferings of Samuel Patterson, experienced in the Pacific Ocean, and many other parts of the world, with an account of the Feegee, and Sandwich Islands, a text that influenced a whole genre of American travel writing. Patterson’s text is an important example of how ordinary sailors, rather than ships’ officers or merchants, constructed the Pacific and its peoples and how these experiences entered the consciousness of Americans to create an imagined world of in a state of barbarism populated by cannibal peoples.
In giving his readers “an Account of the Religion, and Customs of the People of Feegee,” Patterson focuses on what they would find sensationalist and sordid. And, so he selects the most damning epithet he knows will lure readers:
These savages are cannibals, and eat the bodies of their own malefactors, and
all those of their prisoners: and as they were continually at war with some of
the tribes around them, and the breach of their own laws, in nearly every case
was punishable with death, they generally had a supply of human flesh.
He paints an image that counters the myth of Yankee enterprise, energy, and initiative as markers of civilization:
When cultivating their lands, and in their other labours, about noon they
generally have a hole dug in the ground, heated by a fire made in it ; and
after they clean out the coals and ashes, they lay in their dead bodies, human,
if they have any for eating, if not, hogs, and also potatoes and yams. On
these they place a covering of straw, and then bring on the hot ashes and earth.
After a few hours they take out the flesh, &c, and each one receives his share.
As historian Konstantin Dierks observes, he “came home with reinforced contempt for the sundry ‘uncivilized’ peoples inhabiting that world.” Patterson concluded,
how many of our fellow beings, with the exception of speech, scarcely can
be said to be before the beasts of the wilderness in improvements: — naked,
uncivilized, and preying on their own flesh. What a change, when the holy
principles of the religion of Jesus shall possess the hearts of all men!
Watson’s study helps us to interpret Patterson’s Narrative in fresh ways. While Insatiable Appetites explores an earlier time--North America in the fifteenth- and sixteenth- centuries--her insights carry over into Patterson’s world. In Watson’s terms, Patterson’s conclusions were prepackaged before he ever left America. Patterson approached his Fiji Islands passages in a curiously understated style: “The food of this country is, yarns, potatoes, plantains, cocoanuts, bananas, taros, breadfruit, human flesh, an inferior kind of swine which they raise, &c.” Yet, a distinct cultural agenda informs his Narrative. As for other Americans, a tradition of western writing about Native Americans and even Catholics had trained him to think about other peoples as lacking the trappings of civilization. We would expect Patterson to have been appalled by cannibalism and the general disorder and lack of discipline he saw among the Fijians. Furthermore, his book was written to attract readers and cannibalism was among the most horrific, and enticing, of subjects for the early American public. As Watson reminds us, travellers do not commonly go into strange lands with open minds; they assume their own cultural superiority and use their own beliefs and practices as benchmarks by which to judge others. Given that his own country was a new and culturally insecure nation, Patterson’s Narrativeoffered his readers a sense that they belonged within the community of civilized nations. In doing so, he reinvented cannibalism and savagery for a new generation of Americans.
This title is drawn from George Fitzhugh’s 1857 pro-slavery tract, Cannibals All! Or, Slaves without Masters. Fitzhugh maintained that the capitalism of the Northern states fostered a kind of ‘moral cannibalism,’ a metaphor for management’s exploitation of workers. Like most early Americans, Fitzhugh used the term ‘cannibal’ rather cavalierly to suggest conditions of anarchy or savagery.
Watson, 7, 26.
It is likely that Patterson’s book was an example of social writing, perhaps disctated to his minister who then edited the whole. We see hints in the Biblical epigrams to each chapter, such as:
With melting heart and weeping eyes,
My trembling soul in anguish lies;
Patterson’s Elizawrecked on Nairai Island in June 1808.
“Globalization of the United States, 1789-1861” (exhibit), Indiana University