Canibalia

– Julia Morandeira Arrizabalaga

         The cannibal is quite a recent invention. The first mention of the word cannibal is found in Columbus’ diaries on the 23rd of November of 1492, nearly two months after setting foot in the ‘New world’,[1] when the indigenous people tell him (and he has no problem in understanding them) of a rival bellicose tribe inhabiting the southern islands of the Caribbean archipelago. These ‘had just one eye, and a dog face’, were man-eaters, and were indistinctively referred to as carib and caniba. The programmatic intentions of the second trip – ‘go to the cannibal islands to destroy them’ – prove that the figure has been rapidly consolidated.

         This anecdote of the misappropriation of an indigenous word could have ended as a mere linguistic curiosity, had it not been for the central role the cannibal-America identification played in the construction of the West as the geopolitical centre and privileged site of enunciation of Modernity. Since the ‘Discovery’, Europeans reported cannibals in large numbers throughout the continent, creating a sort of semantic and symbolic affinity between cannibalism and America. According to colonisers all Caribs were cannibals and vice versa; subsequently they gave their name to a group of islands and a large Atlantic region, the Caribbean or Caribana, which extended from Florida to Guyana including the Gulf of Mexico, which later extended to the rest of the continent. It became a cartographic mark in the maps of the ‘New World’ and inscribed the territory under its sign; as Runo Lagomarsino’s Untitled[2] suggests, a geography invented and written onto the blank page of America. As Carlos Jaúregui points out, America was culturally, religiously, geographically – and I would add, aesthetically – built as a canibalia, ‘a vast geographical and cultural space defined by the image of the anthropophagous monster, or, imagined as a fragmented body devoured by colonialism’.[3] But beyond naming, the cannibal defined an unstable and speculative imaginary, subject and territory, in which renewed spectres of alterity, cultural anxieties and imperial interests converged. Being sacrificed, cut into pieces, butchered and devoured thus appeared as the most recurrent fear in Europe’s imagination of America, multiplying the meanings and images of the cannibal trope.

         The cannibal did not appear out of thin air: it was the result of reading an unknown land through the prism of a dense archive of monstrous otherness. As Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park[4] point out, the margins of the world, of what was known, were ‘a privileged place of novelty, variety and exuberant natural transgression’ to the medieval imagination. The European colonisers brought with them a compendium of medieval teratology and classical myths,[5] popular folklore on witches and Jews, eastern travel chronicles and natural history treatises, in which unsubstantiated accusations of cannibalism among little known or despised cultures were common. The American cannibal thus evoked uncivilised Cyclopes, dog-headed cynocephali and other spectres of the pre-modern archive that had been revived through the intensification of trade routes towards the east during the Renaissance.[6] The Argentinean artist León Ferrari made a series of works in 1992, accordingly titled 1492–1992. Fifth Century Anniversary of the Conquest, in which a caravel sails between two shelves loaded with more than 130 bottles containing catholic saints, pictures of the Pope Francis II, drawings of Goya’s witches, and other unrecognisable monsters. Upon close analysis of the cargo, it is not possible to determine the direction of the ship – are they transported to America from Europe, or the other way around? Rather, the installation describes how violence circulated from shore to shore, how the Atlantic was the arena of clash and contagion, and how new monsters emerged from the bricolage of the different imaginaries.

         By the 16th century however, chronicles and images of the colonisers’ expeditions in the ‘New World’ abounded in Europe, and the image of a cannibal America swiftly coalesced. Of special importance for our topic are Hans Staden’s captivity account of the Tupinambás of Brazil, Jean de Léry’s The Singularities of Antarctic France and André Thevet’s writings. All of them can be considered as proto-ethnographical accounts[7] and contained detailed descriptions of cannibal rituals amongst the Tupinambás of Brazil in terms of cultural aversion and moral horror. Theodor de Bry (1528–1598), a German editor and engraver, never set foot in America but illustrated the first-hand accounts of colonisers from Virginia and Florida to Tierra del Fuego. His engravings of cannibals from Léry and Staden’s account are memorable: boucans galore where piles of human members are being roasted, ferocious men and women in cannibal ecstasy, infants begging for the grease dripping off the grill. The characters in De Bry’s depictions bear Mediterranean European factions; artefacts and customs of different origin are mixed together, but again, it is not verisimilitude that is at stake here. At a time when printing press was booming and there was a market of readers avid for cannibalism and other fascinating colonial stories, these images and stories were widely diffused and consumed throughout Europe, fixing the perception and imaginary of America in terms of excess and abjection. Candice Lin’s[8] Birth of a Nation takes the physical, social and symbolic violence of this figuration to its extreme. In it, phallic women engage in atrocious rituals of mutilation, elders eat the infants and monstrous births take place, all set against a dense animist landscape. The work is part of The Sexual Life of Savages series, which addresses cultural anxieties embodied in the figure of the savage using stereotypical images of savages, racial anxieties, exotic violent rituals, rampant sexuality, miscegenation between European and native populations, and of course, cannibalism.

         The American cannibal was first and foremost a she-cannibal. Its representation was embodied in a sinister, insatiable and lustful femininity, associated with gluttony and lust (which had a feminine iconology) and to witchcraft. Descriptions and images portrayed naked young and old women chopping and preparing the bodies to be cooked, viciously licking their fingers, voraciously biting a human leg, feeding an arm to their children, or sitting in a circle sharing entrails and meat alike. It is true that women held an important role in the cannibal ritual, because cannibalism was the specifically female method for obtaining long life, which in the masculine case was obtained through bravery and combat. As Eduardo Viveiros de Castro suggests, ‘it may be possible, at any rate, to see in the abandonment of cannibalism a defeat primarily for the female section.’[9]


Theodor De Bry
illustration from Hans Staden's accounts in America Tertia Pars, 1590-1634


[1] ‘New World’ as well as ‘Discovery’ are written in quotation marks to denounce not only the Eurocentric genealogy of the idea that America was ‘discovered’ but also to focus on the interactions between the cartographic rhetoric and transatlantic/colonial visual culture.

[2] Runo Lagomarsino’s practice strives to present alternative perspectives on historical, political and cultural power relationships. His work often takes a starting point in the colonial heritage of contemporary Latin America, to highlight the conflicts and the violence that follow the colonial borders. Untitled is a letraset inscription of the wall which reads ‘This wall has no image but it contains geography’.

[3] Carlos A Jaurégui, Canibalia. Canibalismo, calibanismo, antropofagia cultural y consumo en América Latina (Madrid, Frankfurt: Iberoamericana . Vervuert, 2008), p. 14. Beyond appropriating its title for my research, Jaúregui’s book stands as a central milestone and interlocutor of my curatorial research; the principal guidelines of this text and this project are influenced by its reading.

[4] Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park, Wonders and the Order of Nature 1150–1750 (New York: Zone Books, 2001), p. 25.

[5] Warrior Amazons were reported nearly everywhere and ended up naming a river; the Patagonia was for a long time thought to be inhabited by giants, etc.

[6] One of the most popular books of the times, Le livre des merveilles du monde or The Book of Wonders of the World (1413), was a greatly elaborated and illustrated travellers’ book of the Middle Ages, which contained the Asian travelogues of Marco Polo, Odoric de Porderone, John Manderville, Johann Hayton and Ricold de Montcroix. The Travels of Marco Polo met with incredible popular success in an era before printing, and was translated into many European languages during Polo’s lifetime. Columbus was an avid reader of Polo (his annotated version is conserved in the Columbine Library in Seville) and it is worth remembering that Columbus is believed to have reached the Indies, as the purpose of his travels to establish a western sailing route to the Orient.

[7] Carlos A. Jaúregui, Op. cit., p. 111. Following James Clifford, Jaúregui signals that in these accounts it is not the question of the truth of the trip or the observation that is at stake, but rather the spatiotemporal imagination of savagery and its translation to a body of knowledge, tropes and images. This point of view corresponds to what Clifford Geertz has termed ‘I-witnessing’: a participative but distant observation whose translation into words further accentuates its difference and superiority to alterity, who never takes the other’s position.

[8] Candice Lin is a multimedia artist working primarily in sculpture and video, whose work addresses notions of cultural, gendered and racial difference, rampant sexualities and deviant behaviour. Circling around the ways in which boundaries between the bodies of self and other are porous and open to redefinition, her practice examines how Western ideologies of the self influence the politics of power within notions of individualism, selfhood, freedom and difference.

[9] Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, The Inconstancy of the Indian Soul. The Encounter of Catholics and Cannibals in the 16th Century Brazil, translated by Gregory Duff Morton (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2011), 94–95.


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