Cannibal Talk

Cannibal Talk: The Man-Eating Myth and Human Sacrifice in the South Seas

Gananath Obeyesekere
Copyright Date: 2005
Edition: 1
Pages: 340
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1ppn6j
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  • Book Info
    Cannibal Talk
    Book Description:

    In this radical reexamination of the notion of cannibalism, Gananath Obeyesekere offers a fascinating and convincing argument that cannibalism is mostly "cannibal talk," a discourse on the Other engaged in by both indigenous peoples and colonial intruders that results in sometimes funny and sometimes deadly cultural misunderstandings. Turning his keen intelligence to Polynesian societies in the early periods of European contact and colonization, Obeyesekere deconstructs Western eyewitness accounts, carefully examining their origins and treating them as a species of fiction writing and seamen's yarns. Cannibalism is less a social or cultural fact than a mythic representation of European writing that reflects much more the realities of European societies and their fascination with the practice of cannibalism, he argues. And while very limited forms of cannibalism might have occurred in Polynesian societies, they were largely in connection with human sacrifice and carried out by a select community in well-defined sacramental rituals.Cannibal Talkconsiders how the colonial intrusion produced a complex self-fulfilling prophecy whereby the fantasy of cannibalism became a reality as natives on occasion began to eat both Europeans and their own enemies in acts of "conspicuous anthropophagy."

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93831-1
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. PREFACE
    (pp. xv-xx)
  6. ONE Anthropology and the Man-Eating Myth
    (pp. 1-23)

    As the title of this book,Cannibal Talk, implies, I deal with the discourses of cannibalism and the behaviors and practices associated with such talk (“discursive practices”) in the interaction between natives and Europeans following the “discovery” of Polynesia by Captain James Cook in the voyage of theEndeavour, 1768–72. The “South Seas” of my title is also the product of the European romantic imagination rather than an ethnographic or oceanographic category. In exploring the theme of cannibal talk I am deeply indebted to William Arens’s pioneering work,The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy. Writing many years later and...

  7. TWO “British Cannibals”: Dialogical Misunderstandings in the South Seas
    (pp. 24-56)

    The date is February 15, 1779, the day after the death of Captain James Cook in Kealakekua Bay on the island of Hawai‘i, the place where I ended my previous narrative of the sad end of that redoubtable sea captain who, it is said, was a divinity for Hawaiians.¹ There is tension in the Hawaiian air: one group with their piles of stones, another with their loaded guns, not an unusual phenomenon in those historical conjunctures and power relations, then and now and everywhere where people unequally armed meet each other in awesome confrontation. Here in Hawai‘i, the ship’s officers...

  8. THREE Concerning Violence: A Backward Journey into Maori Anthropophagy
    (pp. 57-87)

    The change in Maori practice is probably the most controversial part of my argument. I present my thesis hesitantly because no one seems to have a clear knowledge of precontact or “traditional” Maori anthropophagy. In fact this phrasing might be a misnomer because New Zealand consisted of a multiplicity of Maori communities, such that, forms of anthropophagy, wherever they existed, would have shown local variations. Conventional ethnography simply constructs an ideal type of Maori cannibalism from a variety of statements—interviews with older men, myths, missionary and magistrate accounts, and even that of eyewitnesses. These sources of information are treated...

  9. FOUR Savage Indignation: Cannibalism and the Parodic
    (pp. 88-116)

    In several of the discourses mentioned in the previous chapters it seems that what is parody for the Maori is deadly serious for his Other, the European.¹ Sometimes the humor is shared by both sides as in the second voyage when Cook reported of his curio-hungry sailors: “It was astonishing to see with what eagerness everyone catched at every thing they saw, it even went so far as to become the ridicule of the Natives by offering pieces of sticks stones and what not to exchange, one waggish Boy took a piece of human excrement on a stick and hild...

  10. FIVE The Later Fate of Heads: Cannibalism, Decapitation, and Capitalism
    (pp. 117-150)

    For the moment let me bracket “this cannibal business of selling the heads of dead idolators” that Melville’s Ishmael speaks about and shift instead to the significance of that queer trade of Queequeg trying to sell his many heads even though the “market’s overstocked.”¹ I will do so by continuing my earlier treatise on decapitated heads with an incident recorded by Samuel Marsden, the coordinator of the Protestant missions in New Zealand on behalf of the Church Missionary Society. Marsden was a “Evangelical Anglican” well educated at Cambridge and strongly influenced by popular Wesleyanism and other Calvinist movements of the...

  11. SIX Cannibal Feasts in Nineteenth-Century Fiji: Seamen’s Yarns and the Ethnographic Imagination
    (pp. 151-192)

    Despite that fact that I am not as familiar with the political and economic situation of Fiji in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as I am with the Maori, I believe that in Fiji also there developed a form of pronounced anthropophagy that must be seen in terms of the European presence. The lure of trade, the musket wars, and the rise of powerful chiefdoms and the political confederations that resulted drew Fiji gradually into the world capitalist order. We know that pronounced anthropophagy existed in New Zealand mainly, though not exclusively, in the Bay of Islands area....

  12. SEVEN Narratives of the Self: Chevalier Peter Dillon’s Fijian Cannibal Adventures
    (pp. 193-222)

    Historical ignorance compels us to leave aside Lockerby and Thomas Smith and move on to Peter Dillon who on September 6, 1813, presented an eyewitness description of a cannibal feast that has not been surpassed in its detail before or since. Dillon was a well-known sea captain, trader, and self-designated explorer living in Sydney. Virtually every writer on Fiji mentions with approbation his account as truly authentic, and I considered it so too when I first read about it in J.W. Davidson’s well-known biography of Dillon.¹ It required several months of hard work at the National Library of Australia examining...

  13. EIGHT On Quartering and Cannibalism and the Discourses of Savagism
    (pp. 223-254)

    I shall leave the Greeks of Homer for the moment and begin this chapter with an aside on African cannibalism by T. H. Huxley in his popular book,Man’s Place in Nature.² Stephen Jay Gould refers to Huxley as “a fierce defender of evolution and the greatest prose stylist in the history of British science,” and, I might add, a man given to an unrelenting rationality, an opponent of Christian theology and the inventor of that wonderful term “agnosticism.”³ Yet, serendipitously, I found an interesting section, entitled “African Cannibalism in the Sixteenth Century,” wedged between the first and second chapters...

  14. CONCLUSION
    (pp. 255-268)

    As I hinted in my preface, the several chapters in this book can either be read as a continuous narrative or as separate essays held together by the theme of “cannibal talk.” I now want to discuss a few of the issues that might not have been clear in the preceding chapters. This will provide an opportunity for my critics to disagree with me, because it must be remembered that falsification, let alone disproof, is difficult to realize in respect of the open narratives that I have constructed here.Disagreementby positing alternative narratives, contrary evidence, and their interpretation is...

  15. NOTES
    (pp. 269-310)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 311-320)