As early modern empires competed for economic, spiritual, and imperial control of the Atlantic world, Europeans brought violence upon the natives and feared retaliation for their trespasses. Of the violence they imagined facing, cannibals embodied the ritualized vengeance and physical incorporation that threatened and beckoned them far away from home when they sometimes found themselves dependent, rather than conquering, guests of Native Americans. As a result, the reality or rumor of cultural cannibalism enlivened the travel narratives of sixteenth-century explorers such as Hans Staden, who was stranded in Brazil for over ten months. Real or not, the cannibal took a charismatic and leading role in the theater of imperial violence and was used by all sides in the conflict. In addition to representing the politics of early modern imperialism, the coercion to which cannibals subjected their victims as they violently and forcefully condemned them to incorporation into a new culture and body politic, was a powerful metaphor for the extreme lack of free will in the experience of identity and cultural affinity for sixteenth-century Christians torn apart by Reformation controversies. As the vessel of the soul, each individual body became a centre on which to lay siege, in cannibal feast or Christian battle.
Controversy over the historical practice of cannibalism by Native Americans has occasionally flared up in academia since William Arens’ ‘The Man-Eating Myth’ (1979) questioned the evidence on cultural anthropophagy and turned the ethnographic gaze upon the Western obsession with cannibals. Among the questionable evidence, William Arens challenged the veracity of Hans Staden’s 1557 narrative of captivity with the cannibalistic Tupinamba of Brazil. Pointing to linguistic barriers and a notable lapse in time between Hans Staden’s adventures and the recording of his tale, William Arens argued that this account offers historians access to the West, rather than to the Tupinamba. Other scholars, frustrated in their desire to recover lost cultures in these European texts — among them real cannibals — have been zealous in defending the cannibal against this “crazed revisionism.” In his 1997 ‘Cannibals,’ Frank Lestringant called William Arens a “sensation-hungry journalist” and indicated such scholarship for its “misrepresentations of the Other.” The most commonly cited repudiation of William Arens’ argument, Donald W. Forsyth’s 1985 ‘Three Cheers for Hans Staden: The Case for Brazilian Cannibalism’ used Hans Staden’s narrative to respond point by point to William Arens’ sometimes sloppy critique. However, other than these European travel narratives, which are fraught with imperial motivations and the undeniable Western obsession with cannibals, no evidence hard enough to convince either side of this debate is likely to appear. The reality of the practice of cannibalism on the part of the Tupinamba remains open.
Scholars have been able to provide useful and convincing analyses of the myth of cannibalism and its uses for early modern imperialism. In fact, Frank Lestringant’s ‘Cannibals’ was more successful in reflecting upon the history of the cannibal in French culture than he was at enacting a “retrieval” of real cannibals. As Frank Lestringant argues, cannibalism usually “represents something other than itself,” as in Michel Eyquem de Montaigne’s 1580 essay ‘On Cannibals,’ in which he compared cultural cannibalism to the treatment of French subjects in the current regime and found cannibalism preferable. While he does not address Hans Staden’s narrative, Frank Lestringant does analyze descriptions of Tupinamba cannibalism by its two other main authors — Catholic André de Thevet and Calvinist, Jean de Léry. In these chapters, Frank Lestringant draws connections between the authors’ interest in Tupinamba cannibalism and the ideological animosity over religious identity and Christian values that characterized the worst conflicts of the Reformation.
Patricia Seed agrees with Frank Lestringant’s portrayal of French attitudes when she compares European ideas of ‘Cannibals: Iberia’s Partial Truth’ in her 2001 ‘American Pentimento.’ As Patricia Seed adds, true or not, condemnations of American cannibals “were colonial accusations” that served to support the practices of imperialism. Patricia Seed touches on Spanish and Portuguese justifications for enslaving native peoples in petitions that “yoked together two entirely separate reasons for enslavement: cannibalism and military resistance to Iberian domination.” Threatening and anti-Christian in their rumoured practice, natives branded as cannibals were subject to the violence and fervour of religious conversion, enslavement, and death — through disease or through colonial violence.
In fact, the association between cannibalism, warfare, and anti-colonial resistance was intrinsic to the European interpretation that Tupinamba cannibalism was an act of vengeance upon captured members of enemy tribes. European observers admired the fierce pageantry of the ritual in which the Tupinamba bludgeoned and butchered the captive only after he or she had made a speech promising retribution. This documented display of cannibal audacity has made its mark on scholarship attempting to capture the motivations behind these rumoured acts of Tupinamba cannibalism. Although his focus became the French, Frank Lestringant’s interesting goal was to recover the cannibals’ “loquacity — or rather their proud and cruel eloquence.” The victim’s formalized speech of vengeance speaks to Westerners regretful of conquest.
Postcolonial criticism has resoundingly objected to the Western practice of giving voice to the “Other.” However, interpretations like that of Frank Lestringant do lend an appeal to the cannibals by portraying them as insurgents insisting on cultural autonomy who asserted resistance to European imperialism by killing and eating those who would enslave them and destroy their culture. Anthropologist Neil L. Whitehead believes that such recent scholarship “recovers the cannibal as an anti-colonialist sign, much in the manner of the Brazilian antropofagia movement, as a mark of liberty in the face of colonial oppression.” Neil L. Whitehead argues that Hans Staden’s account “reveals the political and social calculation surrounding the ritual performance” of cannibalism by the Tupinamba at what may have been “a particularly intense and desperate moment” as community leaders saw their culture “disintegrating under external colonialism and epidemic disease.” To leave aside Western prejudices about anthropophagy and uncover Brazilian resistance to imperialism is admirable. However, cultural relativists such as Frank Lestringant, Neil L. Whitehead, and other scholars who have professed a belief that the Tupinamba were “real” cannibals overlook the possibility that the brilliance of Tupinamba resistance may not have been in eating the enemy. Rather, it was their use of rumours that fed the European obsession with dreaded cannibals that earned them respect in the colonial contest. The fear of cannibals and the practice of anthropophagy went to the heart of Christian identity in a time of religious turmoil taking place in Europe, which at times was played out on the Brazilian coast among the Tupinamba.