Cannibalism is such an effective tool for propaganda against ancient communities that the Western political appetite for it will never be satiated. Wherever the Western imperialists went during the Age of Imperialism, they found cannibals. They didn’t need to offer evidence to prove the allegation of cannibalism. A flimsy rumor was sufficient to push any community in the Americas, Africa, and Asia into the category of cannibals.
The Western chroniclers have claimed that the people in Congo fatten their prisoners before cooking and serving them. They have claimed that the Fijians and New Guineans dined on exquisitely cooked human flesh. They have described the recipes that Brazil’s Tupinambá people used to cook human flesh. In the Americas, any tribe that fought with the conquistadors was branded as cannibals. They have branded the caribs as cannibals. They have written about the cannibalistic feasts of the Aztecs.
These allegations of cannibalism were aimed at creating the impression that the people of the Americas, Africa, and Asia were beastly creatures. Since they were beastly creatures who ate their own kind, it was not sinful and illegal to loot, enslave, and kill them. The strange thing is that cannibalism used to be reported in most areas before the Westerners conquered and plundered it—once they conquered the land, looted the gold and silver, and enslaved the people, cannibalism magically disappeared.
The conquistadors lived in close proximity to the Aztec and other indigenous tribes of the Americas for decades—if cannibalism was rampant, then how is it that no one from Spain got eaten? The cannibal epithet was stuck on the Aztecs on the basis of one letter in which Hernán Cortés claims that he once saw an Aztec eating human flesh. After the conquistadors conquered the Aztec Empire, they did not find any evidence of cannibalism. The purpose of the allegations of cannibalism was to justify their brutal conquest and plunder of the Aztec community.
Since the fifteenth century, the Western fiction writers have been conjuring lurid tales of cannibalism in the Americas, Africa, and Asia. In the twentieth century, many of these tales have been turned into movies which take the propaganda against the non-Western regions to a new level. The stray incidents of cannibalism due to insanity, psychological maladies, or bad survival conditions can happen anywhere, including Europe. These incidents are a rarity, they are criminal acts, and they are unfortunate.
The Western obsession with cannibalism did not begin in the Age of Imperialism. Herodotus wrote about a tribe called Androphagi who were the “only people who eat human flesh.” Herodotus had never encountered the Androphagi. He did not know anyone who had encountered them. He does not clarify where the Androphagi could be found. He has blamed them for cannibalism for one reason: they existed far from the Ancient Greek world. His logic was that since they were far from Greece, they must be cannibals.
The sixteenth century French essayist, Michel de Montaigne, gave some thought to cannibalism in his essay, “Of the Cannibals.” He says that “we are to judge by the eye of reason, and not from common report.” But he goes on to assert that the cannibalism in far flung areas could be excused since people there were savages.
Montaigne was influenced by the account of Hans Staden who claimed that he had lived among the Tupinambá people and witnessed them cooking and consuming human flesh. Staden’s account is so bizarre that it would take a first rate idiot to believe him. He describes the females in Tupinambá tribe as a sort of Amazonian women who have a taste for man’s flesh and play a central role in torturing, killing, and cooking men. The question is: Why didn’t the Amazonian women of the Tupinambá tribe cook Hans Staden? He was with them for years.
History is written by the victors. The vanquished lose their land, property, dignity, and culture. Their voices are silenced. They get branded as cannibals. After the 1950s, anthropological studies have emerged which show that there is no evidence to back the allegations of cannibalism. These allegations were the outcome of the twisted imagination of some Western imperialists, chroniclers, and fiction writers. The branding of communities in the Americas, Africa, and Asia as cannibals is a pernicious legacy of Western imperialism.