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Eat or Be Eaten

The Hypocrisy of Cannibalism in the West

‘She killed him accidentally, but she decided to cook his liver like foie gras because she couldn’t pass up the opportunity and it was delicious’. This account of cannibalism is entirely fictional and taken from A Certain Hunger by Chelsea G. Summers but it's not the only one of its kind. Modern Western popular culture is obsessed with cannibalism - but it seems to disregard its long and torrid history.

Text Dima Karara

Image Miranda Tate

It is believed that Christopher Columbus coined the word ‘cannibal’. When he went to the island of Guadalupe he heard rumours about a group called the Caribs who would eat other people. Carib became Canib and eventually evolved into the modern Cannibal. He heard about the Caribs from a rival tribe, so he had no actual evidence that anyone in the Americas was eating other people. When he told Queen Isabella about the Caribs, she was mortified and decreed that they were savages, granting him free moral rein to enslave any Caribs he came across. Columbus took that opportunity and claimed anyone that did not obey him to be a Carib - using the term to dehumanise and capture indigenous people.

The Colonial clash with Cannibalism didn't stop there, as settlers would continue to encounter cannibalism in Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and Congo, among others. It would often come in the form of eating someone that had already died - enemies that were killed in battle, infants that died too young, or elders that died of old age. Sometimes it was to show respect to the dead, or to assert dominance. Regardless of the reasoning behind it, Europeans would often carry on the tradition that Columbus started by dehumanising and mistreating natives. They would turn their noses up at practices of cannibalism: labelling them savage, uncivilised, and ferocious. Aside from real examples of cannibalism, myths of cannibalism were attributed to people with no evidence, only to justify White supremacy and support narratives of the White man’s burden.

White Morality

Like most things, Cannibalism existed before Columbus ‘discovered’ it. In fact, it actually existed in Europe many centuries before. During the 12th century, people in Europe would use ground-up mummified human remains as a miracle cure for any illnesses or ailments they might have. This brown powder - fittingly referred to as Mumia - was initially discovered as a cure from ‘the exotic East’. During the Crusades, Europeans came across an all-around remedy in Persia that was not made from human remains. However, a translation mishap led the Europeans to Egyptian tombs in search of the precious powder. Eventually, they would even turn to their own graves and illegally dig up corpses or use the bodies of executed criminals to make Mumia. Practices of Mumia in Europe continued up until around the 19th century - long after Columbus’ discovery of cannibalism in the Americas. Evidently, White Europeans were not above the moral code that they had constructed to oppress others.

Another notable instance of European Cannibalism is what happened on the Arrogante. In 1837 there was a Portuguese slave ship named the Arrogante where the sailors killed, cooked, and ate a man on board - as well as forcing the African slaves on the ship to also eat him. This instance is quite famous and well documented, but because Europeans and colonisers tend to control the historical narrative, it's unclear how common cases like this were. What is clear and well-documented however, is the fear of cannibalism on slave ships that was common among West Africans starting in the 16th century. This fear wasn't far-fetched, as it was mostly inspired by other atrocities and brutalities that occurred on slave ships.

The Case for Cannibalism - Modern Media

Cannibalism is not explicitly defined as a crime in Dutch law, it is only illegal if it is ‘abuse or contrary to morality.’ In 2011, two Dutch TV presenters took part in an experiment where they cooked and ate their own flesh. Despite being entirely legal and consensual, it still made people uncomfortable.

Morals on cannibalism are murky, as most people shudder at the mere idea. A lot of popular media seems to put the question of morality at the forefront of the viewer's minds. In Tender is the Flesh, the 2018 book by author Agustina Bazterrica, the characters live in a world where humans are being farmed and slaughtered. The main character is uncomfortable at the prospect while the people around him seem to be totally fine with it, indulging in human meat much like they would any other. It makes the reader wonder if cannibalism could be morally okay in that situation, and if it's the implication that the people they eat are no longer people by not having lives and minds of their own. There are also countless survival scenarios presented to us, where friends have to contemplate who to eat first when stranded on a desert island. They grapple with deciding whether to starve or give into eating someone. In spite of - or perhaps because of - its questionable morality, cannibalism is prevalent in pop culture. Cannibalism in the media puts our flesh-eating fears in front of us but makes them appealing. It's romanticised for bite-sized Hollywood consumption despite its realism. As Murakami once wrote, ‘true terror is the kind that men feel toward their imagination’. Historically, imagined cannibalism has been more abundant and its potentiality more terrifying than its reality. Hollywood seems to reiterate this, with the onscreen counterparts of Cannibalism not seeming so bad.

Nowadays when people think of cannibalism they think of Netflix’s Jeffrey Dahmer series or how hot Timothee Chalamet and Taylor Russel were in <i>Bones and All<i/>. Recent media seems to tiptoe the line between condemning and glorifying cannibalism, harkening back to its colonial past. In the movie Bones and All and the show Santa Clarita Diet, characters revel in their positions as cannibals. In Yellow Jackets, a show where a group of high schoolers are stranded in the wilderness; they finally resort to cannibalism in a feverish sequence of indulgence. Human meat in Hollywood is almost always portrayed as delicious and as a metaphor. In the media, Cannibalism can be represented as erotic, religious, or euphoric. It can also represent friendship, queerness, self-love and nature to name a few more. At times it can be a delicacy; in the film Fresh, the television show Hannibal, and the book A Certain Hunger we see the wealthy take delight in the act of cannibalism in a way only the rich can - as a delicacy more luxurious than truffles and caviar. There’s a tension between glamorising it and morally condemning it, and the colonial dynamics are still there. It's cool and scary, it's like a car crash you can't look away from, it's morally questionable yet not punishable by law. It’s the modern-day forbidden fruit - but how can you resist taking a bite.

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