Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 5, 2016

Deconstructing cannibalism

Filed under: indigenous,transition debate — louisproyect @ 11:26 pm

Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu: “How the West Came to Rule”, p. 129

However, political and legal questions were not the primary challenge posed by subjugating the Amerindians. Instead, it was the more existential questions regarding the ontology of the Other — with, of course, determinant (geo)political and legal effects — that proved most problematic, destroying and creating roughly equal measure. This was a problem that touched on all aspects of Native American being, including fundamentally their ‘cultures’. The various challenges that this presented to the European colonialists are the subject of this section.

To better understand the ontological separation of Europe as a discrete sociocultural entity, we must trace a specific challenge found in the colonial confrontation against which these ideologies were created: the resistance of indigenous communities in the Americas. As Silvia Federici argues, the debates among Spanish jurists that took place in the mid-16th century over the ontological status of Amerindians (and therefore also ‘Europeans’) “would have been unthinkable without an ideological campaign representing the latter as animals and demons”. Travel literature was embellished with bestial, diabolical and nonhuman imagery (cyclops, troglodytes, pygmies, people with tails, giants) as a way of sharpening the differences of local populations from Europeans. In this period, cannibalism, polygamy, devil worship, sodomy and bestiality became European obsessions, since they “seemed a perversion of the law of nature.” The ontological separation of Europeans from Amerindians at the heart of the ideological innovations of sovereignty (more on this below), European identity and Eurocentrism was therefore based on a priori attempt to demonise the local populations of the Americas.

    * * * *

Written on December 6, 1998:

Shakespeare’s Tempest and the American Indian

By Louis Proyect

The evidence is overwhelming that Shakespeare not only set The Tempest on a Caribbean island, but included a native American major character. The play’s ambivalent attitude toward this indigenous slave Caliban serves not only as a useful window into 17th century racial attitudes, it also helps us understand our own period as well. The name Caliban, it should be added, is regarded as a form of “Carib,” the name of the original inhabitants on the islands invaded by Columbus.

In 1609 a fleet of nine ships set out from England to shore up John Smith’s Virginia colony, the first English settlement in the new world. As most people already know from their high-school propaganda, Smith was condemned to death by Powhatan, but was saved at the last minute when his 13 year old daughter Pocahontas interceded on Smith’s behalf. The British returned the favor a couple of years later by burning down Indian villages and attempting to enslave them.

One of the nine ships was separated during a violent storm and ended up on Bermuda. Pamphlets were published that gave a highly imaginative account of the shipwrecked crew’s experiences. Evidently Shakespeare got the idea for his play from this background material since The Tempest is a tale about shipwrecked Europeans colonizing an American island and enslaving the native population.

The other important influence on the play was Montaigne’s “Of Cannibals,” an essay that argues that American Indians lived a naturally virtuous life uncorrupted by civilization. Montaigne wrote:

Now, to return to my subject, I find that there is nothing barbarous and savage in this nation, by anything that I can gather, excepting, that every one gives the title of barbarism to everything that is not in use in his own country. As, indeed, we have no other level of truth and reason, than the example and idea of the opinions and customs of the place wherein we live: there is always the perfect religion, there the perfect government, there the most exact and accomplished usage of all things. They are savages at the same rate that we say fruit are wild, which nature produces of herself and by her own ordinary progress; whereas in truth, we ought rather to call those wild, whose natures we have changed by our artifice, and diverted from the common order. In those, the genuine, most useful and natural virtues and properties are vigorous and sprightly, which we have helped to degenerate in these, by accommodating them to the pleasure of our own corrupted palate.

Although Montaigne was one of the great writers of the 17th century, he could be longwinded as was so often the case back when people had longer attention spans than they do today in the television age. So allow me to reduce what he was saying into a soundbite: “Frenchmen have no business calling the Indians barbarians, because they live in harmony with nature. If anything, we can learn from them, since our own world is so artificial.”

While giving credit to Montaigne as Europe’s first multiculturalist, we must at the same time recognize that he was also guilty of a terrible slander against the Indian, committed mainly out of ignorance. Montaigne assumed that the Tupinamba Indians of Brazil were cannibals, when there really is no evidence to support this. A sailor named Hans Standen spent 12 months on the South American coast and wrote a travel book filled with lurid tales about Tupinamba cannibalism that Montaigne accepted at face value.

Standen’s account is so filled with inconsistencies that they alone serve to debunk the notion of cannibalism in Brazil. By his own admission, he only spent 12 months in Tupinamba territory but apparently learned their language well enough in this time to record their accounts. I personally have been studying Spanish on and off for 35 years and still don’t have it nailed down.

And what accounts they are! He says that when the tribe captures a man from another tribe, their own women force themselves sexually on him. If the woman becomes pregnant, the child is raised as a Tupinamba, but during adulthood “when the mood seizes them, they kill and eat it.” That is what we would call a major mood disorder. Standen also said that the Indians could not count past five, which in his mind was sufficient proof of a savagery consistent with cannibalism. (For a full and highly informative discussion of how Europeans got the idea from Standen and other fabulists that cannibalism existed in the New World, I recommend W. Arens’ “The Man-Eating Myth Myth: Anthropology and Anthropagy, New York, 1979.)

(One other interesting note on European superstitions about the Tupinamba: They decided to name the newly discovered river the Amazon because their fantasies about fierce Tupinamba women reminded them of the Amazon women of Greek myth. Amazon is the Greek word for “without breast.” It was believed that the Amazons cut off their right breasts in order to allow full extension of their bowstrings in combat. It is difficult to explain the irrational notions of the primitive ancient Greeks, who invented all sorts of absurd myths. We must, however, resist the temptation to explain this in terms of some sort of genetic deficiency in the European race, since as we know they are capable of civilization if educated properly.)

Since Shakespeare represents Caliban in a totally unflattering manner–an “ignoble savage” so to speak, one is tempted to conclude that the play is an attempt to answer Montaigne. As might be expected, Shakespeare has a much more complex understanding of his characters which comes through in the drama itself.

When we first meet Caliban, he complains about how he was disenfranchised by the European invader: “This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother, which thou takest from me.” We also learn that Sycorax had worshipped the god Setebos, who was known to Shakespeare as the god of the Patagonian Indians through Magellan’s account in the “History of Travel.”

When Trinculo, a shipwrecked court jester, stumbles across Caliban on the beach, he regards him as some kind of monster. It should be added that Shakespeare’s stage directions stipulate that Caliban should appear as some kind of half-man, half-beast. After recoiling in horror from Caliban, Trinculo considers bringing the monster back to England where he can be displayed in a freak show:

Were I in England now, as once I was, and had but this fish painted, not holiday fool there but would give a piece of silver: there would this monster make a man; any strange beast there makes a man: when they will not give a doit (coin) to relieve a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian.

The court jester is referring to the practice of “exhibiting” Indians for a fee in late 16th century England. Such “freak shows” were highly profitable investments and were a regular feature of colonial policy under King James I.

Caliban tries to ingratiate himself with Trinculo, who might liberate him from Prospero, his current master and lord of the island. What services can Caliban offer? Probably the most important need for any shipwrecked sailor or settler is how to find food, and so Caliban tells him:

I prithee, let me bring thee where crabs grow; And I with my long nails will dig thee pig-nuts; Show thee a jay’s nest, and how to snare the nimble marmoset; I’ll get thee To clustering filberts and sometimes I’ll get thee young scamels from the rock. Wilt thou go with me?

Powhatan had provided the same services to John Smith’s colony and with results that were just as predictable. According to Judith Nies, in “Native American History,” (Ballantine, 1996),after half of the colonists died in the first year, Powhatan took pity and “saved them with donations of food and taught them how to fertilize their fields with seaweed; to plant corn, beans pumpkins, squash; to bake clams and beans and corn in a hole in the ground.” Once the starving British colonists recovered their strength, they set about the task of enslaving or exterminating their benefactors.

The main conflict in The Tempest is between the exiled Prospero and the men against whom he seeks vengeance. With his magical powers, he torments them with apparitions as a warmup to killing them. When his daughter falls in love with one of them, he has a change of heart and decides to free them, along with Caliban. Shakespeare’s plots can sometimes be as simplistic as a Saturday morning cartoon, but he compensates with powerful language, including this speech by his daughter Miranda, who in some sense is Pocahantas to his Powhatan: After receiving a promise from her father that the men will be spared, she expresses her happiness:

O, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, That has such people in it.

The play ends with Prospero deciding to return to Europe, where his daughter will marry her lover, the son of the man who was responsible for his exile. He also decides to decolonize his island and emancipate the slaves: “Set Caliban and his companions free.” His final words are an ode to freedom:

I’ll deliver all; And promise you calm seas, auspicious gales, And sail so expedition, that shall catch Your royal fleet far off. My Ariel, chick, That is your charge: then to the elements Be free, and fare thou well!. . .

Since we only know Shakespeare through the words in his plays, it is a little difficult to come to any conclusions about his social and political views. One thing we can be clear about, however, and that his compassion for humanity and a desire for justice. The Tempest’s happy ending involves setting people free, a rather unambiguous message. In this act, the colonizer sets himself free as well. Prospero not only gives up his island, but relinquishes his magical powers that enabled him to control Caliban. In the epilogue, he states, “Now my charms are all o’erthrown, And what strength I have’s mine own.”

His very final words plead for forgiveness from the audience: “As you from crimes would pardon’d be, Let your indulgence set me free.”

It has been said that Melville is to the United States as Shakespeare is to England. Not only are the two the greatest writers their country produced, they are also–for their age–deeply humanitarian and progressive. Shakespeare’s call for decolonization and emancipation mirrors Melville’s own commitment to the cause of South Sea indigenous peoples, whom he discovered in his early sailing days. His challenge to conventional notions of “civilization” and “savagery” mirror the themes of The Tempest and the Montaigne essay on cannibalism that inspired it.

There were two great influences on Melville’s prose. One was the King James Bible, with its beautiful poetry and insights into human nature. The other was Shakespeare. Melville, who hated snobbery of any sort, saw Shakespeare as a kindred spirit. His Shakespeare was not the precious, aristocratic taste-maker of the kind so often found on Mobil’s Masterpiece Theater. Melville saw Shakespeare as “one of us.” Writing his best friend and editor Evert Duyckinck, Melville said:

I would to God Shakespeare had lived later, & promenaded in Broadway. Not that I might have had the pleasure of leaving my card for him at the Astor, or made merry with him over a bowl of fine Duyckinck punch; but that the muzzle which all men wore on their souls in the Elizabethan day, might not have intercepted Shakespeare’s full articulations. For I hold it a verity, that even Shakespeare was not a frank man to the universe. And, indeed, who in this intolerant Universe is, or can be? But the Declaration of Independence makes a difference.

With these words Melville declares that Shakespeare was a progressive artist, even if he was the servant of the Elizabethan aristocracy, who paid his wage and kept him “muzzled.” In the United States of Melville’s day, the artist suffered no such inhibitions. The American Revolution of 1776 had broken all ties with the English aristocracy and artists could write freely.

Alas, the American Revolution of 1776 had not set the slaves free, nor would it protect the rights of the indigenous peoples. The question that Melville was wrestling with for his entire career as a writer was whether the soul of the American republic could be saved. Moby Dick is an indictment of the country he was growing more and more estranged from. The capitalist whaling-ship which destroyed great whales wantonly, while oppressing the working-class crew, was a symbol of the rot at the heart of American society.

Melville was no social scientist, but his alienation from American capitalism was clearly expressed through his fiction. Moby Dick was written in 1851 and by this time there could be no mistake about the direction of the country. It was becoming wealthy through slave labor, subjugation of the Indian and domination of the world’s oceans, just as England had done before it. This would very likely explain why three of Moby Dick’s most sympathetic characters are Doggo, an African, Tashtego, an American Indian, and Queequeg, a Polynesian. The final scene in Moby Dick depicts the whaling-ship Pequod, named after the exterminated New England Indian tribe, sinking into the ocean after the white whale has rammed it into oblivion. In an apt symbol for the fate it deserved, we see Tashtego’s tomahawk has nailed an American flag into the mast of sinking ship.

People who desire to change American, British or any other repressive society are obliged to consult the great literature of their country, not in order to become “cultured” but in order to get to the living essence of what makes us tick as a people.

Melville’s Redburn is one of his lesser-known books, but it comes as close to a conscious expression of the world we are trying to build as will be found in all of his works. He writes:

There is something in the contemplation of the mode in which America has been settled that, in a noble breast, would forever extinguish the prejudices of national dislikes. Settled by the people of all nations, all nations may claim her for their own. You cannot spill a drop of American blood without spilling the blood of the whole world. . .Our blood is as the flood of the Amazon, made of a thousand noble currents all pouring into one. We are not a nation, so much as a world. . .Our ancestry is lost in the universal pageantry; and Caesar and Alfred, St. Paul and Luther, and Homer and Shakespeare are as much ours as Washington, who is as much the world’s as our own. We are the heirs of all time, and with all nations we divide our inheritance. On this Western Hemisphere all tribes and peoples are forming into one federated whole; and there is a future which shall see the estranged children of Adam restored as to the old hearthstone in Eden.

* * * *

This article appeared originally in Swans (http://www.swans.com/library/art10/lproy19.html).

Herman Melville’s Typee: a Peep at Polynesian Life
by Louis Proyect
Book Review

October 18, 2004

Herman Melville, Typee: a Peep at Polynesian Life, Penguin Books, NY, Reprint edition February 1996, ISBN 0-14043-488-7, 328 pages.

(Swans – October 18, 2004)   After the Panic of 1837 bankrupted the Melville family, the eighteen-year-old Herman was forced to fend for himself. After bouncing from teaching to surveying to civil engineering jobs, he finally signed up on the whaler Acushnet and sailed from Fairhaven, Massachusetts on January 3, 1841. While spending the next four years at sea, first as a whaler and then as a sailor in the US Navy, Melville began to conceive of a new career for himself as a writer.

On June 23, 1842, Melville and a companion jumped ship from the Acushnet and made their way to the island of Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas. There they sought refuge with the reputedly hospitable Happaa peoples. After taking a wrong turn in a forest, they wound up in the midst of their rivals, the Typees, who had a reputation for ferocity and cannibalism. The four weeks spent among the Typees inspired Melville to write the eponymous Typee, a novel that defies 19th century conventions and which foreshadows many of the themes that would appear in subsequent works such as Moby Dick. It is a clarion call against racism and colonialism, as well as an inchoate search for an alternative to the inhuman economic system that had ruined his once patrician family as well as many other Americans of all races.

While Typee incorporates many fictional elements, there is no doubt that his description of life on the Acushnet (called the Dolly in the novel) is very close to the truth:

The usage on board of her was tyrannical; the sick had been inhumanly neglected; the provisions had been doled out in scanty allowance; and her cruises were unreasonably protracted. The captain was the author of the abuses; it was in vain to think that he would either remedy them, or alter his conduct, which was arbitrary and violent in the extreme. His prompt reply to all complaints and remonstrances was–the butt-end of a handspike, so convincingly administered as effectually to silence the aggrieved party.

After a long arduous trek through the mountains of Nuku Hiva, Tommo (a character based on Melville) and his companion Toby stumble across the Typees who live in a secluded valley. The two sailors are practically adopted by the villagers at once and treated as visiting dignitaries:

All the inhabitants of the valley treated me with great kindness; but as to the household of Marheyo, with whom I was now permanently domiciled, nothing could surpass their efforts to minister to my comfort. To the gratification of my palate they paid the most unwearied attention. They continually invited me to partake of food, and when after eating heartily I declined the viands they continued to offer me, they seemed to think that my appetite stood in need of some piquant stimulant to excite its activity.

The contrast between the oppressive conditions of life in capitalist society, called “civilization,” and the Stone Age affluence (as anthropologist Marshall Sahlins puts it) enjoyed by the Typees is drawn throughout the novel. After watching a Typee man laboriously start a fire by rubbing two sticks, Melville observes:

What a striking evidence does this operation furnish of the wide difference between the extreme of savage and civilized life. A gentleman of Typee can bring up a numerous family of children and give them all a highly respectable cannibal education, with infinitely less toil and anxiety than he expends in the simple process of striking a light; whilst a poor European artisan, who through the instrumentality of a lucifer performs the same operation in one second, is put to his wit’s end to provide for his starving offspring that food which the children of a Polynesian father, without troubling their parents, pluck from the branches of every tree around them.

After noticing that the Typees lacked a concept of personal property or crime and that they left valued spears and carvings about for the taking, Melville wondered aloud if civilization was really that much of an advance over savagery:

Civilization does not engross all the virtues of humanity: she has not even her full share of them. They flourish in greater abundance and attain greater strength among many barbarous people. The hospitality of the wild Arab, the courage of the North American Indian, and the faithful friendship of some of the Polynesian nations, far surpass anything of a similar kind among the polished communities of Europe. If truth and justice, and the better principles of our nature, cannot exist unless enforced by the statute-book, how are we to account for the social condition of the Typees? So pure and upright were they in all the relations of life, that entering their valley, as I did, under the most erroneous impressions of their character, I was soon led to exclaim in amazement: ‘Are these the ferocious savages, the blood-thirsty cannibals of whom I have heard such frightful tales! They deal more kindly with each other, and are more humane than many who study essays on virtue and benevolence, and who repeat every night that beautiful prayer breathed first by the lips of the divine and gentle Jesus.’ I will frankly declare that after passing a few weeks in this valley of the Marquesas, I formed a higher estimate of human nature than I had ever before entertained. But alas! since then I have been one of the crew of a man-of-war, and the pent-up wickedness of five hundred men has nearly overturned all my previous theories.

Ultimately Melville casts doubt on the possibility that cannibalism was practiced by the Typee, despite the allegations of missionaries and sailors who had preceded him to the island and who were far more prejudiced against the “savages.” This is a pattern that has been repeated throughout the history of colonialism. During the early years of colonial expansion, subjugation of native peoples was considered appropriate if they were beyond redemption, especially if they were reported to be cannibals. Hence, such reports on such tendencies were accepted often at face value.

In The Man-eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy, anthropologist W. Arens debunks such testimonies and concludes — with Melville — that cannibalism is an extremely rare phenomenon in precapitalist society. Arens tells the story of a sailor named Hans Standen who spent 12 months in Brazil in the 1600s and wrote a travel book filled with lurid tales about cannibalism among the Tupinamba people. He is everything that Melville is not.

Standen’s account is so filled with inconsistencies that they alone serve to debunk the notion of cannibalism in Brazil. By his own admission, he only spent 12 months in Tupinamba territory but apparently learned their language well enough in this time to record their accounts. And what accounts they are! He says that when they capture a man from another tribe, their own women force themselves sexually on him. If the woman becomes pregnant, the child is raised as a Tupinamba, but during adulthood “when the mood seizes them, they kill and eat it.” He also claimed that the Indians could not count past five, which in his mind was sufficient proof of a savagery consistent with cannibalism.

Whatever the truth about cannibalism among the Typees, they are mere slouches when it comes to the savagery of the invader. Some experts believe that Western colonialism is responsible for the reduction of the native Marquesan population from 100,000 at its height to only 4,865 in 1882. One such assailant of the native peoples was Captain David Porter of the US Navy who seized the islands shortly after the War of 1812. While at first acknowledging the generosity and pacific nature of the islanders, he soon found it necessary to bring them under his thumb as part of an overall scheme to exploit the Marquesas economically. When a chief of the Teii peoples expresses his defiance to the naval officer, Porter thrusts a musket into his face and demands an apology. His words are a virtual credo of the colonizer: “My aim was to render all the tribes subservient to my views, and I thought it necessary to check the manner of Mouina, lest it became contagious, and I should find a difficulty in keeping them in that subjugation by which only we could render ourselves secure.” (Quoted in T. Walter Herbert Jr.’s Marquesan Encounters: Melville and the Meaning of Civilization.)

While Herman Melville never achieved the sort of superstar status of Charles Dickens or Mark Twain, he too attempted a career as a public lecturer. Part of his repertory was a talk on the South Seas. Although the full text is not extant, we do have notes from a “phonographist” from the Baltimore American newspaper on February 8, 1859.

Melville recounts Balboa’s discovery of the South Seas: “The thronging Indians opposed Balboa’s passage, demanding who he was, what he wanted, and whither he was going. The reply is a model of Spartan directness. ‘I am a Christian, my errand is to spread the true religion and to seek gold, and I am going in search of the sea.'”

Melville wonders if the Europeans will begin to tour the charming isles of the South Seas. His reply:

Why don’t the English yachters give up the prosy Mediterranean and sail out here? Any one who treats the natives fairly is just as safe as if he were on the Nile or Danube. But I am sorry to say we whites have a sad reputation among many of the Polynesians. They esteem us, with rare exceptions, such as some of the missionaries, the most barbarous, treacherous, irreligious, and devilish creatures on the earth. It may be a mere prejudice of these unlettered savages, for have not our traders always treated them with brotherly affection? Who has ever heard of a vessel sustaining the honor of a Christian flag and the spirit of the Christian Gospel by opening its batteries in indiscriminate massacre upon some poor little village on the seaside — splattering the torn bamboo huts with blood and brains of women and children, defenseless and innocent?

The final paragraphs are the phonographist’s own words and it is too bad that we don’t have Melville’s. They deal with the colonization of the South Sea islands:

The rapid advance, in the externals only, of civilized life was then spoken of, and the prospect of annexing the Sandwich Islands to the American Union commented on, with the remark that the whalemen of Nantucket and the Westward ho! Of California were every day getting them more and more annexed.

The lecturer closed with an earnest wish that adventurers from our soil and from the lands of Europe would abstain from those brutal and cruel vices which disgust even savages with our manners, while they turn an earthly paradise into a pandemonium. And as for annexations he begged, as a general philanthropist, to offer up an earnest prayer, and he entreated all present to join him in it, that the banns [public announcements] of that union should be forbidden until we had found for ourselves a civilization moral, mental, and physical, higher than the one which has culminated in almshouses, prisons, and hospitals.


1 Comment »

  1. […] (3) Deconstructing cannibalism 5 January 2016 https://louisproyect.org/2016/01/05/deconstructing-cannibalism/ […]

    Pingback by Happy 200th, Herman! | manuelgarciajr — August 1, 2019 @ 12:32 am

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