Vegetarians will be horrified to
discover that cannibals have feelings too, in this remarkable translation of Hans Staden’s classic colonial narrative
Hans Staden’s True History:
An Account of Cannibal Captivity
Edited and translated by Neil L. Whitehead and Michael Harbsmeier
2008, Duke University Press
Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole
WE MAY squirm or even scoff, but an avid commitment to recycling was an early feature of what is now Brazil – in the form of a ritual cannibalism among indigenous tribes through which almost every body part was hungrily consumed or used in some way.
If it is hard for over-sensitive readers to learn from Hans Staden’s account of his experiences as a captive of the Tupi Indians that fast food served after battle was dished up with pomp and, indeed, reverence – they should bear in mind that a fascination with ritual cannibalism remains on the media menu.
In the UK recently, for example, journalists were transfixed by a trial at the end of which a chef was convicted of murdering his gay lover, then frying up some carefully spiced choice cuts of his thigh and tucking in.
Staden’s remarkable tale from the 1550s – set against the backdrop of colonial rivalry between Portugal and France – is one of the most important texts in the discovery of the Americas.
Surprisingly, however, this is the first English-language translation from the sixteenth-century German of this classic piece of eye-witness reportage since 1929 – making it a highly important contribution to colonial and ethnographic history.
The translators have rendered with great skill the book’s enduring shock value, constructed essentially around Staden’s reports of cannibalism and the ritual barbarity of the Tupinambá which, then as now, made this text the equivalent of a blockbuster.
We learn from the German adventurer, for example, not only how they despatched their many unfortunate victims but also what they then did with the various body parts, and who got to eat what.
Thus the head was impaled on a palisade of the village and not eaten, although the lips and eyeball ganglions went to the executioner. The brain was eaten by women and children, and the entrails, intestines and stomach were boiled into a stew. Men got the arms and legs, while women got to drink the victim’s warm blood at the execution itself. The male organs were either given to women – presumably as a special treat – or served up to the men by the women. Teeth and bones were used as necklaces or to make war-flutes or arrow points.
While it is easy to make merry of this deadly serious theme, Neil Whitehead’s magisterial introduction ensures that the reader does not get fixated by the Tarantinoesque violence by offering a comprehensive understanding of the social context into which this volume was published in the original in 1557.
That context is one in which the adventurer’s observations about cannibalism play into much more complex ethical and theological debates both about the European conquest of the Americas and their treatment of the indigenous people, but also of the Christian Eucharist and redemption.
It is rare that academics get to translate and interpret such gory material – and the result is as fleshy as any red-blooded anthropologist is ever likely to encounter and, unlike the cooked fare itself, impossible to put down.
Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books