Imperial Encounters with Cannibals in the North Atlantic World
New York University Press 2015
New Books in American StudiesNew Books in AnthropologyNew Books in European StudiesNew Books in HistoryNew Books in Native American StudiesNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books Network October 11, 2016 James Esposito
Kelly Watson’s Insatiable Appetites: Imperial Encounters with Cannibals in the North Atlantic World (New York University Press, 2015) explores the history of the New World through the lens of the cannibal myth. Watson establishes that accusations of cannibalism in the Americas during the early modern period became a valuable discursive tool to justify the European imperial project. She shows how early accounts of crazed cannibal women grounded the often discordant voices of Spanish explorers, colonial officials, and clergy into one persuasive call for action in the Caribbean and Mexico.
Watson shows how Spanish accounts followed similar calls for action against cannibals in ancient and medieval texts echoing the writings of Pliny and Herodotus. Although these claims were often exaggerated or fabricated, the cannibal myth became a kind of prehistory essential for the atrocities and enslavement of native peoples of the Americas. French and English colonists also employed the cannibal myth for their own interests. Watson shows how French Jesuit missionaries used the spectre of native cannibalism as a means to amplify their own sense of Christian martyrdom in Quebec. The English too used captivity narratives to reinforce their claim to North American lands as a something that was once wild and savage now made civilized through great diligence and personal risk. In all contexts, the cannibal myth identified and enhanced the masculine identities of the colonizers, enhancing a claim to subjectivity, justice, and reason to the perceived chaos of effeminized native peoples.