Episodes of Cannibalism throughout History
Episodes of Cannibalism throughout History

Episodes of Cannibalism throughout History

Larry Holzwarth - October 13, 2019

Episodes of Cannibalism throughout History
A mid-16th century rendition of the prophet Isaiah. Wikimedia

10. References to cannibalism are prevalent in the Bible

Both the Christian New Testament and the Hebrew Bible contain numerous references to cannibalism. Some of them are promises or commands from God, as in Jeremiah 19: 9, “And I will cause them to eat the flesh of their sons and the flesh of their daughters, and they shall eat everyone the flesh of his friend in the siege…” (KJV). In Isaiah 49: 26, God tells the prophet, “And I will feed them that oppress thee with their own flesh; and they shall be drunken with their own blood, as with sweet wine…” (KJV). In 2 Kings is a story of a woman asking another to deliver her son to be eaten, with the promise of her delivering her own son for the same purpose the following day. (2 Kings 6: 28-29, KJV)

The presence of more than 30 verses throughout the Bible leads some to argue that the Bible endorses cannibalism, others that it describes it as the suffering to be visited upon sinners, and still others to ignore them entirely. They do indicate that the practice was known in the lands of ancient Israel and the other kingdoms and dominions of the books of the Bible. The Christian belief in the conversion of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ – the transubstantiation – led the Romans and others to consider them cannibalistic in nature, though their participation in the eating of flesh and blood was purely symbolic.

Episodes of Cannibalism throughout History
William III, once Prince of Orange, arriving in Ireland while a celestial Pope Innocent gives his blessing. Wikimedia

11. A Dutch mob killed and ate their own Prime Minister in 1672

Johan deWitt was a wealthy and powerful leader of the faction of Dutch merchants and traders that supported the Dutch Republic. For two decades deWitt and his brother, Cornelis, controlled the machinery of government in the Republic, despite opposition from the powerful House of Orange, the leading house of Dutch nobility. Its leader was Willem III, Prince of Orange (and later King William III of England). During his period of control of the republican Dutch government as Grand Pensioner (in effect, Prime Minister), deWitt focused on liberal reforms and policies, largely ignoring the Dutch army. He did support the expansion of the Dutch navy to defend trade.

In 1672 war erupted between the English and Dutch (Third Anglo-Dutch War); the French and Dutch (Franco-Dutch War); and enemy armies rapidly overran the Dutch Republic. Angry mobs of supporters of the House of Orange rioted, and the deWitt brothers were seized and murdered, according to some on the command of the Prince of Orange. The brothers’ bodies were then mutilated and according to numerous sources parts of Johan’s body were eaten by the frenzied mob. Though the murderers were known by authorities, none were ever charged with a crime, and some were granted rewards by Willem, and by his supporters, leading to the conclusion that a future King of England endorsed, though he did not participate in, an act of cannibalism.

Episodes of Cannibalism throughout History
22 men and boys escaped the burning Luxborough, to face starvation and cannibalism in a small boat. Wikimedia

12. Survivors of the Luxborough Galley resorted to cannibalism to stay alive

The Luxborough was a vessel which ran on the Triangle Trade route, carrying goods, slaves, rum and molasses between England, the American colonies, and Africa in 1727. On her final voyage a disastrous fire, started when a lighted candle used for checking the source of a leak ignited a barrel of rum, led to the loss of the ship and 22 men and boys escaped in a small boat. They had no navigational aids, little food and water, and when they were rescued by a fishing vessel two weeks later their number had been reduced to twelve. Several more died after being rescued despite the attentions of the fishermen. One survivor went to Boston, and it was the Gazette of that city which first described the loss of the ship and the survival of some of the crew.

The account reported that though the sensation of hunger was “not so urgent” the survivors quickly decided to “adopt the horrible expedient of eating part of the bodies of our dead companions, and drinking their blood”. They failed in their several attempts to catch fish swimming around the drifting boat, using parts of the dead bodies as their bait. The report stated they tried several parts of the bodies as food, “but could relish only the hearts, of which we ate three”. They developed a procedure of quickly cutting the throat of the recently deceased to drain as much blood as possible, which was then shared among the survivors. Nearly all of the survivors lived to “a very great age” according to John Nichols, editor of Gentleman’s Magazine, who interviewed some of them decades later.

Episodes of Cannibalism throughout History
Macquarie Harbor prison. Wikimedia.

13. Escaping prisoners cannibalized each other until there was one

In 1822, Alexander Pearce and seven other prisoners escaped from the prison at Macquarie Harbor, on Tasmania’s remote west coast. The prisoners had intended to escape by boat, but circumstances of the escape led them to entering the rugged country to the east, hoping to cross to the coast in that direction. On the eighth day, one of the escapees, Alexander Dalton, was selected by vote of the others to be killed to provide food for the rest. Two escapees decided the next day to return to the prison. The others continued eastward, and as hunger became great, the weakest of the party was killed by bludgeoning with an axe, and provided sustenance for the others.

When there were but two remaining, both struggled to remain awake, and Pearce won the battle. He made it to the eastern settlements and managed to remain undetected for a short time, surviving by stealing sheep. When he was recaptured, he told the story of the escape to local authorities, who did not believe him. The escapees who had returned to Macquarie had died, and the story could not be corroborated. Months later Pearce escaped again, in company with another prisoner. He was quickly recaptured, and had human flesh in his possession when he was. He also had other food. He was hanged in Hobart in July, 1824.

Episodes of Cannibalism throughout History
A supplement to the Coffin Handbills accused Andrew Jackson of breakfasting on the dead bodies of his enemies. Wikimedia

14. Andrew Jackson was accused of cannibalism while running for president on 1828

Those who believe that political campaigns of the present day are the most vile and vicious of history would do well to look at some of the campaigns of the past. In 1828, Andrew Jackson was running for President, largely on his heroic reputation as a soldier against the Creek Indians and his victory at New Orleans in 1815. A series of pamphlets known as the Coffin Handbills were produced by his opponents, tarnishing his reputation both as a soldier and as a man. In one he was accused of executing several men under his command, a blatant falsehood as presented. In another he was accused of adultery and bigamy.

In a supplement to the Coffin Handbills, a pamphlet written by Congressman John Taliaferro, a supporter of Jackson’s opponent, incumbent President John Quincy Adams, Jackson was directly accused of sleeping while surrounded by the bodies of the Indians his troops had slain. He was also accused of having some of the bodies butchered by his cooks and served to him for breakfast. There was no truth to the accusations, but they were widely repeated in pro-Adams publications and read in the taverns and inns. They are still sometimes cited as a source of proof that Andrew Jackson was a cannibal, found often within the Cherokee Nation.

Episodes of Cannibalism throughout History
English missionary John Williams and a companion were killed and eaten by cannibals in New Hebrides. Wikimedia

15. Two missionaries were killed and eaten by cannibals in the New Hebrides in 1839

John Williams and his wife Mary established their first mission in the Society Islands in 1817. The Society Islands were a group of islands so named by James Cook, to honor the Royal Society in Great Britain. Tahiti and the other islands of French Polynesia are included in the group. From 1817 to the 1830s, Williams expanded his mission in the South Seas, becoming the first missionary to visit Samoa, as well as the first to visit Rarotonga, which had been discovered by Fletcher Christian and the Bounty mutineers as they searched for Pitcairn Island, though the discovery had been unknown in Europe. In 1839 Williams and a companion visited the New Hebrides chain to establish a mission there.

Upon arrival at the island of Erromango, part of the Vanuatu chain, the two missionaries were attacked, killed, and eaten by cannibals. Erromango had been first discovered by Captain Cook, and its name was bestowed, according to local lore, by a misunderstanding on the Englishman’s part. When handed a yam by a native, Cook was told what he believed to be the name of the island on which he stood. What he heard was Erromango. What was actually said in the extinct language of the islanders was armai n’go, which was not the name of the island at all, but which meant, in reference to the yam, “this food is good”.

Episodes of Cannibalism throughout History
Dutch ships at anchor in the Marquesas Islands, where cannibals from warring tribes preyed on one another. Wikimedia

16. Cannibalism was common among the warring tribes of the Marquesas Islands

The Marquesas Islands were heavily populated by numerous tribes, which continually formed alliances and carried out wars with each other. The tribes concentrated their settlements in the valleys and along the rivers. When American Commodore David Porter was in command of USS Essex on its Pacific cruise during the War of 1812 he visited the islands to refit his ships and the tribe which hosted him demanded his support in a local war as their price. Whaling vessels long resorted to the islands for replenishment. There were many reports of cannibalism among the natives of the Marquesas, including by Robert Louis Stevenson, who visited the islands. Cannibalism was practiced both as religious ritual and as a source of food.

The flesh of human beings was known as Long Pig to the Marquesans, who considered the consumption of the body of a dead enemy to be the supreme triumph. Captured enemies were set aside to be eaten later, their legs broken to prevent them from escaping. They were lodged so as to see what their own fate would be, allowed to view the killing, butchering, and eating of their fellow prisoners who preceded them. The capture, killing, and eating of women of an enemy tribe was considered a great accomplishment, both as a humiliation of the men of the enemy, unable to protect their women, and because they were in demand as better to eat.

Episodes of Cannibalism throughout History
William Seabrook insisted that he tasted human flesh provided by cannibals, and later admitted that he had prepared it himself. Wikimedia

17. One cannibal reported that humans’ taste like fine veal

William Seabrook was a reporter and author who traveled to Africa in the 1920s, where he claimed to have encountered ritual cannibalism among some of the tribes. In a book based on his adventures entitled Jungle Ways, Seabrook described the taste of human flesh he discovered on his journey. He compared it to “fully developed veal, not young, but not yet beef”. He went on to write, “It was so nearly like good, fully developed veal that I think no person with a palate of ordinary, normal sensitiveness could distinguish it from veal”. But Seabrook did not base his description on the output of an African cannibal chef.

As he later confessed, “the distrustful tribesmen never allowed him to partake in their traditions”. Instead, Seabrook obtained human flesh from a contact at the Sorbonne, and prepared it himself at home. As it is possible that the contact, a young intern, was appalled at what Seabrook intended to do with it and provided instead veal, easily obtainable in Paris, Seabrook might not have tasted human flesh at all. But he insisted that he did, further describing it as a roast, “from which I cut and ate a central slice, was tender, and in color, texture, smell as well as taste…veal is the one meat to which this meat is accurately comparable”.

Episodes of Cannibalism throughout History
The Boyd Massacre saw more than five dozen people killed and eaten by Maori cannibals. Wikimedia

18. The Boyd Massacre of 1809 led to European ships avoiding New Zealand for a time

The straight grained wood of the kauri trees of New Zealand made them highly desirable for use as replacement spars and masts on the ships plying the South Pacific in the days of sail. In 1809, a brigantine named Boyd arrived at Whangaroa, commanded by John Thompson, and carrying about 70 people (accounts vary) including a Maori named Te Ara, whom the crew called George. George was supposed to pay for his passage by working with the crew, and when he refused to do so he was disciplined in the manner of the sea at the time, placed on reduced rations and flogged. Other accounts state that he was flogged for theft.

When the local Maori chief learned of the flogging, he and his men lured several of the crew away from the ship with a promise of helping them locate suitable kauri trees. The working party was killed, the bodies taken to the Maori village for consumption. The Maori then attacked Boyd, killing all but five of the remaining crew and passengers. In all between 66 and 70 of the Europeans were killed and eaten by the Maori cannibals, the last being the second mate of the ship, who was spared in the initial massacre to be used as a maker of fishing nets for the tribe. Once his usefulness was spent he too was killed and eaten. Pacific whaling ships attacked the Maori village in the aftermath, freeing the four remaining prisoners. It was the largest single reported incident of cannibalism by the Maori against Europeans. It also led to many ships avoiding the waters around New Zealand.

Episodes of Cannibalism throughout History
Herman Melville used escaping from cannibals as a plot device in his novel Typee. Wikimedia

19. Cannibalism became a popular feature of entertainment

Daniel Defoe placed his hero Robinson Crusoe in danger of being captured and eaten by cannibals in 1719 (Friday was one of the cannibal tribe before Robinson converted him). Jonathan Swift suggested the Irish and English practice cannibalism, with the poor Irish selling their children to the wealthy among the English for food. Swift’s satire suggested that the problems of an Ireland overburdened by starving children could thus easily be resolved. Herman Melville used cannibalism as a dramatic feature in his novel Typee, which was based on his own actual experiences living among cannibals on the island of Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas Islands.

In the 1930s, cannibals became a staple of jungle movies, which continued into the 21st century, though by then the horror genre, rather than adventure and drama, had absorbed most cannibal films. Cartoons featured stereotypical cannibals, as a foil for the animated heroes such as Bugs Bunny and Popeye the Sailor, among others. Originally Pippi Longstocking’s father was described as a King of the Cannibals somewhere in the far Pacific, before political correctness decided that such a description was offensive and dangerous for sensitive children. Numerous video games featured cannibalism, and in some the player may become a cannibal, if so desired.

Episodes of Cannibalism throughout History
British and Australian former PoWs being evacuated by the US Navy at the end of World War II. US Navy

20. Japanese troops practiced cannibalism during the Second World War

That Japanese troops throughout the South Pacific practiced cannibalism during World War II is well documented as a result of the investigations of the Australian War Crimes Section of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (1946-48). According to Toshiyuki Tanaka, an historian and author Japanese cannibalism was “conducted…by whole squads and under the commands of officers”. The Japanese performed amputations on the living that were medically unnecessary, and ate the limbs thus acquired. In early 1945 five American prisoners of war were killed and eaten by the Japanese on Chichi-Jima, and five senior Japanese officers including a general, an admiral, and a doctor were convicted after the war for the crime and hanged.

Over 100 cases of cannibalism by the Japanese on prisoners of war were documented by the Australian investigation following the war. In some cases it was evident that the Japanese attempted to hide the activity from other prisoners while in others, particularly in camps holding Indian prisoners, the killing and cooking of PoWs was conducted in plain view. Japanese cannibalization of prisoners increased later in the war. Among the documents held in Australia are internal Japanese Army memos which indicate the cannibalization of enemy prisoners was calculated to enhance unit cohesion, not to battle hunger, and the activity was known among the Japanese senior commanders.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The Next Great Famine”. Amy Davidson, The New Yorker. January 11, 2016

“Captain Cook’s Journal During His First Voyage Round the World”. James Cook. 1768-71. Project Gutenberg. Online

“The Wars of the Jews, or History of the Destruction of Jerusalem”. Flavius Josephus. Project Gutenberg. Online

“100 Great Sieges from Jericho to Sarajevo”. Paul K. Davis. 2001

“The Conquest of New Spain”. Bernal Diaz del Castillo. 1963 edition.

“Jamestown Colonists Resorted to Cannibalism”. Paula Neely, National Geographic News. May 3, 2013

“Marion du Fresne”. Biography, New Zealand History Online.

“Pontiac and the Indian Uprising”. Howard H. Peckham. 1947

“Bible Verses about Cannibalism”. King James Bible Online.

“Orange and Stuart, 1641-1672”. Pieter Geyl. 1969

“An Account of the Loss of the Luxborough Galley”. William Boys. 1727. (2010 edition)

“A real life horror story of the Irish cannibal who terrorized Australia”. Staff, Irish Central. October 4, 2018. Online

“The Tsunami of Slime circa 1828: New York Magazine. June 15, 2012

“A Narrative of Missionary Enterprises in the South Sea Islands”. John Williams. Cambridge Library Edition. 2010

“Journal of a cruise made to the Pacific Ocean”. David Porter, USN. 1822. Project Gutenberg. Online

“Human Flesh Looks Like Beef, But the Taste Is More Elusive”. Rachel Nuwer, Smithsonian.com. February 3, 2014

“Stronger than Spinach: The Secret Appeal of the Famous Studios Popeye Cartoons”. Steve Bierly.

“Japan Hears of World War II Cannibalism a Half Century Later”. Geoff Spencer, Associated Press. August 11, 1992