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
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