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Seeing Cannibals

Nasheli Jimnez del Val

The corpus of images analysed throughout this dissertation evidences the role that the figure
of the cannibal played in the development of European discourses of otherness that were
deployed during the conquest and colonial periods in Hispanic and Portuguese America.
Ranging from marvellous hybrid monsters to the Noble Savage of the Enlightenment, these
images document the array of functions that the trope of the American cannibal played in
Europes struggle for predominance over the New World. Throughout this analysis, Masons
assertion that representations are seen to refer to other representations and not to the truth of
the represented (1990:8) has been central. By concentrating on the relations established
between representations of cannibalism, and not on the links drawn between representations
and the presumed truth of the represented, this dissertation has mapped out the various
discursive formations that housed, reaffirmed and gave authority to the trope of the native
cannibal as a key player in European colonial discourses.
The analysis of the corpus was based on an overarching Foucauldian archaeological
and genealogical framework (Foucault 1966, 1969, 1980, 1983). By concentrating on the
main tendencies or themes present in the images, it was possible to establish what the
dominant discourses on the indigenous peoples of the Americas were, how the main
discursive formations around the trope were shaped, and how these formations changed in
configuration over space and time. The repetitions throughout the corpus were also the object
of analysis, particularly because their presence indicates the ways in which certain discourses
became reiterated and thusly imbued with authority. Furthermore, in analysing the overall
patterns in the corpus, a great deal of emphasis was placed on the potential silences,
contradictions or exceptions within the visual representations of cannibalism. This was
considered important given that such silences or contradictions typically point to the sites
where the struggle over representation takes place and becomes contested, negotiated or
There are several tendencies that were located in the corpus of images. The dominant
themes that characterised this group of pictures have been explored in the previous chapters,
and they refer to the interdiscursive links established between the images of the cannibal and
embodiment, cosmographical and theological discourses. Through this, it has been possible
to explore the discursive formations configured through the points of intersection between
these discourses and the visual representation of the American other. In chapter five, the
relationship between the cannibal as a subject constituted by an excessive bodily state and
prevailing European discourses on embodiment was explored. Importantly, this chapter
analysed the tropes of the whole and the fragmented body, looking at the implications these
themes had in terms of the construction of a particular type of body politic. This chapter also
studied the ultimate colonisation of the cannibal body through the early anatomical practices
that further disintegrated the cannibal through dissection and the search for the depths of the
body. Chapter six focused on the role that the figure of the cannibal played in relation to
prevailing European discourses on time and space. Specifically, the Latin American cannibal
was located on the fringes of civilisation in the European imaginary and, as such, functioned
as an emblem of distance, marking the limits of European geographical knowledge.
Furthermore, the cannibal was also distanced in time, in many cases being depicted under the
guise of classical and medieval representational schemes, thus becoming othered through the
denial of contemporaneity with his European conquistador. Chapter seven looked at the
importance of religious imagery in the representation of the New World cannibal,
establishing that the same iconographical conventions used to refer to the inner others of
Europe were consistently applied to the American native. Once more, the tendency in
European depictions of difference was rarely based on the incorporation and assimilation of
new representational strategies, but on the confirmation and imposition of well-established
visual codes upon the subject of representation. Importantly, the localisation of these themes
has confirmed the aim of this dissertation to prove that for the European to incorporate new
knowledge about previously unknown peoples, it was consistently necessary to look back to
the familiar points of reference that had characterised the prevailing European epistemic
regimes of the period. In other words, the newness of the Americas was described under the
terms of pre-existing visual representational strategies and discursive nuclei, resulting in
interesting constructions of meaning that say more about the culture producing the images
than about the peoples described in them. In sum, these three chapters have demonstrated that
European colonial discourses on the New World cannibal were frequent, relatively consistent,
and imbricated in other prevailing colonial and non-colonial discourses that characterised
Europes entry into modernity. Hence, the cannibal was by no means a secondary
representational phenomenon but, instead, played a crucial role for Europe to establish the
limits and objectives of its colonial mission.
Beyond the thematic configuration of the corpus, representational patterns for dealing
with the cannibal have also been located as shifts over time and space. The earliest images of
the American natives were rough woodcuts depicting the peoples of the Caribbean isles
encountered by Columbus and those on the coasts of Brazil who Vespucci lived with for
some time. Produced mainly in the format of loose-leaf pamphlets reproducing Columbuss
letter to the Spanish monarchs or Vespuccis description of Brazilian tribes, these images
were very widely distributed on short notice. Two main regions, the Italian and German
speaking areas, produced the most imprints and dissemination of information on the New
World at this time. Many of the early images were originally produced in Italian printing
presses in Latin, some accompanied by illustrations. As the demand for news on the Americas
increased, new editions began to be printed in Germanic and Flemish countries that had more
developed techniques for including images in pamphlets produced on a mass scale. This
move resulted in a profusion of illustrated texts that included images of the newfound peoples
in order to satisfy a European publics curiosity on the Americas. It was at this stage that
many of the misrepresentations of the American Indians would take root and persist in the
future images of the continent. However, while there were various ethnographically incorrect
details in many of these images, compared to the following stage of representation these
images are produced with a relatively low degree of fantasy or deformation of the American
native. In fact, it would seem that the characteristics described by Columbus and Vespucci
that most impacted the European imagination were the nudity of the inhabitants and their
normal, well-proportioned bodies. It can be surmised that this emphasis on the normalcy
of the American native was the result of previously generated expectations derived from
medieval epistemic regimes. If the peoples living on the fringes of the world had been
traditionally imagined to be deformed, living on their heads, and part animals, then the reality
of the encounter with American peoples must have been shocking in its disproval of such
In fact, it would seem that this initial impression of the normalcy of the cannibal
body became immediately corrected in a second representational stage. Reverting to
medieval conceptions of foreign peoples through the trope of the Plinian races, the maps of
the early and mid-sixteenth century emphasised the absolute estrangement of the American
native. While there were several images of indigenous peoples as cannibals in the early
images of the Americas, it was during this second period that the American native began to be
consistently represented as a hybrid cannibal, part man part animal. A similar phenomenon
took place in the genre of world compendiums, a type of proto-encyclopaedias that aimed to
collect all the available information on the peoples of the world. Both of these genres were
highly illustrated and, therefore, crucial in establishing the image of the American native as
essentially cannibalistic, savage and primitive. In terms of the centres of production of such
maps and compendiums, most of them were produced in Germanic and Flemish regions that
had an established printing tradition, with the possible exception of the highly sophisticated
Portulan maps created in seafaring Portugal. Perhaps it is this regional specificity that can
account for the regression to medieval representational devices in order to depict the New
World cannibal. It is important to recall that while Renaissance pictorial conventions were
becoming consolidated in Southern Europe, medieval representational regimes continued to
prevail in Northern Europe at this period. Furthermore, images like Lorenz Friess Canibale
point to the possibility that these pictures were produced to satisfy a popular audiences
demand for images of the faraway peoples, and it would not be farfetched to consider that in
many cases these representations catered to the sensationalistic in order to titillate popular
curiosity. Another explanation may be that in many cases, the cannibal became an
emblematic figure of the New World and ceased to be depicted on an exclusively literal or
narrative level. Rather than functioning as a kind of snapshot brought back from overseas, it
is possible that at this time the image of the cannibal was also used as a type of geographical
symbol to represent the boundaries between the known and the unknown lands. As explored
in chapter six, at this level the cannibal was not necessarily meant to be taken as a literal
inhabitant of the Americas but as a cartouche for marking the limits of knowledge in
European cosmography. The role of the dog-headed cannibal was to mark the limits of a
growing body of knowledge on the world being collected in Europe at that time. Hence, the
hybrid cannibal could hold a dual function: to mark the limits of Western knowledge and to
confirm the strangeness conferred upon the distant other.
However, in many cases the use of the cannibal figure as cosmographical marker was
riddled with contradiction. In Mnsters Cosmographia (1552), for instance, the same images
used to illustrate the peoples of the New World have been previously used to depict cannibal
practices in Tartary under the explanatory text The foods, drinks and dress of the Tartars:
If they capture any of their enemies, they sometimes have them roasted to demonstrate
their horrible cruelty and the desire they have for vengeance: and after that they gather
together in a large group and eat and devour this body like famished wolves; and
beforehand they collect the blood and put it inside cups or goblets and they drink it.

Similar examples can be found in the Desceliers map of 1550. The same image of a human
body on a chopping block that was consistently used to mark the cannibal region in Brazil
can be found in the isle of Gyave (modern-day Borneo). Friess Canibale in the Carta
Marina (1525) is further example. Beyond the geographically inaccurate Alsacian setting
where the dog-headed cannibals of the New World are depicted, it appears that this very
image had been used previously by the same printshop in 1522 in order to illustrate an edition
of Ptolemys Geography (Kgelgen Kropfinger 1990). However, in the Ptolemy edition, the
engraving was used to accompany the section on the peoples of Asia. Hence, the images of a
human figure being roasted on a spit or of the cannibal marketplace were used as passes-par-
tout, the same images and descriptions being applied indiscriminately to any faraway region,
regardless of the ethnographic specificity of such claims. This sort of bricolage of images
responded to a practical cartography based on the lore of sea-going mariners (Lestringant
1994:112) and, as such, the recycling of images confirmed a Eurocentric representational
regime whereby the further the explorers travelled from the European centre, the more the
foreign peoples merged into each other and became non-specific emblems of difference. In
this sense, these maps and cosmographies were kind of:
empty canvas to inscribe on it the delineation of newly invented or discovered lands; a
form at once closed and open, full and lacunary, that represented the ideal construction in
which to house, with their approximative and disparate localisations, the bits of space
that navigators brought back from their distant voyages. (Lestringant 1994:7)

By the mid to late-sixteenth century, another important shift in the representation of the
New World cannibal took place. Broadly based on Mandeville and Marco Polos travels to
Asia, a new genre of New World travel literature was starting to emerge and, with it, new
ways of visualising the cannibal. Other factors played an important role in this new way of
depicting the cannibal. As Northern European regions started consolidating vested interests in
the Americas through their settling of new colonies on the Brazilian coast, there was a boom
in illustrated travel narratives being printed in Europe. Hans Stadens Captivity (1945 [1557])
pioneered this genre, with a novel mix of proto-ethnographical observations and a high
number of engravings illustrating the narrative. While many of these illustrations were
relatively rough in execution, they accomplished their function of providing European
audiences with very detailed visual descriptions of the Brazilian Tupinambas customs and
artefacts. This text opened a watershed of other similar publications, most of which were
written by Protestant explorers, in many cases demonstrating the growing tensions between
two models of colonialism: one championed by the Catholic Spanish and Portuguese, the
other advocated by newly emerging Protestant or semi-Protestant countries such as France,
the Netherlands and Germany. In many cases, the figure of the New World cannibal was used
as a point of contrast in the ongoing propaganda war between these two models. As
Lestringant (1997) has argued, texts like Staden, Lry and Montaignes used the cannibal as a
rhetorical figure with which to question European society and Catholic models of
colonisation of the Americas. Hence, the rivalries between the emerging colonial powers
became distilled in the struggle to imbue the New World cannibal with a local propagandistic
In addition to this, the production of images at this stage was further enhanced by the
development of important innovations in printing technologies. Through advances in
copperplate technologies, more detailed illustrations became possible, culminating in
Theodor de Brys imposing series America (1995 [1592-1619]). This series consisted of a
collection of engravings accompanied by the most circulated travel narratives on the
Americas that had been produced until that point. Crucially, the collection was highly visual,
giving pride of place to incredibly detailed illustrations of explorers and colonisers
experiences in the New World. By focussing on the narrative dimension of the illustrations
and by exercising free interpretative criteria for depicting the New World natives, de Brys
engravings were a key turning point in the construction of the Americas in the European
Importantly, the production of these images by figures like Staden, Benzoni, Thvet,
Lry, Collaert and de Bry took place in a very short span of time, indicating a significant
degree of discursive density in the corpus on the New World cannibal. These texts were
published between 1557 and 1596, four short decades during which the production of
numerous images on the Americas superseded the relatively small number of engravings that
had been made in the previous seventy years. There is also a high degree of repetition taking
place in this discursive formation. For instance, de Bry compiled and revamped many of the
Staden and Benzoni illustrations, reproducing them in his particular style. In turn, the impact
of de Brys illustrations was so far-reaching that almost identical copies were printed for van
der Aas 1729 La gallerie agrable du monde and subsequent editions of America continue to
be printed today. 2 In fact, the matter of repetition was so crucial to the production of these
engravings that in an edition of America de Bry added this word of caution:
Finally, if someone dared copy, by engraving them, these artworks of mine, being that
one lives in a time when many heartless men are desirous of taking advantage of the
efforts and labours of mine, I beg of you, benevolent reader, do not lend belief to such
pictures. As there are hidden in my pictures several secret marks that, if not properly
registered, will cause great confusion. (1995:16)

Given this warning, one can assume there were a large number of lower quality copies
circulating, thereby indicating the high degree of public interest in the images and the
economic profitability of the enterprise.
It is very telling that in this site of discursive density, the majority of the images were
produced in French, Germanic or Flemish regions. With the exception of a few Italian and
English authors, during this period the bulk of engravings featuring the New World cannibal
were printed in these areas. Actually, images produced in countries which had stronger
colonial interests in the region are sorely lacking. Why, for instance, werent more images of
the American native produced in Spain and Portugal? Moreover, of the engravings produced
in Spain and Portugal, why dont any of them depict the American Indian as a cannibal?
While French and English expeditionaries were sending artists to the colonies in North
America in order to collect images directly, no equivalent can be found for Meso and South
America at this time. Gonzalo Fernndez de Oviedo was one of the few Spanish authors to
complement his text on the New World with images taken directly from the model, yet none
of these engravings illustrate the purported cannibal rituals of Mesoamerica. This silence in
the corpus can be explained through several factors. Firstly, the printing press was undeniably
more developed in the Northern European regions than in the Iberian Peninsula. This can
account for the high number of images being produced in the region versus the almost
inexistent illustrations in Spanish and Portuguese texts. Furthermore, the production and
distribution of knowledge on the colonies varied according to different models of
colonisation. As argued in chapter one, while the Protestant colonial model was based on
private funding and, therefore, benefited from the public distribution of information on the
Americas, the Iberian model was funded by the monarchy and was quite secretive in
releasing information to the general public for fear that competing powers would usurp their
hold on the region. Moreover, the production of these images took place in the context of the
religion wars that were affecting Europe at the time. A Protestant corpus of images served the
function of propaganda against Catholic models of colonialism, with the figure of the New
World cannibal serving an important propagandistic function. As explored in chapter seven,
the transubstantiation debate over the Eucharist was a nodal point in the tension between
Catholicism and Protestantism, and the discussion of anthropophagy (whether it was the
cannibal Tupi or the devout Catholic) was placed at the forefront of European discourses.
Concurrently, the appearance of the allegory of the Americas took place around this
time. Transitioning from the realm of the fantastic (dog-headed cannibals) to the ethno-
narrative (Staden and de Brys engravings) to the abstract-symbolical, the association
between the cannibal and the New World became consolidated with this move. In this shift,
the believability or accuracy of the images was no longer deemed central nor was narrative
function considered indispensable to the construction of the image. Instead, the allegory of
the continent was based on an abstraction of the region following the selection of a few
attributes specific to the Americas. By representing the Americas through a handful of
assumed traits, many of which were based on mistakes or generalisations, the allegorisation
of the continent was a way of dealing with the incommensurability of the New World and, in
a process of symbolic reduction, making it commensurable. In this context, cannibalism was
produced as the central trait of the continent. This reduction played a crucial role in the
essentialisation of the continent as a land of savagery.
This process continued well into the seventeenth century. The number of images of
New World cannibals is lower than in the preceding century, but the range of variations on
the trope has increased, indicating a significant continuation and evolution in the discourse.
A sample of this variation includes Crispijn de Passes Saturnus (1600), Antoine Jacquards
Pourtraicts (1615-1620), Honorius Philoponuss Nova typis (1621), and Visschers America
(1650-1660), among others. What all these images have in common is the persistence of the
cannibal as a constant presence in the New World. Attributes such as the barbecue grill, the
fragmented body and the construction of the continent in terms of the marvellous first
became associated to the Americas in the preceding century, but it is during the seventeenth
century that these representations become fully explored. This collection of images, ranging
from the fantastical to the anatomical depiction of the cannibal, point to the different
strategies enacted in order to achieve a symbolic possession of the American native. Going
well beyond the ethnographic details that initially fed into many of the images produced
during the sixteenth century, at this stage the marvellous, the sensationalistic and the
anecdotal superseded other ways of depicting the American colonies. Perhaps the culmination
of this disregard for the accuracy of the representations was Montanuss 1671 engraving
Scene of offering and ritual in De Nieuwe en ondekende, where the representation of an
oral-voracious Aztec deity holds little resemblance to the actual indigenous depiction of
Huitzilopochtli, the god of war.3 However, at this stage not all representations of the
Americas necessarily included a cannibal. Other series of images dealing with the Americas
seem to have downplayed the cannibalism trope and concentrated, instead, on the pure
allegorisation of the continent. Hence, texts by authors such as Ramusio (1606), Len Pinelo
(1630) and Aldrovandi (1642) do not include cannibalism in their visual representations of
the Americas. However, what these engravings do have in common is the representation of
America as dislocated from a real space, and the images respond more to an imagining of the
region than to a direct contact with it.
During the early and mid-eighteenth century further changes in the representation of
the American Indian took place. With the advent of the Enlightenment and the revalorisation
of reason that came with it, new representational strategies were put into place for illustrating
the Americas. Large collections or compilations of world customs and world religions were
published, among them the influential Crmonies et coutumes religiueses (1723) by Picart
and Gallerie agrable du monde (1729) by van der Aa. These compilations excel in their
accumulation of knowledge about world peoples and also in the vast amount of engravings
that were produced in order to supplement the texts. Importantly, these two publications are
the nuclei of accumulation and repetition of preceding discourses on the cannibal. Both of
them are based on previously designed and executed engravings; in many cases the authors of
these texts have commissioned only minor modifications on copies of Thvet, de Bry, and
Montanuss engravings. In a sense, this group of engravings is the utmost summary of the
body of images on Latin American cannibals. By collecting, repeating and systematising
previous works, these authors have imposed the new agenda of reason on the corpus of New
World images. In other words, these books make the world accessible, classifiable and
understandable. By presenting the world as a gallery of pictures, the European spectator can
collect the world and fully possess it through these images.
Through the analysis of the continuities, changes, repetitions, modifications and
absences in the corpus accumulated for this research, it has been possible to localise the
persistence of the trope of the American cannibal. As Pellarano (1988) has argued, a
systematic collection and examination of the images of the Latin American native has
facilitated the understanding of the pictorial interdependence and derivation of the images.
While there are notable exceptions, and not all the images produced on the topic of the
Americas include cannibals or references to cannibalism, the presence of these tendencies
supports the argument that the figure of the cannibal played a crucial role in the development
of European colonial discourses on the region. Transiting from the marvellous to the
versimile, from the excessive to narrative hyperbole, from the proto-ethnographic to the
classificatory, these images tell the story of Europes confrontation with and construction of
otherness. It is precisely through this approach that the overall value of this research is

The cannibal seen

It has been argued that the images of cannibalism in the Americas played a continuing role in
European colonial discourses. However, there is one central question that must be explored.
Why were images produced in the first place? Werent the tales and descriptions of the
inhabitants sufficient to convey the newness of what was being encountered overseas? What
function did these images cover that texts could not? As Elliot (1970) has argued, one of the
most difficult challenges in the European encounter with the uniqueness of America was the
process of conveying this fact of difference [] to those who had not seen it (1970:21); for
him, this problem of description reduced writers and chroniclers to despair (1970:21). The
process of observation was the first of four processes enacted in order to achieve a realistic
depiction of the unknown:
The second process was description depicting the unfamiliar in such a way that it could
be grasped by those who had not seen it. The third was dissemination the diffusion of
new information, new images and new ideas, so that they became part of the accepted
stock of mental furniture. And the fourth was comprehension the ability to come to
terms with the unexpected and the unfamiliar, to see them as phenomena existing in their
own right, and (hardest of all) to shift the accepted boundaries of thought in order to
include them. (1970:18)

When the description of the newness of the Americas was impossible to achieve through
verbal or written narration, pictures were constantly used. As Bestard and Contreras (1987)
explain, in many of the chronicles there is an insistence that the phenomena of the New
World is impossible to believe if one does not see it. It was this urgent need that may have
directly resulted in the production of the first images of the Americas. Perhaps these images
are the expression of what Foucault has described as the almost exclusive privilege of sight
that is the sense of evidence and of the extended (1966:145). Relying on the evidential
function of the image, these engravings were akin to the spectacle of the presentation of the
American native before the monarchs. In a way, these engravings were a graphic, spectacular
presentation of the Indian before an extended European audience.
The importance of sight in the Western world was well-established even before the
encounter with the New World. And with the exploration of the American continent, the
visual dimension gained further import. As Mason (1990) underlines, cosmographer Mercator
called history the Oculus Mundi (the Eye of the World) and Ortelius described geography as
the Eye of History. When Staden included the numerous woodcuts into his narrative of
captivity among the Tupi, what was at stake was the credibility of his tale. Hence, by
providing visual evidence of the customs and artefacts of the cannibals, he was able to
confer authority upon his story. Other writers used these images in the same way, with the
likes of Benzoni, Fernndez de Oviedo, Thvet, Lry, and Humboldt all fully illustrating their
first-hand experiences in the Americas. At this point, there was a tendency to send
exploratory expeditions accompanied by painters or draftsmen because it was deemed
necessary to include engravings in order to provide a fuller account of the exoticness
encountered in the continent (Bestard & Contreras 1987). In this sense, sight was used as
testimony. In Masons (1990) words, truth and alterity are combined in the assertion of first-
hand observation (autopsy). The strangeness of the other is confirmed as true because it has
been witnessed by the speaker (1990:176). The privileging of sight is, then, one of the core
values in colonial discourse. In the production of these images, visuality, knowledge and
power became enmeshed and directly contributed to the setting up of the exotic other in the
European imaginary.
In most cases, the engravings of the New World cannibal were the result not of direct
observation, but of illustration based on textual description. As Pellarano (1988) has
explained, in particular genres on the Americas the artist did not work from nature but
illustrated according to the descriptions in the texts at hand. This dialectic between the
written and the visual representation was to prove fundamental in establishing the figure of
the New World native as savage cannibal in the European imaginary. As Foucault (1983)
argues, the dialectic between written text and accompanying illustration is frequently
obviated but plays an important role in the process of representation:
On the page of an illustrated book, we seldom pay attention to the small space running
above the words and below the drawings, forever serving them as a common frontier. It is
there, on these few millimetres of white, the calm sand of the page, that are established
all the relations of designation, nomination, description, classification. (1983:28)

It is in this relationship between text and illustration that the all-important dynamic of
translation takes place. This relationship has been addressed by Panofsky (1972), who has
argued that the production of historically and ethnographically inaccurate images in Western
art responds to a direct translation of descriptions found in literary sources, and that these
distortions respond, primarily, to the perpetuation of visual representational traditions. By
using written texts almost exclusively as the source for the production of these illustrations,
European artists and engravers gave preference to the evocative function of written
description(s) over more challenging issues, such as the assimilation of new forms, colours
and objects into European visual traditions. Hence, instead of producing illustrations which
were relatively accurate to the actual models present in the Americas, the artists crafted these
images through Eurocentric visual codes, giving priority to their decipherability by European
audiences. This representational conundrum whether to base the illustration of newness on
the actual model or on written description further reveals an intrinsic conflict in coming to
grips with difference. These images are, in essence, an example of a typically Western
representational strategy that seeks to place newness either in the realm of the abstract
(written description) or the concrete (material images). However, in both written description
and material images, the strategies for dealing with difference are severely limited. On the
one hand, many European explorers would despair at the inability of their pens to fully
describe the New World, calling instead on a Leonardo or a Michaelangelo to properly depict
the wonders of the Americas. On the other hand, illustrations of the New World were never
fully free from textual description and literary narrative. Many of these images would depend
on the anchoring function of captions or on the sequentiality of successive narrative frames.
Hence, in these texts the relationship between the written description and the visual image is
a relationship that is never fully resolved but that, instead, oscillates between the poles of
textual abstraction and material concretion.
Furthermore, these images of the cannibal responded to a dual role assigned to the
image as producer of evidence but also as materialisation of fantasy. However, this apparent
contradiction had not been problematic in medieval representational regimes. As White
(1987) explains, fiction and fantasy in medieval narrative would have posed no problems
before the distinction between real and imaginary events was imposed upon the
story (1987:3). This was echoed in late medieval approaches to image-making:
In the visual arts, direct observation of reality was normally limited to details,
supplementing rather than supplanting the use of traditional schemes, as the medieval
artist worked from the exemplum rather than from life. (Panofsky cited in Mason

Hence, in the Western representational regimes of the early modern age, priority was given to
traditional representational schemes over a direct observation of reality. In this context, it was
as important that the New World native be represented according to the classical and
medieval tradition of the Plinian races than as a non-deformed whole man. It was this
referencing of past pictorial traditions that allowed the message of the cannibal to be
communicated more effectively to a European audience that was familiar with a particular
traditional representational regime and its conventions.
In this manner, the cannibal was caught in the middle of a tension between the
categories of fantasy (illusionism) and evidentiality (realism) that are functions of the image.
These two modalities of representation, as they have been theorised by Mitchell (1994) were
crucial in the development of colonial discourses on the New World and characterised the
entry of Europe into modernity. Yet these modalities rarely existed independently of each
other. As Kappler (1980) has argued, monsters are believable and instil fear precisely because
they are simultaneously myth and reality. Concurrently, it can be argued that the haunting
power of the cannibal depended on his construction as an other who was, like monsters, at the
same time reality and myth. The cannibal was the product both of the truth and of
phantasia. Phantasia, defined since Plato as image, imagination, phantasm, illusion and
fancy, literally means image-making, and this modalitys function is to depict absent things
as though they were present (Kelley 1997:6). Yet a high degree of value was also assigned to
the truthfulness of the image of the cannibal. In medieval tradition commentators assumed
that because words were imperfect guides to meaning, images might at some ideal level of
visual form be transparent to higher truths (1997:6). Hence, the effectivity of the images of
cannibals depended precisely on the tension between these two modalities. In the New World,
fantasy existed in reality through the figure of the cannibal.
The images of the cannibal were, in short, strategic ways for negotiating difference in
a representational terrain where Eurocentric categories and practices secured the positional
superiority of Western discourses. Given that images can only affirm and never deny what
they are representing, the invention of a picture of the cannibal functioned as a sort of
nomination and form of possession. By producing an image of the native, he became
captured and paraded around in European books as evidence that savage peoples exist in the
fringes of the world and they look exactly like this. Moreover, pictures were crucial in
generating particular viewing positions for the spectator and subject positions for the referent
of the discourse. Again, the establishment of these positions involved a relationship of
valorisation and power between the two. The objectification of the other permitted a
systematic placing of the colonised as evidence of [] superiorities and
inferiorities (Preziosi 1998:453). Hence, in this system of signification the other-come-
object is the signifier of a much wider discursive and material colonial project. In this
manner, the cannibal other was deployed as cogent evidence [] enabling us thereby to
articulate certain kinds of desirable (and undesirable) relations between ourselves and
others (1998:518).

The other cannibal

As Todorov has argued, the encounter with America marked an important starting point in
Europes attempt to assimilate the other, to deprive it of its exteriority and
alterity (1982:251). Within this framework, the figure of the cannibal was a crucial site for
exploring difference. Why was cannibalism used as a symbolic site so disputed with regards
to meaning-making? Perhaps this was because, as a highly contested discursive site, the New
World cannibal housed a maximum tension of similarity and difference. Hence, the New
World cannibal represented a double layer of conceptual tension. On the one hand, the
cannibal practices of the American other were clear markers of the difference between the
civilised European and its savage other. As Kearney explains, civilised society could
confirm its own sense of unitary consensus by virtue of its contemplation of outcasts. Men
were men because they were not monsters (2003:115). As Bennet states (in Karp & Kratz
2000), the other is presented as a category of visual spectacle which the audience is invited to
imagine itself in contrast with. Faced with the savage other, Western viewers can confirm
their predominantly white, homogenous European culture. In van Alphens words, alterity is
a code that helps identity to become meaningful, that is, to gain content. Alterity, then is
nothing, has no meaning in itself. It is merely a device for producing meaning (1994:260).
Hence, there can be no meaningful identity without difference, and the cannibal was the
ultimate confirmation of a paradigm of European identity. On the other hand, the cannibal
abolished the dichotomy of similarity/difference through the very literal practice of
incorporation of the other into the selfsame. Perhaps what European representational regimes
were trying to control and fix once and for all through their possession of the American
cannibal was the paradox intrinsic to cannibalism: the fading of clear borders between the
self and the other.
Following Mitchells (1998) theorisation of the role of representation in the
production of the non-Westerner, three main features were crucial in establishing an intrinsic
divide between the civilised European and the savage cannibal. Firstly, the cannibal was
produced as radically different through essentialisation. This discursive strategy is based on
the depiction of the non-Westerner as the product of unchanging cultural essences and, in the
case of the American cannibal, the consumption of human flesh was constructed as a
defining, essential trait. For instance, in many of the travel narratives and New World
compendiums, the cannibal rites practiced by the native peoples are transposed as an essential
component of their selves. Thus, the Tupinamba do not cannibalise; the Tupi are cannibals.
Their cannibalism becomes their distinguishing trait. Secondly, the production of absences
plays a fundamental representational function in the construction of difference. This is
achieved through the establishment of a series of absences or silences in what is said about
the other. By silencing other potential accounts of the indigenous peoples (their development
of technologies and sciences, their established societies and cultural practices), the cultural
traits that held an ideological function useful for the legitimation of the colonial enterprise
became highlighted. The third discursive strategy that was deployed in order to reinforce the
border between the European self and the cannibal was the othering process. By
representing the American Indian as a polar opposite of the West, be it through the trope of
the antipodes, through the figure of the wildman, or through the animalisation of the native,
differences became heightened and mobilised in order to serve very specific political and
practical functions.
Moreover, the genealogy of the corpus of the New World cannibal is a story of the
normalisation of difference. If the Indian was a cannibal, and cannibals marked the difference
between savage and civilised, then the ultimate proof of the victory of European
colonialism was the eradication of cannibalistic practices. Immersed in the logic of what
Mignolo (1998) has called Occidentalism, the story of the cannibal is one of the
transformation of differences into values, the naturalisation of representations, and of a series
of interventions in favour of the reproduction of asymmetrical power relations. Hence, the
normalisation of the colonial other was achieved through the logic of Occidentalism. In this
logic, the other must be dissolved into the same. By considering the West and the non-West
as autonomous and opposite entities (1998:50), this opposition becomes resolved through
the incorporation of non-Western [] communities in the triumphant march of Western
expansion (1998:50). In order to vanquish the cannibal, colonial Europe had to cannibalise
However, as Bhabha (1994) has theorised, the fixing of the colonial other is a never-
ending task. By placing the colonised simultaneously inside and outside Western
knowledge (McLeod 2000:53), the discourse of colonisation highlights the essential
difference between coloniser and colonised while also insisting on the common human
identity as a fundamental moral and philosophical precondition for the civilizing
mission (Spurr 1993:7). It is this ambivalence that has given the figure of the cannibal its
sustained presence in European colonial discourses, hence ensuring its repeatability in
different historical and geographical contexts. Once the cannibal had been physically and
symbolically expelled from the Americas through the triumph of colonisation, he took up
residence in Africa and the South Pacific. Suddenly, all kinds of cannibals started appearing
in regions that were the object of renewed European colonial interests. In the nineteenth and
early twentieth centuries scramble for Africa, images of African cannibals followed the same
discursive line that had been established in the Americas. The same phenomenon took place
in the colonisation of the South Pacific.
And the discourse of cannibalism persists in modern-day Latin America. When
abortion first became legalised in Mexico City in 2007, the mayor of the city was
excommunicated from the Catholic Church. The Bishop of Mexico argued, much in the same
tone of a Corts or an Acosta, that abortion was a way of forcing Christians to eat the flesh
immolated before the idols (cited in Balboa 2007). The trope of the cannibal has not been
surpassed to this very day. In fact, as Foucault has argued, there are monsters on the prowl
whose form changes with the history of knowledge (cited in Kearney 2003:4); it will be
interesting to see what new forms the cannibal takes on and the function that these forms will
play in the constitution of our ideas of self-identity and difference.
The central question that has guided this dissertation has been if, and how, the
representation of Latin American indigenous peoples as cannibals has been a constant
presence and served a specific function in the deployment of European colonial discourses
and practices. Through the collection of a large corpus of images and their subsequent
analyses in chapters five, six and seven, it has been established that, effectively, the figure of
the cannibal was used frequently and consistently in the depictions of Latin American
natives. Moreover, it can be forwarded that, while there are notable exceptions to this manner
of representing the Amerindian, there is a strong tendency to represent the native as either
Edenic innocent or voracious cannibal in European colonial discourses. Recalling
Bartolovichs approach to the topic, cannibals as such emerge at this historical juncture
when Europeans encounter the New World (1998:207, emphasis in original). The New
World cannibal marks a very particular configuration [of man-eaters], inscribed with
colonialism and incipient capitalism (1998:207). Visual proof of the cannibals existence
was used as a learned argument in favour of the hasty colonisation of the Americas or as the
categorical evidence of humanitys progress (Boulay 2001:74). The cannibal other was
observed, measured, registered, and documented: the cannibal was made the object of
colonial discourse. Yet it is key to understand that Latin American anthropophagy was
fundamentally a European invention and obsession (Subirats 2000:28). America was
situated in the fantasy world of the Europeans. As Seed points out, the discourses on the New
World were constructed in such a way that:
symbolically enacting colonial authority meant that ceremonies, actions, speeches, and
records primarily targeted their fellow Europeans. It was above all their own countrymen
and political leaders that colonists had to convince of the legitimacy of their actions, not
indigenous peoples. (1995:11)

Hence, throughout the genealogy of the early visual representations of the Americas, the New
World cannibal assumed the varying symbolic functions established for him in European
discourses. In other words, the cannibal took on whatever shape was necessary for Europe to
be better able to discuss itself with itself. In the development of these discourses, the role of
the image was crucial, as was the othering strategy through which the production of the
cannibal subject was achieved.
From the fantastical dog-headed marginal races of the early modern era to the
sophisticated naked philosopher of the Enlightenment, the cannibal played a crucial role in
the construction of a European sense of identity; in all his different forms, the cannibal
marked the border separating the European self from the New World other. In sum, these
images depict nothing about cannibals themselves but everything about those who see
cannibals everywhere. Importantly, the cannibal continues to haunt Western discourses on the
Latin American; the role of the cannibal was, and continues to be, central to European
colonial discourses. With this understanding, as Latin Americans we can now recognise the
Western fear and vulnerability implicit in the perpetual hunt for monsters. Indeed,
cannibalism marks the limits to Europes capacity to contain, assimilate, or [] destroy the
resistant societies of the region (Cols 2001:130). Perhaps now having become fluent in
Prosperos language, we can use it against him and for ourselves. And at the end of this
process we will be able to exclaim: Mais je ne suis pas ton cannibal! Je suis mon cannibal


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1 Excerpt from the dissertation Seeing Cannibals: European Colonial Discourses on the Latin American Other
submitted to the School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, Cardiff University, in fulfilment of the
requirements for the degree of Doctor in Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, 2009. The author wishes to
acknowledge the generous funding from the Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnologa (CONACyT) in the
form of a full doctoral grant, and the School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies partial tuition award,
both of which made this research possible.
1 For a more detailed structural analysis of the de Brys series, see B. Buchers Icon and Conquest (1981).
2 De Brys engravings have proven so popular that in current publications on the New World his illustrations
have graced texts that range from Andrades Revista de Antropofagia (1928), Buchers Icon and Conquest
(1981), Greenblatts New World Encounters (1993), and Lestringants Cannibals (1997), among many others.
3 It is quite telling that the Montanus illustration proved so popular that it was subsequently reproduced by
Manesson Mallet in 1683, Aveline in 1720, and van der Aa in 1729 in almost identical versions. Clearly this
fantastical depiction of the Aztec god proved very popular, perhaps because of its sensationalistic value, perhaps
because it resonated on the previous medieval discourses for representing the devil as a hideous monster.