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Insatiable Appetites: Imperial Encounters with Cannibals in the North Atlantic World by Kelly L. Watson (review)
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Insatiable Appetites: Imperial Encounters with Cannibals in the North Atlantic World. Kelly L. Watson. New York: New York University Press, 2015. Pp. xiii + 239, US $40.00 cloth

Insatiable Appetites explores the ways in which Europeans deployed discourses of cannibalism–that is, the idea of man-eating rather than the act itself–to justify and establish imperial control in North America and the Caribbean from the fifteenth century through to the eighteenth century. With an American studies background, Kelly [End Page 158] Watson combines methodologies from various fields including history, anthropology, gender studies, and literary theory. The result is a work of varying interest to scholars across fields. For historians of colonial North America and European–Aboriginal relations, the work’s chief contribution lies in its comparative approach and its focus on the body as a site of colonialism.

At the centre of discourses of cannibalism lay the binary between savagery and civilization. Contending that race was less relevant in these discourses in the early modern period than later, Watson aims to “recenter gender” (2) in discussions of cannibalism, arguing that sexuality and gendered understandings of power undergirded European depictions of cannibalism among Indigenous groups. What interests the author, then, is not whether cannibalistic acts actually occurred but, rather, how the Spanish, French, and English used cannibalism as a means to assert masculine imperial power (and only later racist imperial power). Drawing on the work of Ann Laura Stoler and Anne McClintock, Watson identifies the body as a “contested space” (7), simultaneously the target of imperial power and the means to challenge it, notably through the violation of European sexual and gender norms that incorporation represented. This is a valuable framework through which to analyze early encounters in North America, as the gendered nature of colonialism has been comparatively less studied in this period and region.

On conceptual and organizational levels, the book is heavily influenced by the works of Patricia Seed. Seed’s contention that Spanish, English, and French approaches to lands and peoples led to particular configurations of imperial power forms the basis of Watson’s discussion of cannibalism in each imperial setting. For example, Spanish interest in minerals led to a preoccupation with Indigenous labour, which saw cannibalism deployed to justify the conquest of bodies. For the English, the trope of cannibalism helped to solidify English claims to land and their superiority as settlers over other groups. The book unfolds according to this scheme, with chapters on conquest (Spanish), conversion (French), and settlement (English). While Seed’s seminal work has been criticized for its reductionist nature, Watson generally avoids this pitfall by grounding her discussion of cannibalism discourses and imperial power in particular times and places.

Following an introduction that lays out these methodological and conceptual foundations, the book is divided into six chapters, consisting of the classical and medieval influences on European approaches to cannibalism in America, four case studies on the cannibalism trope in particular encounters, and a conclusion that identifies shifts in [End Page 159] cannibalism discourses in the nineteenth century. The first chapter, based on the writings of Herodotus, Pliny, Isidore of Seville, Marco Polo, and John Mandeville, highlights the links between cannibalism, monstrosity, women’s sexual power, and life on the edges of the civilized world–the Scythians being the quintessential cannibals here–that shaped expectations of European imperial expansion in the Americas.

Chapter 2, probably the most familiar case study, uses accounts of Christopher Columbus’s and Amerigo Vespucci’s voyages to argue that accusations of cannibalism served to differentiate “good natives” (Arawaks) from “bad natives” (Caribs–from which the term “cannibal” derives), thereby justifying European imperial power. Images of the “paradigmatic cannibal” (77)–a woman–reveal anxieties around emasculation on the part of male adventurers. Focusing on Cortés’s conquest of Mexico in 1519, Chapter 3 examines how Spanish conquest took place both “on the battlefield and on the body” (180), particularly through the incorporation of Indigenous women as sexual servants in a gendered imperial hierarchy. Chapter 4 moves to New France to consider how the Jesuits made accusations of cannibalism against the Iroquois to gain support for their missions. Bodily suffering played a key...