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Cannibal Talk

The Man-Eating Myth and Human Sacrifice in the South Seas

Gananath Obeyesekere

Publication Year: 2005

In this radical reexamination of the notion of cannibalism, Gananath Obeyesekere offers a fascinating and convincing argument that cannibalism is mostly "cannibal talk," a discourse on the Other engaged in by both indigenous peoples and colonial intruders that results in sometimes funny and sometimes deadly cultural misunderstandings. Turning his keen intelligence to Polynesian societies in the early periods of European contact and colonization, Obeyesekere deconstructs Western eyewitness accounts, carefully examining their origins and treating them as a species of fiction writing and seamen's yarns. Cannibalism is less a social or cultural fact than a mythic representation of European writing that reflects much more the realities of European societies and their fascination with the practice of cannibalism, he argues. And while very limited forms of cannibalism might have occurred in Polynesian societies, they were largely in connection with human sacrifice and carried out by a select community in well-defined sacramental rituals. Cannibal Talk considers how the colonial intrusion produced a complex self-fulfilling prophecy whereby the fantasy of cannibalism became a reality as natives on occasion began to eat both Europeans and their own enemies in acts of "conspicuous anthropophagy."

Published by: University of California Press

Title Page, Frontispiece, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-9


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pp. ix-x

List of Illustrations

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pp. xi-xii

List of Abbreviations

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pp. xiii-xiv

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pp. xv-xx

Cannibal Talk is almost entirely based on previously written articles and papers delivered at various universities during the period 1989–2003 amidst other writing commitments.1 My first foray into cannibalism was during my tenure as a fellow at the National Humanities Center in 1989–90 while working on my book ...

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1. Anthropology and the Man-Eating Myth

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pp. 1-23

As the title of this book, Cannibal Talk, implies, I deal with the discourses of cannibalism and the behaviors and practices associated with such talk (“discursive practices”) in the interaction between natives and Europeans following the “discovery” of Polynesia by Captain James Cook in the voyage of the Endeavour, 1768–72. ...

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2. “British Cannibals”: Dialogical Misunderstandings in the South Seas

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pp. 24-56

The date is February 15, 1779, the day after the death of Captain James Cook in Kealakekua Bay on the island of Hawai‘i, the place where I ended my previous narrative of the sad end of that redoubtable sea captain who, it is said, was a divinity for Hawaiians.1 There is tension in the Hawaiian air: one group with their piles of stones, ...

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3. Concerning Violence: A Backward Journey into Maori Anthropophagy

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pp. 57-87

The change in Maori practice is probably the most controversial part of my argument. I present my thesis hesitantly because no one seems to have a clear knowledge of precontact or “traditional” Maori anthropophagy. In fact this phrasing might be a misnomer because New Zealand consisted of a multiplicity of Maori communities, ...

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4. Savage Indignation: Cannibalism and the Parodic

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pp. 88-116

In several of the discourses mentioned in the previous chapters it seems that what is parody for the Maori is deadly serious for his Other, the European.1 Sometimes the humor is shared by both sides as in the second voyage when Cook reported of his curio-hungry sailors: ...

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5. The Later Fate of Heads: Cannibalism, Decapitation, and Capitalism

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pp. 117-150

For the moment let me bracket “this cannibal business of selling the heads of dead idolators” that Melville ’s Ishmael speaks about and shift instead to the significance of that queer trade of Queequeg trying to sell his many heads even though the “market’s overstocked.”1 ...

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6. Cannibal Feasts in Nineteenth-Century Fiji: Seamen's Yarns and the Ethnographic Imagination

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pp. 151-192

Despite that fact that I am not as familiar with the political and economic situation of Fiji in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as I am with the Maori, I believe that in Fiji also there developed a form of pronounced anthropophagy that must be seen in terms of the European presence. ...

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7. Narratives of the Self: Chevalier Peter Dillon's Fijian Cannibal Adventures

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pp. 193-222

Historical ignorance compels us to leave aside Lockerby and Thomas Smith and move on to Peter Dillon who on September 6, 1813, presented an eyewitness description of a cannibal feast that has not been surpassed in its detail before or since. ...

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8. On Quartering and Cannibalism and the Discourses of Savagism

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pp. 223-254

I shall leave the Greeks of Homer for the moment and begin this chapter with an aside on African cannibalism by T. H. Huxley in his popular book, Man’s Place in Nature.2 Stephen Jay Gould refers to Huxley as “a fierce defender of evolution and the greatest prose stylist in the history of British science,” ...

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pp. 255-268

As I hinted in my preface, the several chapters in this book can either be read as a continuous narrative or as separate essays held together by the theme of “cannibal talk.” I now want to discuss a few of the issues that might not have been clear in the preceding chapters. This will provide an opportunity for my critics to disagree with me, ...


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pp. 269-310


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pp. 311-320

E-ISBN-13: 9780520938311
Print-ISBN-13: 9780520243088

Page Count: 340
Publication Year: 2005