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  • Splenetic Ogres and Heroic Cannibals in Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal (1729)
  • Ahsan Chowdhury (bio)

I. Cannibalism: Ethnic Defamation or a Trope of Liberation?

In A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from Being a Burthen to Their Parents and Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Public (1729) Swift exploits the age-old discourse of ethnic defamation against the Irish that had legitimated the English colonization of Ireland for centuries. One of the most damning elements in Swift’s use of this discourse is that of cannibalism. The discourse of ethnic defamation arose out of the Norman conquest of Ireland in the twelfth century. Clare Carroll points out that “the colonization of the Americas and the reformation as events ... generated new discourses inflecting the inherited discourse of barbarism” in early-modern English writing about Ireland (14). Narratives of native cannibalism were an indispensable part of these new discourses and practices. For the English authors as well as their continental counterparts, the cannibalistic other of the New World became a yardstick by which to measure the threat posed by internal enemies, be it the indigenous Irish, the French Catholics, or the Moorish inhabitants of Spain.1 Thus, it was against the backdrop of the reformation [End Page 131] and counter-reformation conflicts as well as the exploration of the New World that Montaigne flirted with the notion as a metaphor in his comparison between the Tupinambá practice of eating the dead bodies of their enemies and the live torture practised by the Europeans. By contrast, the Protestant cleric and polemicist Jean de Léry used his graphic accounts of Tupinambá cannibalism as a preamble to the equally gory descriptions of the cannibalistic atrocities against the French Protestants perpetrated by the Catholics.2 Ireland, an anomalous pocket of Romish bigotry and superstition in the Protestant British Isles, also became a fertile breeding ground for religioethnic defamation; the Catholicism of the native Irish almost naturally complemented their putatively barbaric ethnic origins in the minds of such Protestant polemicists as Edmund Spenser, Camden, Fynes Morrison, and others. Whether the cannibal slur is implied or explicitly stated, such polemical writing invariably condemns the Irish for being bestial creatures given to dietary practices not fit for the civilized part of humanity.3 Even when the authors are sympathetic, pity is inevitably mixed with disgust and contempt for the objects of the slur. Swift’s tract exists in this troubled continuum of ethnic abuse against the Irish. According to Frank Lestringant:

In a fundamental way, the “humble” propopsal is no stranger to the traditional prejudices targeted at the “savage” Irish, anthropophagus in intention and in deeds, formerly and presently, or rather potentially, cannibals, probable descendants, as it was once thought, of the ancient Scythes and “Scoti,” who drank with equal eagerness the blood of their horses and their enemies.


In God, Gulliver, and Genocide (2001) Claude Rawson has also read Swift’s deployment of the discourse of religioethnic defamation against the Irish [End Page 132] by placing it in the tradition of English Protestant polemic against Ireland. He points out that Swift’s complex relationship with his predecessors such as Fynes Morrison is comparable to that between Montaigne and Léry. Rawson writes, “Montaigne’s relationship to Léry may have been similar to that of Swift to Moryson in that the lesser author in each case provided the explicit examples which the greater refused to exploit.” It is the brooding reticence on Swift’s part about the actual instances of survival cannibalism of the Irish in times of famine that makes his use of the cannibal slur so complex and effective. In spite of his genuine concern for Ireland and his condemnation of the self-destructive economic behaviour among all sections of the Irish population, Swift’s use of the discourse of defamation retains the basic characteristics of the traditional religioethnic slur against the Irish: a mixture of pity and deeply felt contempt. If anything, Rawson adds, it is probably one of the most uncompromising instances of that discourse: “Swift’s fable showing the Irish to be fit for a cannibal economy is perhaps the most uncompromising use of...


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