- Taming Cannibals: Race and the Victorians by Patrick Brantlinger
Taming Cannibals is the third of a trilogy of monographs addressing the relationship between race and imperialism by Patrick Brantlinger. Using historical case studies and literary analysis tied together by the “savage cannibal” trope, he emphasizes the contradictions of racism. According to Brantlinger, historians, especially prior to the advent of postcolonialism, tend to downplay the pervasiveness of racism in nineteenth-century Britain and its function as the intellectual foundation of imperial expansion. He argues that even the seemingly more innocuous forms of imperialism like the desire to help others through humanitarian work were also “underwritten” by racism (p. 9). The Victorian desire to tame cannibals (i.e., bring civilization to “savages”) cannot be separated from racism. Rather than a character flaw revealed in individuals, Brantlinger sees racism as part of the warp and woof of society itself. Thus, Brantlinger criticizes Homi Bhabba for making stereotyping a function of individual psyches and not instead recognizing it as a constituent element of British social structure. Moreover, Brantlinger claims that in practice Bhabba treats the colonizer-colonized relationship as a static binary, thereby ignoring its hybridity (p. 17).
Brantlinger’s eight chapters demonstrate the importance of race to the Victorian worldview. The first two chapters examine two attempts to “civilize” supposedly cannibalistic savages. Civilizing efforts on Fiji were a success. Missionaries converted Thakombau, whose people then abandoned their cannibalism and sought to become a British colony in 1858. The second case, that of George Robinson’s attempt to save the Tasmanian Aborigines from extinction by aggressively assimilating them into European culture, was a failure. Brantlinger argues that modern historians can only whitewash the destruction of the Tasmanian Aborigines if they discredit Robinson’s ethnographic accounts, which is exactly what historians like Keith Windschuttle have done (p. 47). Brantlinger finds a common thread of racism among both groups of [End Page 472] colonizers, despite the different outcomes. The assumption of cannibalism among all “savages” was used to justify their potential or actual extermination.
In chapters 3 and 4 Brantlinger examines that perennial fear of colonizers: going native. Chapter 3 examines the British fear that rather than civilize savages, colonizers themselves would descend into savagery by “going native,” as white Maoris did. Drawing on sources as varied as Joseph Conrad, Linda Colley, and Daniel Pick, Brantlinger addresses the tension between the assumption that savages could only ever mimic civilization (despite the fact that civilizing non-Europeans underwrote the entire imperial enterprise) and the fear that white colonists could be entirely transformed into savages. He connects the fear of going native to the fin-de-siècle degeneration scare.
Chapter 4 examines the writings of Benjamin Disraeli, who, as a Jew, was viewed as an alien menace by some. Disraeli represented the fear of Britain itself going native. Yet, Disraeli became a great proponent of imperial expansion. For Disraeli, race was the primary building block of imperial greatness. He saw the Caucasians as the highest race, but the Semitic people as the highest Caucasian branch. According to Disraeli, race lay at the foundation of religion, and religion was the basis of all great empires, including the British Empire. Thus, given the origins of the great religions in the Middle East, Disraeli’s self-fashioning as an aristocratic Semite positioned him to lead Britain to imperial greatness, not degeneration into savagery. Brantlinger here critiques Said’s conception of orientalism for its homogeneity and negativity and uses the example of Disraeli to illustrate its hybridity and the possibility of positive philo-Semitism (p. 92).
In chapters 5 and 6, Brantlinger examines the impact of racism on perceptions of the inhabitants of Britain. Chapter 5 discusses the emphasis on race, rather than class, as the dominant factor in domestic conflict after 1860. Investigators of slum living described the poor in racial terms. Indeed, street people were described as savages and were even deemed guilty of cannibalism by metaphorical association with rats. This discourse had political advantages; while inequality and class conflict could conceivably be alleviated...