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115 CHAPTER 6 Imperial Appetites Cannibalism and Early Modern Theatre MATT WILLIAMSON The Starving Time in Jamestown constituted an event of pivotal ideological significance in the history of British imperialism. Poorly supplied , badly organized, and showing little ability to grow their own food, the colonists in Virginia had experienced difficulties since their arrival in 1607. In 1609 and 1610, following worsening relations with the Native population, the colony reached a crisis point. By the time new supplies arrived in March 1610,only 155 of the original 245 inhabi­ tants remained.1 Although the majority of deaths were a consequence of disease rather than starvation, as Robert Appelbaum has noted, hunger was nevertheless rife, and contemporary observers assumed it was the key cause of death.2 Most sensationally, the absence of food was such that on at least one occasion a colonist resorted to anthropophagy . In the years that followed, a series of accounts were written by John Smith, George Percy, and William Strachey, among others. These accounts claimed that settlers dug up “dead corpses outt of graves”and“licked upp the Bloode which had fallen from their weake fellowes.”3 One colonist was said to have “murdered his wyfe Ripped the childe outt of her woambe and threw itt into the River and after chopped the Mother in pieces and salted her for his foode.”4 Rumors of cannibalism spread through London and were the subject of heated debate and furious rebuttal on the part of the Virginia Company. The intensity with which these events were discussed is testament both to the fascination cannibalism evokes and the precariousness of England’s nascent colonial project. At a time when England’s empire was insignificant compared to that of Spain or the Ottomans, events 116 Imperial Appetites at Jamestown were the focal point for discussions of the nature and viability of England’s colonial expansion. In addition to sparking debate, these events provided material for the London theatres.A significant example is John Fletcher and Philip Massinger’s The Sea Voyage, originally performed by the King’s Men in June 1622.In part inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1611),the play depicts various groups of pirate-­ colonists who explore two islands,one defined by extreme natural bounty,the other by absolute want.Central to the action of the piece is the depiction of a group of shipwrecked would-­ be colonists who find themselves faced with starvation and who engage in a failed attempt at cannibalism.Although Claire Jowitt and Teresa Walters have argued that the play is a response to the 1622 massacre in Jamestown, this is questionable, given the length of time it took for news of that event to reach London.5 However,the text engages with accounts of the earlier Starving Time and without doubt its later performances acquired a more pronounced resonance as details of the massacre emerged.6 Gordon McMullan notes that “the magical elements of The Tempest are conspicuous by their absence from The Sea Voyage.”7 In place of the supernatural, Fletcher and Massinger portray “the possibility of starvation in para­ dise”and concentrate“on the problems of practical government by human resources.”8 Although Anthony Parr has argued that “the very abundance of analogy tends to suggest that, like The Tempest, this play refutes any attempt to tie it exclusively to a particular place or venture,” Jowitt emphasizes the relevance of the New World, arguing that “the presence of European women on board Portuguese and French ships is significant in locating this play in a Western rather than an Eastern context, since the former was concerned with permanent settlement and the latter with temporary trading posts.”9 However,in order to understand the extent of the play’s engagement with and ambivalence toward the colonial project, it is necessary to pay particular attention to the significance of its central episode of cannibalism. In doing so, it becomes possible to discern the degree to which cannibalism is associated not simply with the barren landscapes of a failed colonial project but also with unruly and fundamentally European appetites. As instances of early modern European subjects engaging in cannibalism in a New World setting, both The Sea Voyage and the Imperial Appetites 117 events of the Starving Time provide significant examples of the trans-­ Atlantic nature of cannibal encounters in this period. Early work on the issue of cannibalism placed great emphasis on the question of whether or not cannibalism actually occurred and generally tended to...


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