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175 CHAPTER 9 Conspicuous Consumptions in Atlantic Africa Andrew Battell’s Fearsome Tales of Hunger, Cannibalism, and Survival JARED STALLER Andrew Battell of Leigh,in Sussex near Stratford-­on-­Thames,departed England in 1589 as a crewman aboard Abraham Cocke’s privateering expedition headed for the south Atlantic seas then controlled by Spain. Battell returned to Leigh sometime between 1607 and 1611 with tales of adventures that ranged geographically from the West African coast of modern-­ day Liberia to the Atlantic African islands, Brazil, and Argentina. The vast majority of his time was spent in West Central Africa as a prisoner, trader, shopkeeper, and soldier in the region fromAngola to Loango in modern-­day Gabon.In Leigh,theAnglican churchman Samuel Purchas befriended and interviewed Battell. Purchas was writing a history of religion designed to encapsulate all of human history and all manner of religious diversity around the world. Emulating the great travel-­ narrative compilers Richard Hakluyt of England and Giovanni Battista Ramusio of Italy, Purchas sought out recently returned sailors such as Battell to add eyewitness data to the extensive body of written travel narratives he relied on as primary sources for his history of religion. The massive tome was first published in 1613 as Purchas his Pilgrimage; it underwent three revisions and republications in 1614, 1617, and 1626.1 In 1625, Purchas published Purchas,his Pilgrimes,which he claimed reprinted his informants ’ narratives in their own words.2 Andrew Battell’s account was called“The Strange Adventures of Andrew Battell”(hereafter“Strange 176 Conspicuous Consumptions in Atlantic Africa Adventures”).3 Although there are very serious reasons to question whether “Strange Adventures” faithfully reproduced Andrew Battell’s words,the text is one of the few extant eyewitness accounts of Angola and Loango in the 1590s. It has been extensively used by scholars who have been interested in it, in no small part, because Battell lived among a group of alleged African cannibals called Imbangala for sixteen months in 1600–1601.His fearsome tales of hunger,cannibalism, and survival shed light on varieties of conspicuous consumptions in Atlantic Africa around 1600. In their studies of the Imbangala, Africanist scholars frequently repeat Battell’s stories about their conspicuous consumption of humans by killing or enslaving them and of the palm trees they cut down to obtain palm wine (as the Europeans called it) within a social ethic of “unabashed greed and selfishness.”4 This analysis adds to earlier studies of the Imbangalas’ ingestions of palm trees and human flesh by analyzing them in comparison with Andrew Battell’s descriptions of foods he ate. For this analysis, I will expand the term “conspicuous consumption” from Veblen’s definition of it as the habit of people in a capitalist system to accumulate wealth and then display their discretionary economic power to attain or maintain membership in a particular social class.5 I will unhinge the term from class analysis and define it more broadly as any consumptive activity done with the intent that others take notice. Using this definition, all published descriptions of eating in “Strange Adventures” were explicitly conspicuous because Battell wanted his readers, or at least Purchas, to know what he or his African acquaintances ate at given moments. What becomes most obvious with a careful investigation of Battell’s mentions of food is that he does not often speak at length about what or how Africans ate. He mentions a few African food ceremonies, such as the fact that people in Loango were not allowed to watch the king eat or drink. But by far the highest density of food-­ related stories in “Strange Adventures” described times when he claimed to be hungry, even starving. Battell’s narrative is stuffed with overt references to eating food or human flesh and to the sometimes mortally perilous activities that a person without food must be willing to perform. He even presented the dread of food scarcity as greater than anxieties about other poten- Conspicuous Consumptions in Atlantic Africa 177 tially terrifying activities, such as armed conflict. Most noticeably, he described the fear of hunger as being more acute than the terror of living among alleged Imbangala cannibals.However,closer analysis of Battell’s claims about hunger demonstrate a complexity beyond experiences where food was scarce or entirely lacking. Typically he related that he had access to food but still felt famished because the available food was low in quantity or, more likely, of a sort that he might not have preferred to eat...


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