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195 CHAPTER 10 “The Black People Were Not Good to Eat” Cannibalism, Cooperation, and Hunger at Sea RACHEL B. HERRMANN Slavery consumed enslaved bodies. Former bondpeople who wrote accounts of their capture and enslavement filled their pages with contrasting images of eating,hunger,and,sometimes,cannibalism.These references to cannibalism symbolized the corruption of Africans who participated in the slave trade by enslaving other Africans and the exploitative nature of white slavers, who figuratively and sometimes literally allowed sailors on their ships to eat the bodies of the enslaved.1 Although these passages are significant because they contributed to abolitionists’efforts to end the slave trade,they are instructive for two additional reasons.First,formerly enslaved authors,by linking discussions of cannibalism to portrayals of hunger,revealed power struggles over food that add another dimension to the fraught shipboard relationships between sailors and enslaved Africans in the Atlantic world. Second,these narratives also expose moments of cooperation between slaves and sailors. In slave narratives and abolitionist texts, writers recorded enslaved peoples supplementing the terrible provisions white sailors received by offering food to their captors. This chapter’s exploration of food-­ related interactions during peoples’ overland and oceanic travels offers a broader understanding of how people who crossed water—­ both by choice and involuntarily—­ experienced hunger during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Current work on slave narratives focuses on questions about genre 196 “The Black People Were Not Good to Eat” and the ways black authors subverted the genres of autobiography and captivity and religious conversion narratives. Studies of writers such as Olaudah Equiano have analyzed the topics of identity,memory,and race in these publications.2 W. Jeffrey Bolster, who has undertaken a comprehensive study of black seafarers, demonstrates that by 1803, the proportion of black sailors in the Atlantic world had grown to 18 percent,whereas in 1740 the maritime population was mostly white. Several of the former slaves whose writings I discuss in this essay would have lived through this transition, one that enabled black men to find common ground with white sailors but did not eliminate the racism they experienced.3 Scholars have examined the ways authors wrote about the destructive , even cannibalistic, nature of the slave trade.4 Amy Mitchell-­Cook, who has assessed the importance of race in incidents of shipboard cannibalism, has argued that in the wake of a number of shipwrecks in the period 1660 to 1840, people maintained social, religious, and gender boundaries by adhering to a hunger topos when they cannibalized others.5 They ate voyagers of different races first and considered consuming family members only when no other passengers were left alive.6 The infamous case of cannibalism on the whaling ship Essex in 1820 involved the murder and consumption of four black men.Shipwrecked sailors ate these fellow crewmembers after the ship, which had sailed from Nantucket, Massachusetts, was attacked by a whale and sank in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.7 VincentWoodard emphasized the connection between cannibalism,the Middle Passage, and homoeroticism.8 Woodard’s work underscores how white sailors literally and figuratively cannibalized enslaved bodies when they interacted with male slaves. Lynn R. Johnson is interested in can­ nibalism metaphors and in how food and water deprivation negatively affected the African children who voyaged across the ocean.9 Her essay is unusual in its attention to cannibalism and hunger in the same piece. In the late eighteenth century, the case of the slave ship Zong came to court when people learned that the commander had ordered 133 Africans thrown overboard while falsely claiming that the ship lacked potable water.10 He facilitated these murders to claim insurance bene­ fits on his “cargo,” suggesting that slave ship captains were familiar enough with the situation of diminishing food and water supplies to “The Black People Were Not Good to Eat” 197 use it as an excuse for violence. The 1839 slave insurrection on the Amistad supposedly took place because the Mende leader, Sengbe Pieh, worried that Spanish slavers wanted to cannibalize him and his fellow captive voyagers.11 Enslaved people may have feared being eaten first when food stores ran low or when shipwrecks occurred. These relationships between cannibalism and slavery and cannibalism and hunger merit further investigation of the power relations that centered on hunger.12 In focusing on cannibalism before the Middle Passage,on cannibalism during the Middle Passage,and on the ties between cannibalism,hunger , food sharing, and power in eighteenth-­and nineteenth...


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