HOW COLUMBUS CREATED THE CANNIBALS
Paper presented at a Quincentennial
can define are the masters. --Stokley Carmichael
Also, I do not know the language, and the people of these lands do
understand me, nor do I or any other person I have with me
understand them. --Columbus, Nov. 27, 1492
the Cannibals.(1) The Oxford English Dictionary
indicates that the word "cannibal" comes from the
"originally one of the forms of the ethnic name
Carib or Caribes, a fierce nation of the West Indies, who are
to have been anthropophagi, and from whom the name was
subsequently extended as a descriptive term." The dictionary further
that the word originated with Columbus: "Columbus's first
representation of the name as he heard it from the Cubans was
The American Heritage Dictionary states the connection
between Columbus and the cannibals even more succinctly: "From
Canibalis, Caribales, name (recorded by Columbus) of the man-
eating Caribs of Cuba and Haiti...." So Columbus gave the
Was Columbus, as our dictionaries imply, Europe's first ethnographer
of the New
World? Did he discover natives who were anthropophagi and
simply record in his log and letters their self-description?
log of his first voyage and his letters of February, 1493
and January, 1494, far from being objective records of New World
are eloquent testimonies to the power of language to
create reality. A close reading of these texts reveals not how
discovered the Cannibals, but how he created them. These
documents tell the story of their birth and maturation, their
from fiction into fact. By his power to define,
Columbus created for the Old World the most fascinating New World
ferocious, blood-thirsty Cannibals.
On October 12th, Columbus notes that the first natives he meets
and well-dispositioned people who bear no arms except
for small spears, and they have no iron" (76) .2 On that very first
however, he believes he hears stories about a warlike people
from nearby islands who come to capture the local peaceful
But he dismisses the idea of different natives because,
based on his reading of Mandeville and Marco Polo, he is sure he
close to China, the land of the Great Khan. He reasons that: "people
from the mainland come here to take them as
slaves" (77). On October
30th, just after he has discovered Cuba, he writes that the people
there, although just as
docile as those on San Salvador, are also at
war. Again, with no evidence, he knows with whom: "He also understood
the king of Cuba was at war with the Great Khan" (98).
But only a few days later, on November 4th, he begins to construct
more complex story. After interrogating some locals with his standard
questions about gold and spices, he makes a
startling entry: "I also
understand that, a long distance from here, there are men with one
eye and others with dogs'
snouts who eat men. On taking a man they
behead him and drink his blood and cut off his genitals" (102). What
actually hear? Could the people he "talked to" have
possibly communicated such detailed and graphic information? Is he
common European cultural beliefs about the Savage Other he
found in Mandeville and Marco Polo? Or did New World natives
their enemies in exactly the same terms as the
Europeans: "They aren't like us, they eat human flesh"? In any case,
is the moment when the ominous other natives enter the text.
Three weeks later the Cannibals themselves make a spectacular
in the log. While sailing off to yet another gold-laden
island, Columbus records: "The Indians aboard call this Bohio and
it is very large and has people there with one eye in the forehead,
as well as others they call cannibals, of whom
they show great fear.
When they saw I was taking that course, they were too afraid to talk.
They say that the cannibals
eat people and are well armed" (115).
Here it is: the birth of the Cannibals into European history and
culture. A datable
event, November 23, 1492--the day Columbus writes
the word "canibales" in his log. In a footnote to this entry, Fuson
its historical significance in an authoritative scholarly
voice: "Canibales,the people of Caniba who eat other people.
the first recorded usage of this term, which is a Taino Indian word"
But we must dutifully record
several ironies surrounding the birth of
a word that plays such an important role in defining European
of the peoples of the Americas and Africa. The first
irony is that the father of the Cannibals initially rejects the
which the word will subsequently come to have in the
discourse of European culture. After naming the people of
"Cannibals," Columbus denies that they are anthropophagi. He
offers a simple explanation of why the local natives think
Cannibals eat their people: "When the captives did not return to
their own country, it was said that they were eaten"
Furthermore, in a strikingly "modern" insight into the origins of man-
eating fantasies in the fear of the other,
Columbus says that the
Indians also initially thought he and his men were man-eaters just
like the Cannibals: "The Indians
we have encountered believed the
same thing at first about u s Christians" (115). In other words,
according to Columbus,
we would find in the natives' New World
dictionary this definition of "Christians": "Those who eat human
of the man-eating peoples of the Old World (recorded by
the Guanahanians on October 12, 1492.)."
The second irony
about the word "cannibals" is that Columbus himself
is unsure if it is the name of an actual people or a misunderstanding
what he has heard. An entry on November 26th indicates his
uncertainty when he remarks that the Indians with him fear the
"of Caniba or Canima, whom they say live on this island of
Bohiol" (117). In fact, he is skeptical that the "Cannibals"
exist. They more likely are simply subjects of the Great Khan: "The
Indians with me continued to show great fear
because of the course I
was taking and kept insisting that the people of Bohio had only one
eye and the face of a dog,
and they fear being eaten. I do not
believe any of this. I feel that the Indians they fear belong to the
domain of the
Great Khan" (117-118). This skepticism about the
Cannibals grows until by December 17th he asserts that there are no
people: "the Caniba are none other than the people of the Great
Khan, who must be very near here" (132). Since Columbus
the Great Khan is civilized, he rejects the charge that the Khan's
people are man-eaters: "They have ships
that come to these lands to
capture these people and take them away. Since the people never
return, it is believed that
they have been eaten" (132). Columbus
concludes his analysis with an unconsciously ironic comment about how
this out: "Each day we understand these Indians better,
and they, us; although many times they may have misunderstood us,
vice versa" (132).
The word "Cannibals" makes its last appearance in the log on December
17th: "The Indians
mixed freely with us and brought some arrows that
belonged to the people of Caniba, the Canibales" (138). But Columbus'
about the Cannibals continues to grow because of the
fantastic stories the locals have been telling about them: "The
showed us two men who had lost some chunks of flesh from
their bodies and said that the Canibales had bitten out the pieces.
do not believe this" (138). On December 26th after the shipwreck on
Espanola, Columbus has a "conversation" with the
about "the people of Caniba whom they call Caribes..." (154). Now he
thinks that he has encountered
a new name for the elusive people of
Caniba, who were supposedly on Espanola when he first heard about
them, but are
now on yet another distant island. What did he actually
hear from the Cacique? Did he hear "Caribe" or is this,
"Cannibal," another act of his creative word-making?
Is "Caribe," which has passed into history as the natives'
in fact, Columbus' neologism? Did Columbus create
the Caribes by the power of misnaming, just as he did the Indians?
any case, from December 26th to the end of the voyage, he
uses "Caribes" instead of "Cannibals" to designate those other
who are vastly different from the docile ones he has met throughout
his island visits. The Caribes are hostile
and, unlike the locals,
know how to use weapons. All this Columbus constructs from what he
hears, or what he imagines
he hears. The Cannibals/Caribes, Columbus
knows, however, exist only in words; he has never seen any. They are
on the next island, as elusive as the gold he seeks.
On January 13th, only a few days before the homeward voyage begins,
momentous event occurs: the Cannibals/Caribes, step out of language
into reality. On this day Columbus finally meets
them--or so he
thinks. He lands on a part of Espanola and his crew brings back to
the ship a man who is "much uglier
in the face" than the others.
Because he looks different, Columbus is sure "that he is one of the
Caribes; who eat men...
11 (172). But his report of
his "conversation" with the Caribe reveals a total lack of
communication. Among the "truths"
he learns is that there is an
island of Caribe to the East where there are pieces of gold the size
of his ship, and
next to Caribe is the island of Matinino which is
inhabited by the fabulous Amazons. The striking point of the
is that Columbus is no longer skeptical about these other
people being man-eaters. He now states as simple straightforward
what he has not seen and what he had rejected only a month before.
The Caribes ARE man eaters, and he even seems
to admire them: "They
must be very daring people since they go to all the islands and eat
the people they are able to
capture... "(172). Once again, Columbus
has misunderstood what he has seen and heard. Fuson points out in a
that these people are not Caribes but Ciguayos (173). What
Columbus does know is that these Indians are different, that
not "friendly and well-dispositioned people" like the ones he has
encountered up to now.
admiration of the Caribes doesn't last long. Shortly
after his interview with the "ugly" Indian, Columbus finds out that
people are very different. They actually attack his sailors
over a trading argument. Any natives wh o behave this way must
Caribes. He has finally seen with his own eyes that there are bad
Indians as well as good ones. Yet without observing
any eating of
human flesh, he concludes: "Without doubt, the people here are evil,
and I believe they are from the island
of Caribe, and that they eat
men" (173). Columbus is so intrigued by the skirmish that he names
the place Golfo de las
Flechas (the Gulf of Arrows) to mark his first
encounter with those hostile "Cannibals/Caribes," whose greatest mark
difference is that they eat human flesh. His log entries from
January 13th to the 18th are dominated by his desire to get
island of Caribe on his homeward voyage. Two days after
his "conversation" with the "Caribe" he says: "There
is a great deal
of copper on the island of Caribe and on Matinino, but it would be
difficult to obtain it in Caribe
because the people eat human flesh"
(174). He even makes the extraordinary claim: "I can see the island
of Caribe and
have determined to go there, since it is on the course
to the island of Matinino, which is inhabited only by women" (174).
on January 16th as he leaves the New World, Columbus
discovers that the island of Caribe remains tantalizingly out of
and he finally has to give up the search for the man-
eaters: "I was compelled to abandon the course that I believe was
me to the island; I returned to the direct course for Spain...
The Island of Caribe, like its fierce man-eating
only in Columbus's imagination. But for the Old World, his words
defined the reality of the "otro
mundo." His language created
reality, his fiction became fact, his words gave birth to the man-
--the ferocious Natives of the New World.
During February, 1493, on his homeward journey, Columbus writes a
reporting his extraordinary discoveries. This letter will
quickly circulate throughout Europe and serve as the first definition
the New World. Near the end of the letter, he summarizes what he
has found. He writes that he didn't find the normal Monsters
expected, like one-eyed men and people with dogs' heads, but he did
discover some even more exotic monsters-the
Caribes. He says: "Thus I
have found no monsters, nor had a report of any, except in an
island 'Carib,' which is the
second at the coming into the Indies,
and which is inhabited by people who are regarded in all the islands
as very fierce
and who eat human flesh" (Jane 200).
Why does Columbus include among his wonderful discoveries the Caribes
island, a people he did not meet and an island he did not
visit? A few lines later in the letter he lists the future gifts
the New World he will bring to the King and Queen: Gold, spices,
cotton, mastic, aloe, and perhaps the most valuable
gift of all--
"slaves, as many as they shall order, and who will be from the
idolaters." Who are "the idolaters"? Not
the good Indians he has met,
who, as he says earlier in the letter, "do not hold any creed nor are
The idolaters are, of course, the man-eating
By the time Columbus writes his letter from the Second Voyage
January, 1494, his uncertainty about the correct name of the
anthropophagi and exactly where they live, has disappeared.
finally discovered the truth about the maneating Natives of the New
World. They are no longer called "Caribes,"
but have reclaimed their
original name: "Cannibals." Now they no longer live on the island of
Caribe. The monsters of
his imagination are everywhere in the New
World: "But as amongst all these islands, those inhabited by the
are the largest and the most populous, I have thought it
expedient to send to Spain men and women from the islands which
inhabit, in the hope that they may one day be led to abandon their
barbarous custom of eating their fellow-creatures"
(Major 82). A few
paragraphs later he expresses his concern for them in even more pious
language: "You will tell their
Highnesses, that for the good of the
souls of the said cannibals, and even of the inhabitants of this
island, the thought
has suggested itself to us, that the greater the
number that are sent over to Spain the better..." (Major 84). A year
five hundred "Cannibals" are sent "for the good of their souls"
from Espanola to Castile in the four ships of Antonio Torres
sailed on February 24, 1495 (Sauer 88).
Columbus' Cannibals were a fascinating reality of the New World for
who eagerly read his log and letters. So real were his
creatures that in October, 1503, Queen Isabella issued an order
the Indians from capture or injury, except for "a certain
people called Cannibals:" "For the present I give license and
to all and sundry persons who may go by my orders to the Islands and
Tierra Firme of the Ocean Sea discovered
up to the present, as well
as to those who may go to discover other Islands and Tierra Firme,
that if said Cannibals
continue to resist and do not wish to admit
and receive to their lands the Captains and men who may be on such
by my orders, nor to hear them in order to be taught our
Sacred Catholic Faith and to be in my service and obedience, they
be captured and taken to these my Kingdoms and Domains and to other
parts and places and be sold" (Sauer 161-62).
begins the official European discourse of cannibalism, which was
employed so effectively to legitimate enslaving the peoples
Americas and Africa. On November 23, 1492, through the power of the
word, Columbus created the Cannibals. They
have been with us for 500
years and are with us still. Look in any dictionary: "Cannibal--A
person who eats the flesh
of human beings. (From Spanish Canibalis,
Caribales, name (recorded by Columbus) of the man-eating Caribs of
Those who define are the masters.
I discovered that the Cannibals were created, not found, when I
read three books: Peter Hulme's COLONIAL ENCOUNTERS, Carl
EARLY SPANISH MAIN, and W. Arens' THE MAN-EATING MYTH. I have applied
what I learned from them to a reading
of Columbus' log of his first
voyage and his letters of February, 1493 and January, 1494.
2. All quotations from
the Log are from Robert H. Fuson's 1987
translation of THE LOG OF CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS, and will be cited by
W. The Man-Eating Myth, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.
Columbus,Christopher. The Log of Christopher Columbus. Trans.
H. Fuson. Camden, Maine: International Marine Publishing, 1992.
Hulme, Peter. Colonial Encounters: Europe and
the Native Caribbean
1492-1797, London: Methuen, 1986.
Jane, C. The Journal of Christopher Columbus. New York: Bramhall
Major, R.H. Christopher Columbus: Four Voyages to the New World.
Gloucester, MA: Corinth Books, 1978.
Carl. The Early Spanish Main. Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1966.