Cannibalism and the Early Modern Atlantic

Rachel Herrmann’s interest in cannibalism grew from a paper she wrote as an undergraduate, which became a Master’s thesis, which became her first article. In the summer of 2015, a group of scholars gathered at the University of Southampton for a conference she organized, called “Cannibalism in the Early Modern Atlantic,” which was generously funded with a grant from the Wellcome Trust. William Kelso, Director of Archaeology for Jamestown Rediscovery, delivered the keynote address, in which he explained recent archaeological findings of bones bearing signs of cannibalism in colonial Jamestown, and his team’s use of forensic evidence. Participants were then urged to link cannibalism to Europeans’ quest for food, to stories about colonization, to Europeans’ interactions with Native Americans and Africans, to maritime famine, and to the Atlantic World paradigm. The most salient point emerging from the conference was that analyses of cannibalism now nearly always appear in combination with analyses of something else. In shifting from asking whether cannibalism occurred to querying why it mattered, scholars placed the study of man-eating in conversation with other topics such as literary theory, imperialism, the history of science, gender relations, and settler colonialism.

Selected conference participants’ essays will be published in Cannibalism and the Early Modern Atlantic, a book Rachel Herrmann is editing for the University of Arkansas Press. This volume’s contributors take important steps in discussing cannibalism’s implications for the wider Atlantic World, and in some cases, even beyond it. Cannibalism mattered to people before Jamestown, and continued to inflect colonial thinking long after 1610. For the most part, observations about cannibalism have focused on Latin America and the Caribbean. In this volume, historians, literary theorists, and theatre studies scholars offer new interpretations of cannibalism in British North America, the Spanish Caribbean, and Africa. These essays explore cannibalism’s connections to cooperation, histories of food, histories of eating, and histories of hunger.

Rachel Herrmann has written an essay called “‘The black people were not good to eat’: Cannibalism, Cooperation, and Hunger at Sea,” which uses slave narratives and abolitionist texts to explore hunger’s many maritime meanings, which were shaped by discourses of cannibalism.

Other contributors include:
Robert Appelbaum
Rebecca Earle
Elena Daniele
Julie Gammon
Jessica S. Hower
Gregory D. Smithers
Jared Staller
Kelly L. Watson
Matt Williamson

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