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American Cannibals: Black People as Food During Slavery On Slave Ships!

The untold story of white cannibalism in America! As recounted by John W. Cromwell in a 1920 article in the Journal of Negro History, “Nat Turner was skinned to supply such souvenirs as purses, his flesh made into medicinal, cooking and axle grease, and his bones divided as trophies to be handed down as heirlooms.“ The famous remedy of the doctors of ante-bellum days—castor oil—was long dreaded for fear it was 'old Nat Turner's' grease!” We know from a detailed account of sugar refining in. Cattle blood was used in the refining process—revealing yet another link between blood and sugar beyond those made by abolitionists a few decades later. The cask labeled 8 (on the left) contains cattle blood. According to the text, such casks were usually placed outside the boiling house because of the bad odor. The author claims that when the refinery was at full capacity, it was necessary to import cattle from Paris to provide enough blood for the process of clarifying the liquid sugar extract. Firstly, beet and coconut sugar are never processed with bone char. They are considered vegan-friendly options as bone char filtration is not commonly used in their production. Organic sugar, certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) cannot be filtered through bone char.


Virginia didn’t have a monopoly on horrible slave laws. In 1740, South Carolina passed a comprehensive slave code with 57 provisions “so that the slave may be kept in due subjection and obedience.” Provisions included making it a crime for slaves to grow or possess their own food, gather in groups, or learn to read.


In 1755, Georgia required all plantation owners and their white employees to serve in the state militia, which was responsible for enforcing slavery. Joseph Clay, a Savannah merchant, described the role of slavery in 1784, saying, “The Negro business is a great object with us. It is to the trade of this country as the soul is to the body, and without it no house can gain proper stability.”


Forty of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence owned slaves. Under the Constitution, a slave was counted as three-fifths of a free person. Ten of the first 12 presidents owned slaves. This is who we were as the United States became a nation. The Portuguese schooner Arrogante was captured in late November 1837 by HMS Snake, off the coast of Cuba. At the time, the Arrogante had more than 330 Africans on board, who had been shipped from the Upper Guinea coast. Once the vessel arrived in Montego Bay, Jamaica, the British authorities apprenticed those who had survived. Shortly after landing, however, the Arrogante’s sailors were accused of slaughtering an African man, cooking his flesh, and forcing the rest of those enslaved on board to eat it. Furthermore, they were also accused of cooking and eating themselves the heart and liver of the same man. This article focuses not so much on the actual event, as on the transatlantic process that followed, during which knowledge was produced and contested, and relative meanings and predetermined cultural notions associated with Europeans and Africans were probed and queried.


At dawn on November 23, 1837, HMS Snake, under the command of Captain Alexander Milne, spotted a suspicious brig on the horizon, just off Cuba’s westernmost point, the Cape of San Antonio. On the brig—a slave vessel named Arrogante—the sailors saw a “large cruiser ship in the distance,” a circumstance that led the captain to give orders to find an escape route as quickly as possible.1 The getaway attempt was short-lived, as the fast-sailing British cruiser soon caught up with the slave traders, although only after being forced to fire several shots at it and in spite of the heavy rains and winds that made the chase all the more difficult. Upon boarding the ship, Captain Milne reported that its decks were crammed with enslaved Africans kept in atrocious conditions. In a private letter to his brother, written a couple of months later, Milne referred to the Africans on board as “actual skeletons with death in their countenances.” Milne, a seasoned officer who had encountered several slave vessels before, confessed to be shocked as never before by the sight of “dead children lying about the deck” while others were in “the last stage, all calling for food and water & pointing to their mouths.”


Without wasting any time, Captain Milne sent Lieutenant Robert Boyle Miller to take control of the Arrogante as prize master and to guide her immediately to Montego Bay, Jamaica, in order to disembark the Africans, before continuing toward Sierra Leone, where the vessel and the crew were to be brought before the Anglo-Portuguese Court of Mixed Commission. In the meantime, and after seizing yet another slave ship only hours later, Milne and the Snake sailed to the Jagua harbor on the south side of the island of Cuba, where they delivered most of the Arrogante’s crew and their passengers to the governor of the fort of Jagua.6 The Arrogante, with a crew of 35 men, mostly Portuguese, which included the captain, the pilot, and other officers, plus eight passengers, had obtained her human cargo 40 days before from the notorious Spanish slave dealer Pedro Blanco—who incidentally was one of the eight passengers—at the mouth of the river Gallinas, on the Upper Guinea coast.7 A total of 470 Africans, many of them children and adolescents, had been crowded under the small deck of the brig and sent on their way to Cuba, almost certainly consigned to the house of Pedro Martinez & Co., of Havana and Cadiz. When the ship came across HMS Snake, 64 of them had died, and by the time the Africans were landed in Montego Bay 11 days later, 74 more had passed away, in spite of all the attentions given to them by the assistant-surgeon of HMS Snake, who had accompanied Lieutenant Miller.


That the violence effected upon this group of enslaved Africans had been exceptional became even clearer upon their arrival in Jamaica. There, John Roby, the collector of customs at Montego Bay, was just as perplexed as Captain Milne had been before him. In a letter sent to Commodore Peter John Douglas months later, Roby recounted the “horrible state of disease and emaciation” prevailing among them, explaining that “the thighs of many” were not thicker than his own wrist.8 More alarming, however, was the revelation that many of the Africans made soon afterward. On various occasions upon their arrival and over the next few months, a considerable number of them, mostly children and adolescents, said repeatedly and to different people, that one of the Africans on board the Arrogante had been murdered, and that, subsequently, the sailors had cooked pieces of his body and served them with rice to the rest of the Africans. Many other accusations of beatings, rapes, and other various violent punishments were levied against the captain and crew.


Although Roby, Lieutenant Miller, and others who came into contact with them remained skeptical throughout, others, including the collector of customs at Lucea, a coastal town west of Montego Bay, Lyndon Howard Evelyn, the Senior Magistrate at Hanover, Alexander Campbell, and Special Justice of Peace, Hall Pringle, were convinced that the young Africans were telling the truth and denouncing an event that had indeed taken place. Evelyn, perhaps the most outspoken of them all, went as far as stating in public that “the long and patient hearing of the evidence, and the careful observing for many days of the tone and bearing of the many witnesses who were brought before the commission, suddenly, without concert, from various places, and about nine months subsequent to the alleged perpetration of the crime,” were conclusive evidence that the horrors described by the Africans were not the result of their vivid imagination, as had been suggested.


Among those horrors, cannibalism was just one. Rape, torture, and beatings, sadistic murders, and another accusation of cannibalism, this one directed toward the ship’s sailors, filled page after page of depositions. Perhaps due to the challenging nature of the accusation, and to the fact that, as Vincent Brown has contended, these inquests “laid out the axes, boundaries, and values of community,” it took between seven and eight months for the British authorities in Jamaica to give enough credence to the testimony of these young Africans before reluctantly starting a proper investigation that, eventually, involved them as well as the Colonial Office and the Admiralty (Brown 2008:78). During that time, the Africans had first been taken care of—although of the 332 who were landed in Montego Bay, 66 died in the following weeks—and then hastily apprenticed, according to the dispositions associated with the Emancipation Act of 1833, within the parishes of St. James and Hanover in north-western Jamaica.


The story these children and young men and women told was simply harrowing. According to many of them, a few days before being seized by the British cruiser, one of them, a grown-up man called Mina, who according to all descriptions given was not a Black man but “a yellow man,” was forced to drink alcohol; then, after being taken behind a sail on the bow, he was slaughtered.11 Although, as one would expect, some minor specifics in the testimonies of the witnesses are inconsistent, most of them agreed that the man cried out for help as he was being killed, and that his blood remained on deck until the next day. Some witnesses claimed that his head, hands, and feet were cut off and thrown overboard, and then the rest of him was cut in small square pieces and served to the rest of the Africans on board as food. Furthermore, in a very revealing testimony, one witness stated that Mina’s heart and liver were also cooked and then eaten by the Portuguese sailors.


Regardless of whether cannibalistic practices did indeed take place on board the Arrogante, by examining this case through a combination of ethnographic and microhistorical methods, it is possible to “challenge the omniscient [British Colonial] narrator’s voice” that dominates in the paperwork created as a result of the investigation. In doing so, it is also possible to scrutinize and query the reasons why the colonial authorities in Jamaica, as well as the Colonial Office and the Admiralty, failed to fully investigate the accusations of cannibalism. Using the resulting court records “to reenact a trial of the past” with the aim of reaching different conclusions is neither desirable nor practical (Ginzburg 1991:90). Instead, this article seeks to present an alternative interpretation to those offered by the colonial authorities who were in charge of the investigation, as well as to challenge the very core values and beliefs that stopped those same magistrates from pursuing promising leads and from further interrogating witnesses in search of what may have been, to them, an inconvenient truth. This approach will allow for a critical reflection on how cultural and ethical conventions can be shaped and reshaped across cultures—in this specific case, with respect to those of the slave ship crew, the enslaved Africans, the British officers, and the magistrates in Jamaica.13


At this point some questions about the way in which the British colonial authorities in Jamaica dealt with the investigation can be put forward. Did they really fail to believe the Africans? Or did they instead choose not to believe them in the hope of avoiding a long, potentially embarrassing, judicial process during which the superiority of their own culture and civilization might be brought into question? In any case, why were they so keen on shutting down the judicial process, even before the final set of witnesses had been interrogated?


Cannibalism has often been discussed with reference to pre-industrial societies, and especially in the case of African peoples it has been a constant, irrespective of their particular origins, cultural traditions, and relationships with other cultures and societies. Within the Atlantic basin, since the time of the first contact between European and Caribbean peoples, it was consistently considered as a marker of so-called uncivilized peoples, contrary to morality and to natural laws (see, for example, Evans-Pritchard 1960; Jennings 2011). By focusing on the events that occurred on a slave ship and their subsequent interpretation by the British colonial authorities in Jamaica, it is possible to offer a different, complementary historical narrative that reveals a reversal of roles: one in which Europeans appear as flesh-eating savages, and Africans as the civilized people horrified by this behavior—a version of history that may be even just as valid as the traditional one, which regularly portrays Africans as cannibals.


The case of the Arrogante occurred at a pivotal historical moment within the British Empire, just as the final abolition of African slavery came into being, concluding a process of emancipation that was denoted by the compensation of slave owners and the forced apprenticeship to which the enslaved population was subjected. Just as the British intensified the pursuing of slavers across the Atlantic and Indian oceans, illegal human-trafficking activities expanded across vast regions of West, West Central, and East Africa. Simultaneously with this British reinvention as an antislavery power, and on the back of new Free Trade notions, an emerging new type of British imperialism, characterized by exceptionalist and racist ideas and policies, developed and expanded worldwide.


Perhaps as a result of these ideas and policies, the magistrates involved in this case repeatedly failed to listen to the Africans’ version of events. This was not by any means a new phenomenon in the slavery-tainted Atlantic world. While examining the aftermath of the 1692 slave conspiracy in Barbados, historian Jason T. Sharples was keen to indicate that local magistrates could only listen imperfectly to the voices of those Africans who testified before them: “They evaluated informants’ ideas and recorded aspects of them that aligned with their own notions of possible forms of insurrection” (Sharples 2015:811).


In many ways, they did the same more than a century later in Jamaica. First, when they plainly refused to accept that the Arrogante’s sailors could be capable of undertaking such a barbaric and amoral practice as cannibalism, and then when they decided to focus all their attention on the cooking and serving of the African man’s flesh to the other enslaved Africans on board. This choice was questionable, especially if we consider that rather than one, there were two distinctly separated accusations: one relating to the enslaved Africans being forced to engage in cannibalism and another to the ship’s crew eating specific human body parts themselves. In fact, all those investigating the events willfully ignored the second, more troubling accusation of cannibalism, which pertained to the Portuguese sailors, not the Africans, eating the heart and the liver of Mina, thus de facto clearing them—and by extension all Europeans—of what they considered an even more dreadful and implausible charge.


In doing so, they also refused to give any credibility to the testimony of the African children and adolescents who witnessed the alleged butchery. Instead, they chose to believe the testimonies of a small minority of Africans—also mostly children and adolescents—whose accounts were unbalanced and highly questionable, including those of Bamboo and Caycoola, who denied ever seeing or hearing of the events, and those of Kai and Tom, who did not have access to the upper deck and thus should have never been considered as key witnesses.


All in all, because of their prejudiced understanding of the world, they struggled to make sense of an event that presented that same world turned upside down. Inevitably, one must wonder whether this was an isolated, excessively violent event in what was generally a world of cruelty and impunity. However, repeated allusions to White cannibalism—which have not gone unnoticed by historians—and the continuous fear of being cooked and served as food that was felt by Africans about to embark on Atlantic crossings, point to the plausible prospect that, sheltered by distance, isolation, and lawlessness while at sea, other similar instances may have indeed taken place between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries

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