Those who can define are the masters. --Stokley Carmichael
Also, I do not know the language, and the people of these lands do not understand me, nor do I or any other person I have with me understand them. --Columbus, Nov. 27, 1492
Columbus created the Cannibals.(1) The Oxford English Dictionary indicates that the word "cannibal" comes from the Spanish, "Canibales," "originally one of the forms of the ethnic name Carib or Caribes, a fierce nation of the West Indies, who are recorded to have been anthropophagi, and from whom the name was subsequently extended as a descriptive term." The dictionary further asserts that the word originated with Columbus: "Columbus's first representation of the name as he heard it from the Cubans was Canibales.... The American Heritage Dictionary states the connection between Columbus and the cannibals even more succinctly: "From Spanish Canibalis, Caribales, name (recorded by Columbus) of the man-eating Caribs of Cuba and Haiti...." So Columbus gave the world the word, "cannibals."
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?
Columbus's log of his first voyage and his letters of February, 1493 and January, 1494, far from being objective records of New World discoveries, are eloquent testimonies to the power of language to create reality. A close reading of these texts reveals not how Columbus discovered the Cannibals, but how he created them. These documents tell the story of their birth and maturation, their metamorphosis from fiction into fact. By his power to define, Columbus created for the Old World the most fascinating New World Natives--the ferocious, blood-thirsty Cannibals.
On October 12th, Columbus notes that the first natives he meets are "friendly and well-dispositioned people who bear no arms except for small spears, and they have no iron" (76) .2 On that very first day, however, he believes he hears stories about a warlike people from nearby islands who come to capture the local peaceful inhabitants. But he dismisses the idea of different natives because, based on his reading of Mandeville and Marco Polo, he is sure he is 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 that 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 a 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 did Columbus actually hear? Could the people he "talked to" have possibly communicated such detailed and graphic information? Is he projecting common European cultural beliefs about the Savage Other he found in Mandeville and Marco Polo? Or did New World natives characterize their enemies in exactly the same terms as the Europeans: "They aren't like us, they eat human flesh"? In any case, this is the moment when the ominous other natives enter the text.
Three weeks later the Cannibals themselves make a spectacular appearance in the log. While sailing off to yet another gold-laden island, Columbus records: "The Indians aboard call this Bohio and say 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 affirms its historical significance in an authoritative scholarly voice: "Canibales,the people of Caniba who eat other people. This is the first recorded usage of this term, which is a Taino Indian word" (115).
But we must dutifully record several ironies surrounding the birth of a word that plays such an important role in defining European understanding of the peoples of the Americas and Africa. The first irony is that the father of the Cannibals initially rejects the meaning which the word will subsequently come to have in the discourse of European culture. After naming the people of Caniba "Cannibals," Columbus denies that they are anthropophagi. He offers a simple explanation of why the local natives think the Cannibals eat their people: "When the captives did not return to their own country, it was said that they were eaten" (115). 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 flesh. Name 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 of what he has heard. An entry on November 26th indicates his uncertainty when he remarks that the Indians with him fear the people "of Caniba or Canima, whom they say live on this island of Bohiol" (117). In fact, he is skeptical that the "Cannibals" even 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 such people: "the Caniba are none other than the people of the Great Khan, who must be very near here" (132). Since Columbus knows that 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 he figured this out: "Each day we understand these Indians better, and they, us; although many times they may have misunderstood us, and 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' skepticism about the Cannibals continues to grow because of the fantastic stories the locals have been telling about them: "The Indians showed us two men who had lost some chunks of flesh from their bodies and said that the Canibales had bitten out the pieces. I do not believe this" (138). On December 26th after the shipwreck on Espanola, Columbus has a "conversation" with the Cacique Guacanagari 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, like "Cannibal," another act of his creative word-making? Is "Caribe," which has passed into history as the natives' selfdescription, in fact, Columbus' neologism? Did Columbus create the Caribes by the power of misnaming, just as he did the Indians?
In any case, from December 26th to the end of the voyage, he uses "Caribes" instead of "Cannibals" to designate those other people 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 always on the next island, as elusive as the gold he seeks.
On January 13th, only a few days before the homeward voyage begins, a 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 encounter is that Columbus is no longer skeptical about these other people being man-eaters. He now states as simple straightforward fact 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 footnote that these people are not Caribes but Ciguayos (173). What Columbus does know is that these Indians are different, that they are not "friendly and well-dispositioned people" like the ones he has encountered up to now.
His initial admiration of the Caribes doesn't last long. Shortly after his interview with the "ugly" Indian, Columbus finds out that these people are very different. They actually attack his sailors over a trading argument. Any natives wh o behave this way must be 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 of difference is that they eat human flesh. His log entries from January 13th to the 18th are dominated by his desire to get to the 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). However, on January 16th as he leaves the New World, Columbus discovers that the island of Caribe remains tantalizingly out of reach, and he finally has to give up the search for the man-eaters: "I was compelled to abandon the course that I believe was taking me to the island; I returned to the direct course for Spain... 11 (177).
The Island of Caribe, like its fierce man-eating inhabitants, exists 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-eating Cannibals/Caribes --the ferocious Natives of the New World.
During February, 1493, on his homeward journey, Columbus writes a letter reporting his extraordinary discoveries. This letter will quickly circulate throughout Europe and serve as the first definition of 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 people 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 and their 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 from 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 they idolaters." The idolaters are, of course, the man-eating Caribes.
By the time Columbus writes his letter from the Second Voyage in January, 1494, his uncertainty about the correct name of the anthropophagi and exactly where they live, has disappeared. He has 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 cannibals are the largest and the most populous, I have thought it expedient to send to Spain men and women from the islands which they 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 later five hundred "Cannibals" are sent "for the good of their souls" from Espanola to Castile in the four ships of Antonio Torres that sailed on February 24, 1495 (Sauer 88).
Columbus' Cannibals were a fascinating reality of the New World for those who eagerly read his log and letters. So real were his creatures that in October, 1503, Queen Isabella issued an order protecting the Indians from capture or injury, except for "a certain people called Cannibals:" "For the present I give license and power 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 voyages 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 may be captured and taken to these my Kingdoms and Domains and to other parts and places and be sold" (Sauer 161-62).
Thus begins the official European discourse of cannibalism, which was employed so effectively to legitimate enslaving the peoples of the 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 Cuba and Haiti...)."
Those who define are the masters.
1. I discovered that the Cannibals were created, not found, when I read three books: Peter Hulme's COLONIAL ENCOUNTERS, Carl Sauer's THE 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 page number only.
Arens, W. The Man-Eating Myth, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.
Columbus,Christopher. The Log of Christopher Columbus. Trans. Robert 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 House, 1960.
Major, R.H. Christopher Columbus: Four Voyages to the New World. Gloucester, MA: Corinth Books, 1978.
Sauer, Carl. The Early Spanish Main. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966.