Teaser Tuesday: Cannibalism, whaaaat?

James Peachey, ca. 1785, Library and Archives Canada

James Peachey, ca. 1785, Library and Archives Canada

Remember a few weeks back when I asked “What’s for breakfast in early New England?”  Today’s Teaser Tuesday from my new book, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwrightis about food as well, although it’s not nearly as savory as my earlier exploration of colonial foodways.  Indeed, today write about the privation that many Wabanaki people suffered as a result of the cycles of warfare and famine that were unleashed by colonialism in Acadia.

Yale University Press. 2016

Yale University Press. 2016

All of the available evidence suggests that the people that Esther (or as I rename her in chapter 2, Mali) lived with for five years often suffered from extreme hunger.  When once I imagined Esther at age 7 skipping off into captivity in August enjoying the bounties of the blueberry and salmon harvests, the brutal reality that awaited me in the archives was of nearly unrelieved suffering, especially of children, as you will see if you read on.

This excerpt is like last week’s, from chapter 2, as Esther followed her captors into the Maine woods, and explores a recurrent calumny we see in intercultural conflict in the early modern period:  cannibalism! 

When hunger turned to malnutrition, the results were deadly, especially for babies and growing children like Esther. Father Vincent Bigot reported from one of the Wabanaki missions in early autumn 1701, “We had all last winter a large number of women and young children all sick with scurvy” so widespread that “the village was truly an infirmary.” These shocking accounts of scurvy among agriculturalists suggests that the privations of the flight into captivity might not have ended for Esther upon her arrival in Norridgewock.

Scurvy, a vitamin C deficiency that attacks soft tissue, was much more common among sailors in this period because of the absence of fresh fruits and vegetables in a seafaring diet. That the Wabanaki on dry land were watching their children languish and die of scurvy means that chronic hunger and disease were a fact of Wabanaki life at the turn of the eighteenth century. They came to mission towns not because the priests had food or medicine, but because they offered baptism, and with it the hope that their families might be reunited in heaven after death. For the generations of Wabanaki people who came of age suffering from the pressures and dislocations of colonialism, and for parents who had already lost a child or children to disease or malnutrition, it was a desperate comfort to know that if they and their remaining children were baptized, all might not be lost.

One of the few stories to be told in New England specifically about the captives taken from Wells in 1703 illustrates the hardship of the journey for captors and their captives alike. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it revolves around extreme hunger. This gruesome and undoubtedly embellished tale of would-be cannibalism may have its origins in a scene that Esther herself could have witnessed.

The chronicler in this case was clearly not an eyewitness to the story he reported. Cotton Mather was a Puritan preacher and one of the most energetic writers of his day. He pumped out anti-Native screeds and pro-war propaganda from the comfort of his home in Boston. In a hastily slapped-together pamphlet about the attacks on Wells in 1703 and on Deerfield the following February called Good Fetch’d Out of Evil, Mather wrote that “a Crue of Indians had been Three Days without any manner of sustenance [after fleeing Wells with captives in tow]. They took an English Child, and hung it before the Fire to rost it for their Supper . . . they would Roast it Alive.”

There is little evidence that any eastern Algonquians like the Wabanaki ever practiced cannibalism—either ritually, or for nutrition even in situations of extreme privation. Mather’s story seems to be a willful misreading of this encounter, if indeed it ever happened at all. Moreover, a live child delivered to Québec or Montreal would surely have brought a ransom that might have fed an entire village for a week. Mather went on to explain that “[a] Cannoe arrived at that Instant, with a Dog in it. The Lesser-Devils of the Crue, proposed their taking the Dog instead of the Child; They did so; And the Child is yet Living!” . . . As we have seen, dog meat was both an everyday food and one with ritual significance in wartime especially, so it’s likely that the Wabanaki would have consumed the dog they traded her for.

The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright54-55

wabanakidogRemember this little chap from last week’s post, helpfully offering the paddle to a master or mistress?  (I’ve taken the detail from the larger image by James Peachey, above.)  He or she is a significant and culturally appropriate detail given the importance of Wabanaki dogs.  Dogs were (and still remain) an excellent security system.  They’re also not picky eaters–and they’re even copraphages (aka $hit-eaters), so they help out with community cleanliness.  Finally, dogs occupied both the top and the bottom of the Wabanaki food pyramid, as they served both as a ritual food for warriors before battle (the quite literal “dog feast”), as well as a food source of last resort in hungry times.

Cannibalism mostly existed as political invective used to illustrate the savagery of one’s enemies, not as a nutritional strategy.  And in fact, all of the cases of survival cannibalism in early America I can think of involve Europeans (as in Jamestowne’s “starving time” in the winter of 1609-10) or Euro-Americans (a la the California-bound Donner Party in 1846-47, or Colorado’s own Alferd Packer in 1874, or the Donner Party.)

What becomes of Mali and the child who allegedly escape being “roast alive” by the Wabanaki?  What kind of evidence is there for Wabanaki consumption of dog meat?  Learn more in the book!

Finally, at the risk of being too irreverent–or even in poor taste–I give you Nick Lowe’s “Marie Provost,” based on the life and death of Canadian actor Marie Prevost (1896-1937), who died a very sad and lonely death in Hollywood.  For those of you who don’t know it, this is a song about a little human-canine calorie exchange, only in this version the dog lives to tell the tale.  (What the heck–Halloween is less than a week away, right?)

She never meant that much to me, but now I see:  Poor Marie!

Next week:  we follow Esther/Mali to Québec.  Where shall we visit?  The governor’s home, the Château Saint-Louis?  The Ursuline convent school?  I can hardly wait!  If you can’t wait, well:  you know what you can do about that!

10 thoughts on “Teaser Tuesday: Cannibalism, whaaaat?

  1. Another European angle on this is “custom of the sea”, with which Mather, and indeed those living in a town like Wells would have been familiar. Ultimately, this produced a landmark case in Common Law (R v Dudley and Stephens – 1884).

    Liked by 1 person

    • What is “custom of the sea?” Sounds ominious!

      (Mather was a Bostonian; had he lived in Wells, like the Wheelwrights who had 9 out of 11 children live to adulthood,several in his family would have been spared death by smallpox and measles. Mather had 15 children with 2 wives, but was outlived by only two of them.)


      • Indeed. Essentially, if a crew was shipwrecked and starving, and cannibalism of the dead had been exhausted, it involved drawing lots to decide who would get killed to feed the remaining survivors – an extreme form of “cannibalism out of necessity.” There are well documented examples into the 19th century.


      • Just remembered – there was an incident of cannibalism of the dead which is both local to Esther’s birthplace and contemporaneous to her life – the wreck of _Nottingham Galley_ on Boon Island in 1710.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Another near miss happened at Roanoke in 1585. Sir Richard Grenville, Raleigh’s cousin and the nominal leader of the expedition, returned to England, leaving 100 +/- men behind under Ralph Lane, a soldier. When they saw shiny metal on one of the natives, the Englishmen demanded the traditional escorted tour to the source of the treasure. The natives led them around and around in eccentric circles through the Piedmont, while the food ran low and the gold-famished explorers stubbornly voted to push on, even if they had to dine on their dogs. Not having a miner on hand to verify any mineral prospects, or a minor to “rost,” they ended up settling for dog’s “porridge,” which is an ambiguous reference. Porridge made from dogs? Porridge stolen from the dogs?

    Our president is pictured in a cardboard cutout in the library urging people to read more. There would be more there to read than to eat if they didn’t periodically “weed” the collection to expand the comestibles section; the road to hell being paved with “unbought stuffed dogs.” But the prez. is holding forth behind a row of pictured titles, one of which is by James Walsh, “Death Comes for the Provost.” Hmmm. Watch the Chronicle of Higher Ed.

    Liked by 1 person

      • That’s more than sad. I think that mad English dogs would have really enjoyed a hot, deep dish made from corn, beans, and squash, suitably seasoned. And then light out for Cahokia!


  3. Indyanna’s “unbought stuffed dogs”–from Bill’s hilarious speech in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, yes? Also, we have to talk about the “law of the sea” whenever we discuss the whaleship Essex–that is, every time I teach Moby-Dick.


    • Also–poor Marie Prevost. She’s one of the few women contemporaries that my goddess avatar Norma Desmond mentions by name in Sunset Boulevard.


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