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HERE BE CANNIBALS

CANNIBALISM IN AUSTRALIA



Excerpts from Anthropophagitism in the Antipodes: Cannibalism in Australia, James Cooke, published by the author, 1997.




CASTLETOWN – 1895

The subject I am now on is a most repulsive one, and yet one that cannot be omitted if all is to be told; and let us hope that, as the natives become scarcer and civilisation becomes more general, the horrors of cannibalism will become a tale of the past. It is far from it at the time I write, and missionaries and others have a wide field here on which to practise. The part of a man that sells best and is most appreciated is the thigh; that of a woman the breast: the head and the entrails are not eaten. The leg and arm bones of the men are usually put at the end of the spears, as they believe it gives them the strength of the man whose bones they carry: they do not often eat a man of their own tribe, but if he is killed for some offence his body may be sold to another tribe. The women are often killed and eaten by their own friends.

I have but one more story to tell on this horrible subject, and I hope to allude to it no more. A year ago two miners left a camp in the Castletown district, to prospect in the quartz ranges some ten to fifteen miles distant. no fire-arms, but merely a pick and shovel and a dolly for pounding their quartz. Weeks and months passed and they never returned; a search party was sent out, but could find no trace of them. Months afterwards a young black girl deserted one of the tribes and came into camp; after a while she picked up enough English to be able to make herself understood, and was one day asked if she could give any information about the two men who were lost. She laughed, and at first would say nothing, but after a while the story she told was as follows. The miners were surrounded by the men of her tribe, and, finding them unarmed, closed on them and made them prisoners by tying their feet together with kamins. They lay thus for a day before it was decided that they should be cooked and eaten. One of the men was then selected, and his shin and arm bones broken with round stones; the other man’s ones were also broken. At the same time he was suspended in a tree till required; the first man was then roasted and eaten before the eyes of his comrade, and the following day his mate, after suffering fearful agonies, shared the same fate.

Bicknell, A.C., Travel and Adventure in Northern Queensland, London, Longmans, Green & Co., 1895.



One of them, a woman, told me that her fellow-servant had given birth to three children, all of which had been killed. The mother had put an end to two of them herself, while the third had been permitted to live until it was big enough to be eaten. The one who told me the story had herself put her foot on the child’s breast and crushed it to death; then both had eaten the child. This was told me as an everyday occurrence, and not at all as anything remarkable.



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Then they are enticed by the hope of getting more wives; but the greatest incentive to taking life is their appetite for human flesh. The blacks never wage war to conquer new territory.

On Herbert river expeditions are sometimes undertaken for the special purpose of securing talgoro – that is, human flesh. On such occasions a small company of the boldest and most depraved gather together, and they are, of course, persons of high standing in the tribe. They are not many in number, as a rule only three or four; for the attacks are made on small family tribes that live scattered through the district, sometimes consisting of not more than five or six individuals. The expedition travels slowly, as they have no provisions with them and must find their subsistence from day to day. It is of course necessary to proceed with the greatest caution, lest they be themselves discovered and attacked.

When they have found a small family tribe to be attacked, they try to stay near their camp in the evening. Nothing having happened to cause apprehension during the day, the family sits comparatively secure round the camp fire. Early in the morning, before sunrise, a noise is suddenly heard and the family wakes up in a fright. The black man’s highly-wrought fancy always makes him imagine that his enemies are far more numerous than they are in reality. Each one tries to save his life as best he can; resistance being out of the question, there is no gallant defence of women and children. Each one has to look after himself; and it is generally worst for the old individuals, who are killed and eaten. A woman is as a rule splendid booty; if she be young her life is generally spared, but if she be old she is first ravished and then killed and eaten.

The natives of Northern Queensland and of many other parts of Australia are cannibals. My people never made any secret of this, and in the evenings it was the leading topic of their conversation, which finally both disgusted and irritated me. The greatest delicacy known to the Australian native is human flesh. The very thought of talgoro makes his eye sparkle. When I asked my men what part of the human body they liked best, they always struck their thighs. They never eat the head or the entrails. The most delicate morsel of all is the fat about the kidneys. By eating this they believe that they acquire a part of the slain person’s strength, and so far as I could understand, this was even more true of the kidneys themselves. For according to a widespread Australian belief, the kidneys are the centre of life.

It happened years ago in Victoria that a white policeman was attacked by the blacks. They struck him with their clubs until they believed him dead, and then they took out his kidneys and ran away. The man came to his senses again for a moment and was able to relate what had happened, but a few hours afterwards he died. The natives on Herbert river are particularly fond of the fat of a dead foe, which is not only eaten as a delicacy and as a strengthening food, but is also carried as an amulet. A small piece is done up in grass and kept in a basket worn round the neck, and the effect of this is, in their opinion, success in the chase, so that they can easily approach the game. A man told me that immediately after beginning to wear a small piece of human fat, he waded across the river, and came at once to a tree where he found a large edible snake.

As a rule the Australian natives do not eat persons belonging to their own tribe. Still, I know instances to the contrary, and I have even heard of examples of mothers eating their own children. Besides the circumstance already related, it happened in 1883, about a hundred miles from Townsville, that a child which had died a natural death was eaten, and that the mother herself took part in the feast. A day or two later she too died and was eaten.



Lumholtz, C., Among Cannibals: An Account of Four Years’ Travels in Australia and of Camp Life with the Aborigines of Queensland, New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1896.




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