HERE BE CANNIBALS

CANNIBALISM IN MELANESIA



They [the New Hebrideans] are still cannibals.

An unspecified encyclopaedia published in 1951




For an hour we watched, and took long-range photographs. The dance continued monotonously. The meat sizzled slowly over the fire – and nothing happened. Then I gave one of the Tongoa boys a radium flare and told him to go into the clearing, drop the flare into the fire, and run to one side, out of the picture. He did as I asked him. The natives stopped dancing, and watched him as he approached. He threw the flare into the fire, and jumped aside.

As they stooped down close to the flames to see what he had thrown there, the flare took fire, and sent its blinding white light into their faces. With a yell, they sprang back, and ran in terror directly towards us. Then they turned and ran in the opposite direction. The half-minute flare burned out; so they grabbed the meat from the fire and carried it away with them into the bush.

My boys sprang into the clearing. I, with my camera on my shoulder, was just behind them. When I came up to them, they were standing by the fire, looking at the only remnant of the feast that was left on the embers. It was a charred human head, with rolled leaves plugging the eye-sockets! I had proved what I had set out to prove; that cannibalism is still practised in the South Seas. I was so happy that I yelled!

Martin Johnson writing of the Malekula region in Cannibal-Land, 1922




One day when I was on Nguna news arrived of a fearful massacre having been committed on the island of Efate, the other side of Nguna Bay. Another missionary, Mr. Milne, and I repaired to the spot and ascertained the facts.

A number of natives from the island of Makura had arrived Efate, just opposite Nguna, to dig some taumako, a vegetable similar in appearance to the potato. The chief who instigated and led in the massacre had been among Europeans, in Queensland and elsewhere, for thirteen years, and could speak English well. He denied having killed anyone; but while the words were in his mouth, evidences of his guilt were forthcoming. In the surf on the beach lay the trunk of a human body; in a canoe alongside was the head; and the arms and legs were roasting on a fire in a neighbouring village.

Confronted with proofs of his crime, the brutal fellow readily excused himself. The things said by missionaries, he agreed willingly enough, were quite right and good for the white man; but they do not suit the black man.

Seeing that we could accomplish nothing, we left for the mission station in the boat which had conveyed us across the bay. When we were a short distance out from land, we saw a procession going along the beach. The body of a man, lashed to a pole, was being carried by two persons. A conch-shell was blown, and some young men went in front, swinging spears over their heads. This was in bravado of the act of murder. Others followed, filled with the same evil spirit. When the true facts came to light, our worst fears were realized: for several persons had been killed, and their bodies had been distributed as presents to friends among the tribe.

Rev. Oscar Michelsen, Cannibals Won for Christ, London, 1894




Brown states that there is always a clear distinction made, among these people, between a man murdered or killed in battle, and a man who has died from any other cause. But there is no doubt in his mind that the principal reason for cannibalism among the tribes with whom he had contact was that of obligation towards a dead relative. His opinion was confirmed for him in a conversation he reports between himself and a tribesman, who spoke as follows: ‘Suppose my brother is killed by Outam (a neighbouring tribe): by and by I hear of some Outam man killed by another tribe. I go and buy a piece of the body, and place it in my dead brother’s house as an offering to him.’ He [Brown] adds that in some parts of the islands a man will not bathe or wash until his revenge is completely satisfied. The Kababaia, for instance, ate the hair, the intestines, and even the excrement, of a man from a village who had killed some of their relatives.

In general, he adds, where cannibalism is fully recognized, all parts of the victim’s body would be eaten...

But the hands and breasts of women were esteemed the choice parts. Some of the bones were kept to be used as weights on the ends of spears. Skulls were put on a dead branch of a tree and placed either on the beach or near the hut of the person who had killed the former owners. On the piece of land on which I lived in Port Hunter there were seven of these ghastly objects at a short distance from my house. I wanted to get rid of them, but judged it expedient to leave them alone, for fear the people might be angry if I took them down, and so replace them by putting my own skull in their place.

Garry Hogg, Cannibalism and Human Sacrifice quoting Rev. G. Brown, Melanesians and Polynesians, Macmillan, 1910




Here [New Caledonia] the women of the tribe used to pick out the best-covered corpses on the field of battle and dress them for the ovens while the warriors were still engaged in killing others. Heated stones were thrown into makeshift ovens on the very fringe of the battlefield so that there need be no delay in feasting once the victory was won.

In New Caledonia it was the hands that were considered the choicest portions, and these by prescriptive right became the portion of the tribal priests. These would follow the warriors, and the women of the warring tribe, and take up positions in the rear of the battle. So important was it to them that they, and they alone, should be given the hands of the enemies slain in battle that they would actually fast rather than accept anything inferior.

On this island, too, there was no prohibition against women partaking of human flesh. Nor was there any tabu against the eating of the corpse of a chief. On the other hand, if the corpse of a chief was on offer, it was obligatory that every man, woman and even small children must receive at least a mouthful. Another important tabu on this island concerned the corpses of women. If by any chance the body of a woman happened to be included in the feast, then however far demand exceeded supply, the torso must be cast away and only the arms and legs divided into portions.

A. P. Rice in The American Antiquarian, vol. xxxii, 1910




On my arrival in New Ireland there was a great sound of merry-making and laughter. On the branches of a big tree in the centre of the clear space were six corpses, hanging by their necks, their toes just touching the ground. After a long pull at my flask, I sat down, with my back to the tree, and watched the women.

They had made fires and were now boiling large pots of water. As soon as the water boiled, it was ladled out in coconut-shells and poured over the bodies one by one, after which they were carefully scraped with bamboo knives. This was simply the process of scalding and scraping that every dead pig goes through after it has been killed. The hair of the head was carefully cut off and preserved, to adorn some future head-dress.

The women all this time were laughing and joking, discussing the points of each man. The whole thing was done in the most matter-of-fact way possible. When the bodies had been thoroughly scraped, nothing more was done until the return of the men of the village.

Then the business of the evening commenced. A mat of plaited palm-leaves was laid down, and one of the bodies was cut down from the tree. A very old man, apparently the ‘father’ of the tribe, advanced into the centre of the crowd, where an open space had been left to give him room to conduct his operations. He had five or six bamboo knives in his hand, and with his thumbnail he was stripping the fibres off their edges, leaving them as sharp as razors.

The body was then placed on the mat, and ‘cleaned’ – some of the more perishable parts being thrown to the women as one throws scraps to the dogs. These were barely warmed at the fire before they were devoured. The head was then cut off and carefully placed on one side, on a leaf.

In due course all six bodies were similarly prepared, and cut up into very small pieces. Each piece was carefully wrapped in a stout leaf and bound up tightly with sinnet. The thigh and shin-bones, however, were preserved intact. They are used for making handles for spears.

When all six bodies had been cut up, the pile of little parcels wrapped in green leaves had assumed considerable dimensions. Then, the ovens were opened. The flesh was divided into as many parts as there were ovens, a little pile was put into each oven and covered over with hot stones. The bones and other parts which were not wanted were wrapped in mats and carried into the bush to be buried.

The flesh in the ovens had to be cooked for three days, or till the tough leaves in which it was wrapped were nearly consumed. When taken out of the ovens, the method of eating it is as follows: the head of the eater is thrown back, somewhat after the fashion of an Italian eating macaroni; the leaf is opened at one end and the contents are then pressed into the mouth till the last are finished.

As my interpreter remarked to me: ‘They cookum that fellow three day. By-um-by cookum he finish, that fellow all same grease!’

Hugh Hastings Romilly, Deputy Commissioner for the Western Pacific, Acting Special Commissioner for New Guinea, The Western Pacific and New Guinea, John Murray, 1886




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