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Cannibalism

Welcome to another weekly edition of Arts & Culture cards in Conquest of Paradise! As I have promised, here is a look at the Cannibalism card.

When Capt. James Cook first explored New Zealand for Europeans, he had traveling with him a native Tahitian. The scientists aboard Cook's expedition were amazed to hear this man easily conversing with the natives; the linguistic and cultural similarities were remarkable. However, one Maori cultural peculiarity shocked and disgusted both the Tahitian traveler and his European hosts: the natives often ate their victims captured in warfare. Cannibalism was an important ritualistic aspect of combat in New Zealand.

Many anthropologists claim that cannibalism never took place in Polynesia (or at least, almost never). Many take offense at any hint of cannibalism. But James Belich, an historian from New Zealand, thinks otherwise:

Evidence suggesting that cannibalism did exist in Maori society is almost overwhelming. But people need to understand that its role was as an exceptional humiliation of dreaded enemies beyond the grave. It wasn't an item of diet. It was a terrible thing that you did only to your worst enemies. You reduced them to food. And you carried your vengeance against them beyond the grave.

On the other hand, Gananath Obeyesekere offers the argument that cannibalism is mostly "cannibal talk," a discourse on the “other”, engaged in by both indigenous peoples and colonial intruders. It results in sometimes funny and sometimes deadly cultural misunderstandings. In his book titled Cannibal Talk, he deconstructs Western eyewitness accounts, carefully examining their origins and treating them as a species of fiction writing and seamen's yarns. He claims that cannibalism is less a social or cultural fact than a mythic representation of European writing that reflects much more the realities of European societies and their fascination with the practice of cannibalism. He concludes that the colonial intrusion produced a complex self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby the fantasy of cannibalism became a reality.

If cannibalism was simply a Pacific-wide myth, it was spread by some of the best 19th century European and American writers. Robert Louis Stevenson (In the South Seas) declared "Cannibalism is traced from end to end of the Pacific, from the Marquesas to New Guinea, from New Zealand to Hawaii... all appears tainted.” The most widely read account of Polynesian cannibalism was Herman Melville's Typee. Melville claimed that his book represented the "unvarnished truth," although scholars point out that some of the things which he says he witnessed were borrowed from accounts of earlier travelers. The plot of Typee builds to a climax that hinges on whether or not the narrator, Tommo, is going to escape or be consumed by his cannibalistic captors, a tribe called Typee (now spelled "Taipi"). The narrator never actually witnesses cannibalism, but he claims to have seen in "a curiously carved vessel of wood" "the disordered members of a human skeleton, the bones still fresh with moisture, and with particles of flesh clinging to them here and there!" He concludes that the Taipi had eaten three recently slain enemy warriors.

Melville also reports the curious case of an old chief who claimed to have eaten the big toe of Captain Cook. "His indignant countrymen actually caused him to be prosecuted in the native courts, on a charge nearly equivalent to what we term defamation of character; but the old fellow persisting in his assertion, and no invalidating proof being adduced, the cannibal reputation of the defendant was fully established. This result was the making of his fortune; ever afterwards he was in the habit of giving very profitable audiences to all curious travelers who were desirous of beholding the man who had eaten the great navigator's big toe." Ironically, while Melville jokes about this old chief's sly subterfuge to gain notoriety and make money, he himself used a similar trick, profiting greatly from the sales of Typee, which became a best-seller partly because it contained allegations of cannibalism. Melville became known as "the man who lived among cannibals."

In game terms, the Cannibalism card gains no Victory Points for its owner (your people are not happier, nor has your culture added any luster because of this “advance”). But I'm siding with Belich here! It does give an advantage in combat: once each battle, you can remove one enemy unit that would otherwise just panic. As one player said while holding this card, and taunting an opponent in a game of Conquest of Paradise at WBC: “Come on and attack me! I’ll EAT YOU!”


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