African American

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African American History

No, I Will Not Let You Eat Me

Imagine you awaken in utter darkness. The air you breathe is hot vapor and rank with human waste, vomit, and rotting flesh. You are crammed between two people, one of which has been coughing up blood and the other has deceased. In this captivity you ask yourself “what are these strange white demons going to do with me?” One might arrive at the conclusion that the strange white captors were going to eat them up. This was often the experience of a slave in the cargo of a slave ship en route to the Americas during the 17th and early 18th centuries. Slaves taken from their African homeland often had no clue as to who their captors were or what their intentions might be. Many slaves assumed that they were being taken away to be eaten by white cannibals. Though this was not the intention of their captors, it was most certainly a fear some African slaves had. This fear was most certainly the cause of the slave mutiny aboard the Amistad. In facing this fear of being eaten the African slaves of the Amistad experienced the fight or flight mechanism. On the slave ship, however, there was nowhere to run and the slaves of the Amistad decided they would rather die fighting than being forced into bondage and possibly eaten. Situations like that of the Amistad may have resulted in several other slave ship mutinies. Though several hundred slave ship mutinies have been documented the clearest and best known example of mutiny in fear of cannibalism comes from the case of the Amistad. By researching historical documents and the case of the Amistad one will argue that African slaves fear of cannibalism was a major cause of slave ship mutinies between the 17th and 18th centuries.

First one must ask where the fear of cannibalism originated amongst African captives. Many early historians advocated that cannibalism was a regular practice among many African tribes. Modern historians, however, argue that ritual cannibalism among African tribes was more myth than fact. The modern historian may be somewhat correct in saying cannibalism was not a “ritual” practice, but it should not lead one to assume that cannibalism did not happen at all on the Africa continent. Though it may not have been a ritual practice, one can find instances of cannibalism in Africa during the 17th and 18th centuries. The most notable places where cannibalism had been reported were in Morocco and Libya. One particular story was that of a Libyan rebel who found himself overwhelmed by opposing forces. This account was documented by a Muslim named Muhammad ibn Ghalbun. Ghalbun's account states “they overcame him, killed him, and some of the troops ate his flesh.”[1]This account is evidence that although cannibalism in Africa may have not been a ritual practice it was not completely unknown to the continent during times of warfare or famine. Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that Africans who were being taken as slaves had at least some idea of the existence of cannibals even if they were not dealt with on a daily occurrence.

This fear of cannibalism among African tribes was only exacerbated when the Europeanized institution of slavery was forced upon the African continent. Many Africans believed that when they were taken captive their captors were going to eat them. Most Africans were usually taken from their community during slave raids. Once taken captive, Africans were shackled or tied together and were forcibly brought to factories where they were imprisoned until potential buyers would either purchase or exchange goods for them. This process caused a great deal of sorrow to the captive Africans who were bereft of their families and loved ones. Looming over this sorrow was the fear of not knowing the intentions of their captors.

It was not until Africans were packed into a ship's cargo hold that their fear of being eaten reached an apex. Once aboard the slave ship, Africans suffered the cruelest of conditions; living in darkness, forced to lay motionless, suffered beatings, and being constantly inspected. These factors may have been interpreted by captive Africans as a cannibal ritual but nothing confirmed this fear more than being forced to eat aboard a slave ship. One example of forced feeding amongst African slaves came from a slave ship surgeon named Alexander Falconbridge. In his Account of the slave trade on the coast of Africa, Falconbridge stated he had been “credibly informed, that a certain captain in the slave trade, poured melted lead on such of the negroes as obstinately refused their food.”[2] This example shows that forced eating was the method used by white sailors to prevent slaves from starving themselves to death. To the captive Africans, however, they interpreted that by method of forced eating they were being fattened up like cattle and feared they were going to be butchered and eaten.

The best evidence of this fear comes from the case of the Amistad. The Africans in captivity aboard the ship had at least some notion of cannibalism. This was confirmed when several slaves rose up against their Spanish captors on part of being forced-fed. One deposition from the slaves who were aboard the Amistad stated, “It was a common thing for them to be forced to eat so much as to vomit.”[3] From this account one can tell that the slaves aboard the Amistad wondered why they were being held sedentary and forced-fed. Certainly the Africans were alarmed by this peculiar treatment. After suffering many other inhumane cruelties they could not disregard the possibility that they were being fattened up to be eaten.

The fear of cannibalism amongst African captives predates the event of the Amistad. Examples of this fear can be found in black literature before the 1800's. An anonymous black poet wrote this piece of literature in 1793.

“Here de white man beat de black man

Till he's sick and cannot stand.

Sure de black man be eat by white man!

Will not go to white man land.”[4]

This example is evidence that fear of cannibalism by white captors was not uncommon during the 17th and 18th centuries. It was simply a response to fear of not knowing who their captors were or what their intentions are. Through the cruelties done unto the Africans by their captors, cannibalism seemed a likely possibility.

The appearance of their captors also intensified these fears. The white skin, beard, hair in various colors or styles, strange clothing, and the language of these captors was completely new to most Africans aboard the vessel. The captive Africans could not anticipate the intentions of their strange white captors other than through their cruel actions. If these strange white captors could be so inhumane thus far, how could the Africans strike cannibalism from the list of fears? The African captives could only postulate that their captors had only the worst intentions. As one scholarly journal put it “African slaves would not know why the white man wished to carry them away. The fear appears to have been that he planned to gobble them up!”[5] From this it would only be the African captives' logical assumption that their captors are strange inhumane beings that are likely to be in the business of eating people.

The African captives of the Amistad were no exception to this logical assumption that they may very well be on the dinner menu. A notable slave by the name of Olaudah Equiano wrote about this fear of cannibalism during his bondage on a slave ship. In his biography Equiano asked fellow slaves aboard the ship if they were “to be eaten by those white men with horrible looks, red faces, and long hair.”[6] This example shows Equiano's fear of being eaten by his captors. The example is also evidence that fear of cannibalism was not unique only to the slaves aboard the Amistad. Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that fear of cannibalism among slaves aboard slave ships was common.

Like Equiano, the slaves aboard the Amistad dreadfully feared they were going to be butchered and eaten by white cannibals. To make matters worse they felt their fears were confirmed when the chef threatened he was going to eat the slaves. This account was made by a slave named Fuliwa, one of the African captives aboard the Amistad. He claimed explicitly, “the cook gloated that they would all be eaten after their heads had been cut off.”[7] This was clearly a ruse employed by the captors to scare the African captives into obedience. The Africans, however, given this threat believed earnestly that they were going to be eaten for sure. The fear of cannibalism as eminent was set. Little did the white captors know that this tactic did not work to their advantage.

In this case as in other documented cases resistance became the only option to prevent being eaten. Resistance did not always mean fighting back with open violence. Some took their own lives in passive defiance of their captors. None the less there were African captives that sought violent recourse in face of the threat of being killed and eaten. Mutiny was to the African captives a case of kill or be killed. Those Africans who chose this method planned to overtake the crew in an open and violent insurrection. Mutiny often happened aboard ships when the crew was limited or when they least likely suspected it. Mutinies occurred most frequently when they were in sight distance of the shores of Africa.

African captives would often fight hand to hand wearing shackles against white crew members with cutlasses and guns. But because they greatly outnumbered the crew there was a strong possibility that even if they could not completely take over they could at least kill a few of their captors. Evidence of this comes from the William Snelgrave's documented mutiny of the Eagle Galley in 1704. Snelgrave's account described the advantage the slaves had. It stated “having four hundred of them on board [slaves], and not above ten white Men who were able to do service: For several of our Ship's company were dead, and many more sick.”[8] It was at that point the African slaves ceased the opportunity and fought back. This example shows that African captives calculated when to strike in order to preserve their lives.

In the case of the Amistad the African captives aboard the Amistad were met with the same difficult decision as the slaves aboard the Eagle Galley in 1704. Either they had to remain obedient and accept whatever fate the white captors would deal to them (cannibalism or not) or they had to fight back. Rather than face potential cannibalism, the African captives of the Amistad decided that they would not be eaten. One night on the calm waters of a passing storm in January of 1839, a slave aboard the Amistad named Cinque decided to take his fate into his own hands. Utilizing a nail he had pulled from the hull of the ship he managed to pick and unlock his shackles, freed himself, and aided the other fifty three captives in taking their manacles off. After this task was completed he rounded up the slaves and organized them. Cinque told the slaves “If we do nothing, we will be killed. We may as well die trying to be free, as to be killed and eaten- by white men.”[9]With these words Cinque and the other African captives found themselves sugar cane machetes and went on to slaughter the crew starting with the chef whom they believed was going to cook them up. In this fashion the Africans aboard the Amistad believed they had saved themselves from certain cannibalism.

The Amistad was not by any means a singular case. Slave ship mutinies occurred on a regular basis across the Atlantic Ocean during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. One study concluded that “insurrections took place on about one of every ten slave ship voyages in the transatlantic slave trade.”[10]With this frequency one wonders how slave holders could justify their institution. Clearly these people were neither willing to submit nor were they children who required the guidance of patriarchal slave holders. The presence of this open resistance demonstrated that these people are human beings who carry out the same survival mechanisms as any human would no matter what skin color they are.

During the trial of the Amistad, John Quincy Adams found that in the existing law of his age there were no provisions made for Africans. The laws treated Africans like chattels rather than humans. It became clear to Quincy that he had to appeal to the court by other means. In his defense of the Africans Quincy stated “I know of no other law that reaches the case of my clients, but the law of Nature and of Nature's God on which our fathers placed our own national existence. The circumstances are so peculiar, that no code or treaty has provided for such a case. That law, in its application to my clients, I trust will be the law on which the case will be decided by this Court.”[11]This moving defense speaks to more than just the Africans aboard the Amistad. When Quincy addressed the natural laws and the laws of god he used the very principles ingrained into the founding of the American nation to try and prove Africans were not mere property. They were humans with inalienable rights.

The mutiny of the Amistad was only one instance of many in which slaves resisted their captors under the fear of being eaten. Between the 17th and 18th centuries hundreds of slave ship mutinies were recorded leading one to the conclusion that fear of cannibalism played a major role in sparking those mutinies. Africans captive's resistance to their white captors, however, told a more compelling tale. It revealed to the Western world that African captives were not mindless animals meant to be domesticated and shackled by bondage. Resistance showed they are very much human, exhibiting all human qualities. Those qualities included everything from biological functions of respiration to the psychological functions of fear. Violent resistance was only a product of that bone chilling psychological fear of being eaten. In the case of the Amistad, Quincy Adams used this humane approach to prove that the real cannibals were those who profited off of the suffering of Africans caught in the inhumane practice of slavery.

[1] Pennell, C.R. “Cannibalism in Early Modern North Africa” p. 171

[2] Falconbridge, Alexander. “An account of the slave trade on the coast of Africa” p.23

[3] Rice, Alan “Who's Eating Whom": The Discourse of Cannibalism in the Literature of the Black Atlantic from Equiano's "Travels" to Toni Morrison's "Beloved." p. 109

[4] Rice J. Alan “Radical narratives of the Black Atlantic” p. 131

[5] Alagoa, E.J. and Wrigley, C.C. “Cannibalism and the Slave Trade” p. 464

[6] Equiano, Olaudah. “The Life of Olaudah Equiano” p. 31

[7] Rice J. Alan “Radical narratives of the Black Atlantic” p. 131

[8] Collins O. Robert. “Western African History” P. 191

[9] Owens, William A. “Black Mutiny: the revolt on the schooner Amistad” p. 64

[10] Rodriguez, Junius P. “Encyclopedia of slave resistance and rebellion, Vo. 2” p. 552

[11]Adams Quincy, John. “Arguments of John Quincy Adams, before the Supreme Court of the United States” p. 9