A (Dis)entangled History of Early Modern Cannibalism: Theory and Practice in Global History

by | Jun 22, 2022 | Guest Posts, RHS Publications, Transactions | 0 comments



In their new article, now published in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Stuart McManus and Michael T. Tworek offer a new approach to early modern global history. What they dub ‘(dis)entangled history‘ is a way to combine the conventional focus on the history of connections with a necessary appreciation of the elements of disconnection and disintegration.

Their article case study relates to the history of cannibalism as both a disputed practice and a cultural reference point across the early modern world. This trajectory challenges the historiographical consensus that early modern ideas about cannibalism were centred on the Atlantic world. By tracing how one particular discourse did and did not travel around the globe, the article offers both a theoretical statement and a concrete approach to writing about intermittent connectedness in the period 1500–1800.



A pre-modern traveller recorded that the inhabitants of certain remote islands were known to ‘eat people alive’. These man eaters, he continued, are ‘black and have frizzy hair, hideous faces and eyes, and long feet … and they are naked’. However, he noted that they had ‘no boats, [for] if they did, they would eat anyone who passed by them’ – fortunately for him and his companions.

If one had to guess the identity of the author, one might assume that he (and one would normally think of a he, as there are vanishingly few travel accounts by women before the nineteenth century) was a European. Indeed, one would likely venture that he was Spanish, Portuguese or perhaps English as these were the trader-raiders historians normally associate with the early modern Caribbean and West Africa, whose native inhabitants were frequently branded as ‘cannibals’, at least partly to justify European enslavement and colonialism.

However, the reality is somewhat different. The traveller was describing the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal. Instead of Spanish, Latin or English, the account was drafted in Arabic in the tenth century by an unknown writer from the Abbasid Empire and completed by a merchant from Siraf in the Persian Gulf named Abū Zayd al-Sīrāfī (893-979 CE).

Al-Sīrāfī’s account of the Andaman Islands is just one example of non-European ‘cannibal talk’. Perhaps even more unexpectedly, Atlantic cannibalism had a history beyond the ocean with which it is normally associated. From early modern Poland to Japan, it overlapped and interacted with Confucian, African and other traditions of writing about consuming human flesh. This is the subject of our new article in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, entitled A (Dis)entangled History of Early Modern Cannibalism: Theory and Practice in Global History, and now available on the journal’s FirstView page.


Albert Eckhout, Tapuya Woman, 1641, Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen, oil on canvas, 264 × 159 cm.


Our article explores the circulation of reports of alleged endo-cannibalism (i.e. eating relatives) among the indigenous Tapuya of Brazil. News of Tapuya anthropophagy (i.e. man-eating), as famously illustrated by Albert Eckhout’s vivid paintings, travelled across the Atlantic, through Europe and Africa, to East Asia. There, it crossed some linguistic borders, stopped at others, and interacted unevenly with pre-existing Ottoman, Polish, West African, Arabic, Japanese and Chinese ideas about ‘cannibal countries’.

The multilingual reflections on Tapuya and other cannibalisms treated in the article underline that European ideas were to a large degree unexceptional and could easily be integrated into non-European patterns of thought. There were even accusations that Europeans were cannibals, including in the official history of the Ming dynasty (明史, Mingshi) that notes:

Portugal is adjacent to Malacca. During the reign of Emperor Zhengde, Portugal occupied Malacca and expelled their King. In the thirteenth year of Zhengde (1518), they sent a diplomatic corps, including jiabidanmo (i.e. the Portuguese capitão mor), to pay tribute with gifts, and asked for a conferment of nobility. This is the reason why his name is known.


After they paid their tribute, they were ordered to leave. However, they did not leave and stayed in China for a long time. They plundered, and even kidnapped children and ate them (至掠小兒為食, zhilüe xiao’er wei shi).


Bankoku-sōzu, 1671. Image courtesy of the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München, (cod.jap. 4, Nagasaki, 1671). Image in the Public Domain.


In the article, we also show the influence of Matteo Ricci’s widely-copied world map that inspired multiple geographers in both China and Japan to label Brazil as ‘eating-person country’ (食人國, shirenguo). In the early modern period, however, the circulation of knowledge was not as continuous as it is today. When studying Ricci’s map, Manchu-speaking Jurgens in north-eastern China ignored Tapuya, preferring to concentrate on areas closer to home as they began their ultimately-successful conquest of Ming China. Indeed, many areas remained disconnected from the news of Tapuya cannibalism, from Central Asia to Oceania, just as some areas like Japan were at one point integrated and at others much less so.


Nishikawa Joken 西川如見, Zoho Kai Tsushoko 增補華夷通商考, 3 kan 卷 (Kyoto: Kansetsudō, 1708), 3. Reproduced with the permission of Waseda University Library, Tokyo.


In the spread of this early modern meme of Tapuya cannibalism, ‘Europe’ is a more than the expansionist polities of the Atlantic littoral. For instance, an important figure in the Dutch conquest of Brazil was Krzysztof Arciszewski (1592–1656) – a Polish soldier in the service of the Dutch West India Company.

Before being forced to return to Holland on charges of treason, Arciszewski led a joint Dutch–Tapuya force to attack a Portuguese fort and had the chance to observe a funeral feast of the Tapuya involving anthropophagic rituals. Sparing no gory detail, the Polish soldier and scholar described how the Tapuya practiced cannibalism with their dead relatives as a sign of respect and filial piety, and would never engage in the practices of human eating that Europeans accused them of committing. Later, Arciszewski and fellow members of a persecuted Anti-trinitarian group called the Polish Brethren (sometimes also called ‘Socinians’ after Fausto Sozzini (1539–1604)) considered building a settlement in Brazil, figuring that the Tapuya would leave the Brethren alone, in contrast to the religious authorities in Poland-Lithuania.

A large early modern polity without overseas colonies, Poland-Lithuania rarely appears in accounts of the transatlantic encounter. As we explore in the article, being ‘European’ did not necessarily entail being a globetrotting imperialist. Similarly, not being born into an imperial ‘European’ state did not automatically mean being remote from empire. For polities (like Poland-Lithuania) considered as inferior by western Europeans at the time, this discourse of cannibalism could also open up new pathways for belonging by ‘other’ Europeans, or even a means to salvation for a persecuted minority.

A contribution to debates about the degree and intensity of ‘globalization’ in the period 1500 to 1800 CE, our account of early modern cannibalism introduces a subtly different way of practicing global history, dubbed (dis)entangled history. As the bidirectional adjective suggests, (dis)entangled history stresses the simultaneous importance of integration and disintegration in explaining transregional historical phenomena. Rather than simply focusing on either those who ‘connect’ or those who ‘got left out’ of it, (dis)entangled history seeks out the full contours of connections and disconnections. This purposely leaves space for oblique, sometimes unrecognized contributions to global history that do not fall neatly into teleological narratives about the creation of our modern globalizing, if not fully globalized, world.

The following metaphor might be useful for thinking about (dis)entangled history: imagine the history of the world in a particular moment as an intricate fabric, one so large and complex that it is almost impossible to parse the conglomerate of many materials, colours, thicknesses and lengths. Some threads are long and winding. Others are short and stumpy. Some clump at one corner. Others are distributed throughout the cloth. Historical objects, people, practices and ideas are like these threads. Some connect and circulate. Others do not. Each thread is spread across a certain space, but each knot and twist occupies its own particular place.

For some observers, it might be useful to divide the cloth into sections, but any division will inevitably do a disservice to the whole. When seeking to untangle the morass, the historian must begin by looking for loose threads, pulling on them to reveal their length and whether or not they pull on other parts of the wider fabric. And if these threads do pull on other parts of the fabric in unexpected ways, then the historian should explore how this changes their understanding of the larger composition and why.

This is what we call (dis)entangled history, a useful way to write global history without fetishizing connections for their own sake, or in other words, falling prey to what in 1943 US-congresswoman Clare Boothe Luce called ‘globaloney’.





Stuart M. McManus (Chinese University of Hong Kong): Stuart is a humanist and legal historian working on law, slavery and empire in world history from a global and multi-ethnic perspective. He also has interests in the history of classical scholarship and Chinese humanities.

Stuart’s book, Empire of Eloquence, on the global history of renaissance humanism, was published in 2021. His 2020 article, ‘Scots at the Council of Ferrara-Florence and the Background to the Scottish Renaissance’, Catholic Historical Review, was awarded the Society’s David Berry Prize in 2021.


Michael T. Tworek (Harvard University): Michael is an associate of the History Department, a non-resident tutor at Eliot House, and an affiliate at the Center for European Studies at Harvard University.

Michael’s research and teaching focus on the intellectual and cultural life of early modern Europe, especially central and eastern Europe, from a transcontinental and global perspective.





Transactions is the flagship academic journal of the Royal Historical Society. First published in 1872, Transactions has been publishing the highest quality scholarship in history for 150 years.

The journal welcomes submissions dealing with any geographical area from the early middle ages to the very recent past, and is interested in articles that cover entirely new ground, thematically or methodologically, as well as those that engage critically on established themes in existing literatures. Recently published articles are available on Cambridge UP FirstView.

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