Early Accounts of Cannibalism

A collection of historical accounts of cannibalism within tribes of the Congo and South Pacific Islands by early missionaries.


Cannibal feast in Fiji

Cannibal feast in Fiji

“October 31st, 1839, Thursday. This morning we witnessed a shocking spectacle. Twenty (20) dead bodies of men, women and children were brought to Rewa as a present from Tanoa. They were distributed among the people to be cooked and eaten. They were dragged about in the water and on the beach. The children amused themselves by sporting with and mutilating the body of a little girl. A crowd of men and women maltreated the body of a grey-haired old man and that of a young woman. Human entrails were floating down the river in front of the mission premises. Mutilated limbs, heads, and trunks of the bodies of human beings have been floating about, and scenes of disgust and horror have been presented to our view in every direction. How true it is that the dark places of the earth are full of the habitations of cruelty.”

“November 1st, Friday. This morning a little after break of day I was surprised to hear voices of several persons who were talking very loudly near the front fence of the mission premises. On going out to ascertain the cause of the noise, I found a human head in our garden. This was the head of the old man whose body had been abused on the beach. The arm of the body had been broken by a bullet which passed through the bone near to the shoulder, and upper part of the skull had been knocked off with a club. The head had been thrown into our garden during the night, with the intention no doubt, of annoying us and shocking our feelings.”

“These poor victims of war were brought from Verata, and were killed and brought away by victors to be roasted and eaten. Many women and children were taken alive to be kept for slaves. About 30 living children were hoisted up to the mastheads as flags of triumph. The motion of the canoes while sailing soon killed the helpless creatures and silenced their piercing cries. Other children were taken, alive, to Bau that the boys there might learn the art of Feegeean warfare by firing arrows at them and beating them with clubs. For days they have been tearing and devouring like wolves and hyenas.”
– Rev. David Cargill, Methodist Missionary, Rewa, Fiji, 1839

“One of the servants of the king a few months ago ran away. She was soon, however, brought back to the king’s house. There, at the request of the queen, her arm was cut off below the elbow and cooked for the king, who ate it in her presence, and then ordered that her body be burnt in different parts. The girl, now a woman, is still living.

“Two men that were taken alive in the war at Viwa were removed from thence to Kamba, to be killed. The Bau chief told his brother – who had been converted to our mission – the manner in which he intended them to be killed. His brother said to him: “That will be very cruel. If you will allow the men to live, I will give you a canoe.” The Bau chief answered: “Keep your canoe. I want to eat men.” His brother then left the village that he might not witness the horrible sight.

“The cruel deed was then perpetrated. The men doomed to death were made to dig a hole in the earth for the purpose of making a native oven, and were then required to cut firewood to roast their own bodies. They were then directed to go and wash, and afterwards to make a cup of a banana-leaf. This, from opening a vein in each man, was soon filled with blood. This blood was then drunk, in the presence of the sufferers, by the Kamba people.

“Sern, the Bau chief, then had their arms and legs cut off, cooked and eaten, some of the flesh being presented to them. He then ordered a fish-hook to be put into their tongues, which were then drawn out as far as possible before being cut off. These were roasted and eaten, to the taunts of “We are eating your tongues!” As life in the victims was still not extinct, an incision was made in the side of each man, and his bowels taken out. This soon terminated their sufferings in this world.”
– Jaggar, Methodist Missionary, Fiji, 1844

“We cannot tell you how many have been slain. Hundreds of wretched human beings have been sent to their account, with all their sins upon their heads. Dead bodies were thrown upon the beach at Vewa, having drifted from Bau, where they were thrown into the sea, there being too many at Bau to be eaten. Bau literally stank for many days, human flesh having been cooked in every hut and the entrails having been thrown outside as food for pigs, or left to putrefy in the sun.

“The Somosomo people were fed with human flesh during their stay at Bau, they being on a visit at the time. Some of the chiefs of other tribes, when bringing their food, carried a cooked human being on one shoulder and a pig on the other; but they always preferred the “long pig,” as they call a man, when baked. One woman who had been clubbed was left upon the beach in front of our house at Vewa. The poor creature’s head was smashed to pieces and the body quite naked. Whether it was done by the heathen to insult us, or not, we do not know.

“One Christian man was clubbed at Rewa, and part of his body was eaten by the Vewa heathen and his bones then thrown near our door. My lad gathered them up and buried them, and afterwards learned that they were the bones of one of his friends. After Rewa was destroyed, heaps of dead bodies lay in all directions; their bones still lie bleaching in the sun.

“We do not, and we cannot tell you all that we know of Feegeean cruelty and crime. Every fresh act seems to rise above the last. A chief at Rakeraki had a box in which he kept human flesh. Legs and arms were salted for him and thus preserved in this box. If he saw anyone, even if of his friends, who was fatter that the rest, he had him – or her – killed at once, and part roasted and part preserved. His people declared that he eats human flesh every day.

“At Bau, the people preserve human flesh and chew it as some chew tobacco. They carry it about with them, and use it in the same way as tobacco. I heard of an instance of cruelty the other day that surpasses everything I have before heard of the kind. A canoe was wrecked near Natawar, and many of the occupants succeeded in swimming ashore. They were taken by the Natawar people and ovens were at once prepared in which to roast them. The poor wretches were bound ready for the ovens and their enemies were waiting anxiously to devour them. They did not club them, lest any of their blood should be lost. Some, however could not wait until the ovens were sufficiently heated, but pulled the ears off the wretched creatures and ate them raw.

“When the ovens were ready, they cut their victims up very carefully, placing dishes under every part to catch the blood. If a drop fell, they licked it up off the ground with the greatest greediness. While the poor wretches were being cut in pieces, they pleaded hard for life; but all was of no avail: all were devoured.”
– Rev. John Watsford, Ono, Fiji, November 6, 1846

“The Fijians loved human flesh for its own sake, and did not merely eat a slain enemy out of revenge. Probably the absence of any animal they could eat gave rise to the custom…”

“The crew of every boat that was wrecked upon these shore was killed and eaten in some parts. Often a man would order to be clubbed some man or woman that he considered would be good for cooking, his plea being that his “black tooth was aching” and only human flesh could cure it. Such was the absolute right of a man over his wife that he could kill and eat her, if he wished; which has been not rarely done.

“Such inordinate gluttons were some of these chiefs that they would reserve the whole bakolo, as a human body to be eaten was called, for their own eating, having the flesh slightly cooked time after time to keep it from going putrid. As a rule a Fijian will touch nothing that has become tainted, but sooner than lose any part of a human roast, they would eat it when the flesh would hardly hang together.

“So great was their craving for this strange flesh that when a man had been killed in one of their many bruits and quarrels, and his relations had buried his body, the Fijians frequently enacted the part of ghouls and, digging the body up from the grave, cooked it and feasted thereon. So customary was this that the relations of a buried man who had not died from natural causes watched his grave until the body had probably become too loathsome for even a Fijian’s appetite.

“The flesh was either baked whole in the ovens, or cut up and stewed in the large earthenware pots they use for cooking. Certain herbs were nearly always cooked with the flesh, either to prevent indigestion or as a sort of savour stuffing – I know not which. The cooks who prepared it and placed it in the ovens filled the inside of the body with hot stones so that it would be well cooked all through.

“After a battle, the victors would cook and eat many of the slain at once, but generally some of the bodies were borne home to the victors’ village, where they were dragged by ropes tied round their necks through the open place to the temple. There they were offered to the gods, and afterwards cooked and divided among the men, the priests always coming in for a large share. By the side of the temples great heaps of human bones lay whitening in the sun – a sign of how many bodies had been thus offered to the gods. Women, however, were not allowed to take part in the awful banquet, yet women’s bodies were considered better for the favourite portions. So delicious was human flesh held to be, that the highest praise that could be given to other food was to say: “It is as good as bakolo.”

“Some of the most famous of the great cannibals have eaten an enormous number of human beings, many of them in their time having consumed hundreds of bodies…”

“No important business could be commenced without the slaying of one or two human beings as a fitting inauguration. Was a canoe to be built, then a man must be slain for the laying of its keel; if the man for whom the canoe was being built was a very great chief, then a fresh man was killed for every new timber that was added. More men were used at its launching – as rollers to aid its passage to the sea. Others again were slain to wash its deck in blood and to furnish the feast of human flesh considered so desirable on such occasions. After the canoe was afloat still more victims were required at the first taking down of the mast.

“At Bau there used to be a regular display of slaughter, in a sort of arena, round which were raised stone seats for the onlookers. In this space was a huge “braining stone” which was used thus: two strong natives seized the victim, each taking hold of an arm and leg, and, lifting him from the ground, they ran with him head foremost – at their utmost speed against the stones – bashing out his brains; which was fine sport for the spectators.”
– Alfred St Johnston, Traveller, Fiji Islands: Camping Among Cannibals, Macmillan, 1883

“Captain Morell, the American skipper of whom I have already spoken, came near to being the victim of an ambush in the Fiji Islands. he lost fourteen of his companions. After regaining his ship, he said, he saw the savages cutting up the members of his poor sailors while they were still alive, and more than one of them saw his own arm or leg roasted and devoured before his death.

“In Naclear Bay, in the Fijis, a Captain Dillon came near to losing his life. While searching for sandal-wood trees with eighteen or twenty of his men, he found himself separated from the majority of his party and surrounded by a large number of the natives. It was impossible to regain the sea, so he and four others took refuge on a steep rock. “We were,” said Dillon later, “five refugees on a rock, and the ground below was covered with several thousand savages. They lit fires at the foot of the rock and heated hearths upon which to roast the limbs of my unfortunate companions. The corpses of these,” he continued, “as well as those of two chiefs of a neighbouring island, were brought before the fires in the following manner: two natives from Naclear constructed a kind of stretcher with branches of trees, which they placed upon their shoulders. The corpses of their victims were put crosswise upon this structure, so that the head hung down on one side and the legs on the other. Thus they were carried in triumph to the fires, where they were placed on the grass in a sitting position.”

“The savages sang and danced around them with demonstrations of the most ferocious joy. They fired several bullets at the inanimate bodies, using for this posthumous execution the guns which had fallen into their hands. When this ceremony was finished, the priests commenced to cut up the corpses before our eyes, and the fragments were placed upon the hearths. Meanwhile we ourselves were surrounded upon every side save that where a thicket on mangroves bordered the river.”

“Two of Dillon’s companions, one named Savage and the other a Chinese, abandoned their captain, foolishly believing the promises of the barbarians that they would come to no harm. “Savage,” Dillon said, “was soon in their midst. They surrounded him, appearing to congratulate him. Suddenly, however, they uttered a great cry, seizing Savage at the same time by the legs. Six men held him suspended head downwards and plunged him into the hole full of water, where he was speedily suffocated. Meanwhile, a native approached the Chinese from behind, and dashed out his brains with a blow of his club. Thereupon the two unfortunate fellows were cut up and placed on the hearth with their companions.”
– Dr. Felix Maynard & Alexandre Dumas: The Whalers, Hutchinson, 1937


Cannibal tribe

Cannibal tribe in Africa

“Nearly all the tribes in the Congo Basin either are or have been cannibals; and among some of them the practice is on the increase. Races who until lately do not seem to have been cannibals, though situated in a country surrounded by cannibal races, have, from increased intercourse with their neighbours, learned to eat human flesh.”

“Soon after the Station of Equator was established, the residents discovered that a wholesale human traffic was being carried on by the natives of the district between this station and Lake M’Zumba. The captains of the steamers have often assured me that whenever they try to buy goats from the natives, slaves are demanded in exchange; the natives often come aboard with tusks of ivory with the intention of buying a slave, complaining that meat is now scarce in their neighbourhood.

“There is not the slightest doubt in my mind that they prefer human flesh to any other. During all the time I lived among cannibal races I never came across a single case of their eating any kind of flesh raw; they invariably either boil, roast or smoke it. This custom of smoking flesh to make it keep would have been very useful to us, as we were often without meat for long periods. We could, however, never buy smoked meat in the markets, it being impossible to be sure that it was not human flesh.

“The preference of different tribes for various parts of the human body is interesting. Some cut long steaks from the flesh of the thighs, legs or arms; others prefer the hands and feet; and though the great majority do not eat the head, I have come across more than one tribe which prefers this to any other part. Almost all use some part of the intestines on account of the fat they contain.

“A young Basongo chief came to our Commandant while at dinner in his tent and asked for the loan of his knife, which, without thinking, the Commandant gave him. He immediately disappeared behind the tent and cut the throat of a little slave-girl belonging to him, and was in the act of cooking her when one of our soldiers saw him. This cannibal was immediately put in irons, but almost immediately after his liberation he was brought in by some of our soldiers who said he was eating children in and about our cantonment. He had a bag slung round his neck which, on examining it, we found contained an arm and leg of a young child.”

“A man with his eyes open has no difficulty in knowing, from the horrible remains he is obliged to pass on his way, what people have preceded, him, on the road or battlefield – with this difference: that on a battlefield he will find those parts left to the jackals which the human wolves have not found to their taste; whereas on the road, by the smouldering camp fires, are the whitening bones, cracked and broken, which form the relics of these disgusting banquets. What struck me most, during my expeditions throughout the country, was the number of partially cut-up bodies I found. Some of them were minus the hands and feet, and some with steaks cut from the thighs or elsewhere; others had the entrails or head removed. Neither old nor young, women or children, are exempt from serving as food for their conquerors or neighbours.”
– Sidney Langford Hinde (former captain of the Congo Free State Force):The Fall of the Congo Arabs, Methuen, 1897

“The whole wide country seemed to be given up to cannibalism, from the Mobangi (a major tributary of the Congo) to Stanley Falls, for six hundred miles on both sides of the main river, and the Mobangi as well. Often did the natives beg Grenfell to sell some of his steamer hands, especially his coast people; coming from the shore of the great salt sea, they must be very “sweet” – salt is spoken of as sweet, in the same way as sugar. They offered two or three of their women for one of those coast men. They could not understand the objections raised to the practice. “You eat fowls and goats, and we eat men; why not? What is the difference?” The son of Matabwiki, chief of Liboko, when asked whether he ever ate human flesh, said: “Ah! I wish that I could eat everybody on earth!” Happily his stomach and arm were not equal to the carrying out of his fiendish will.

“Fiendish? Yet there is something free and lovable in many these wild men; splendid possibilities when the grace of God gets a hold of them. Bapulula, the brother of that “fiend”, worked with us for two years – a fine, bright, intelligent fellow; we liked him very much…”

“They divided up their human booty and kept them, tied up and starving, until they were fortunate enough to catch some more and so make up a cargo worth taking to the Mobangi. When times were bad, these poor starving wretches might often be seen tied up, just kept alive with the minimum of food. A party would be made up and two or three canoes would be filled with these human cattle. They would paddle down the Lulongo, cross the main river when the wind was not blowing, make up the Mobangi and sell their freight in some of the towns for ivory. The purchasers would then feed up their starvelings until they were fat enough for the market, then butcher them and sell the meat in small joints. What was left over, if there was much on the market, would be dried on a rack over the fire, or spitted, and the end of the spit stuck in the ground by a slow fire, until it could be kept for weeks and sold at leisure.

“Sometimes a section of the people would club together to buy a large piece of the body wholesale, to be retailed out again; or a family man would buy a whole leg to divide up between his wives, children and slaves. Dear little bright-eyed boys and girls grew up accustomed to these scenes from day to day. They ate their own morsels from time to time, in the haphazard way that they have, and carried the rest of their portion in their hands, on a skewer or in a leaf, lest anyone should steal and eat it. To this awful depth have these children of the Heavenly Father fallen! This is no worked-up picture, it is the daily life of thousands of people at the present time in Darkest Africa.”
– Rev. W. Holman Bentley (Baptist Missionary Society): Pioneering on the Congo, TRS, 1900 (2 vols.)

“The Bambala, these missionaries found, regarded as special delicacies human flesh that had been buried for some days; also a large, thick, white beetle grub found in palm trees…, and human blood boiled with manioc flour. The women of the tribe were forbidden to touch human flesh, but had found many ways of circumventing the tabu, and were particularly addicted to human flesh, extracted from graves and in an advanced state of decomposition.”
– Garry Hogg, Cannibalism and Human Sacrifice, Robert Hale & Co., 1958

“In half an hour I thought I had my reward, for we encountered along the road a group of Bantu Negroes, much smaller than average height. “Pygmies?” I asked Cezaire, hopefully. “Bamba,” he answered. “Part pygmy, part Bantu. Their teeth are filed to sharp points, supposedly from the time not so very long ago when they were cannibals.”

“Cezaire told me that there were still cases of cannibalism in Central Africa, most of it on bodies that had just been buried. The authorities in some localities still had trouble over it occasionally, and there were tales of isolated tribes who practised it regularly, as they always had…”

“No doubt all eating of human flesh among the Mangbetu had ceased by this time, but on my first trip I received some vague and confusing answers to my questions about it. One honest explorer told me that, tired of roundabout investigation, he asked an old Mangbetu, “Do you eat human meat?” The ancient one was silently thoughtful for a moment, and then said, looking down his nose: “It is very hard to stop old habits.””
– Lewis Cotlow, Traveller: Zanzabuku, Robert Hale & Co., 1957

“For various reasons, the custom was kept secret, and even members of the [Bagesu] tribe were not permitted to look on during the ceremony, which was performed by night. Yet the custom was known to all, and each family was aware of what was going on, though they never sought to watch their neighbours’ doings.

“When a man died, the body was kept in the house until the evening, when the relatives who had been summoned gathered for the mourning. In some exceptional instances it took one or two days to bring the relatives together, but as a rule all was ready by the evening of the day of death, and at sunset the body was carried to the nearest waste ground and deposited there. At the same time, men of the clan hid themselves in different places round about and, as darkness deepened, they blew upon gourd horns, making a noise like the cry of jackals.

“The villagers said that the jackals were coming to eat the dead, and the young people were warned not to go outside. When darkness set in, and it was felt to be safe to work without intrusion from inquisitive onlookers, a number of elderly women relatives of the dead man went to the place where the body lay, and cut it up, carrying back the pieces they wanted to the house of mourning, and leaving the remains to be devoured by wild animals.

“For the next three, or sometimes four, days the relatives mourned in the house in which the death had taken place, and there they cooked and ate the flesh of the dead, destroying the bones by fire and leaving nothing. There was no “purification,” or “shaving” when this mourning was ended; sometimes an ox was killed for a feast when the heir was announced, but as a rule the people simply returned to their ordinary life without any ceremony. The widows, however, burned their grass girdles, and either went about naked or wore the small aprons used by unmarried girls.”
– John Roscoe: The Bagesu and Other Tribes of the Uganda Protectorate, The Royal Society, 1924

“Innumerable acts of cannibalism have been reported from time to time by both Belgians and French, the most recent of which I have actual knowledge being the waylaying by a party of Azande of a Belgian Officer proceeding on leave from the Lado Enclave (now Western Mongolla); they tore him limb from limb and ate him raw. This occurred twelve years ago…”
– Basil Spence, in Sudan Notes and Records, vol. III, no. 4 (Dec. 1920)

“Cannibalism is far from being dead in Africa, for it is almost impossible to control the natives in the bush. I remember one District Officer standing at his door one night, listening to the drums, saying to me:”They are chopping someone.””Why don’t you do anything about it?”I asked. “How can I?” “If I try to send my native policeman, he will only pretend he has been; he would be much too frightened to go. We take action if we have proof, or if we find bones.”

“I myself once lived in a cannibal village for a time, and found some bones. The natives were worried about this, but I am no policeman. They were pleasant enough people. It was just an old custom which dies hard. Thousands of natives – and I think this is no exaggeration – are still eaten in Africa every year, for it is difficult to break old habits.”
– H. C. Engert; probably from Jens Bjerre, The Last Cannibals, Michael Joseph, 1956


“The way of cutting off their heads varies with the different tribes. The Sea Dyaks, for instance, sever the head at the neck, and so preserve both jaws. Among the Hill Dyaks, on the other hand, heads are very carelessly taken, being split open or slashed across with parangs. Often it may be seen that quite large portions have been hacked out of the heads. Others again cut off the head so close to the trunk that great skill and a practised hand must have been used.

“Many tribesmen habitually carry about their person a little basket destined to receive a head. It is always very neatly plaited, ornamented with a variety of shells, and hung about with human hair. But only those Dyaks who have lawfully obtained such a head, as opposed to those who steal, or “find” them, may include this human hair ornamentation to their macabre baskets.

“The Sea Dyaks scoop out the brains by way of the nostrils, and then hang up the head to dry in the smoke of a wood fire – usually the fire which is maintained anyway for the cooking of all the food for the members of the tribe. Every now and then they will leave their preoccupations, saunter across to the fire, and tear or slash off a piece of the skin and burnt flesh of the cheek or chin, and eat it. They believe that by so doing they will add immediately to their store of courage and fearlessness.

“The brains are not always extracted by way of the nostrils, however. Sometimes a piece of bamboo, carved into the semblance of a spoon, is thrust into the lowest part of the skull, and the brains gradually extracted by the occipital orifice…”
– Official of the Sarawak Government Service

“[The particular tribe of the Dyaks known as the Janakang] practise certain refinements – if the word can be fairly used in such a context – in the matter of eating human flesh. They do not, like some other Dyak tribes, eat indiscriminately all parts of the body. Rather, they practise a form of epicureanism. First in favour among the delicacies comes the human tongue; then comes the brain; and then the muscles of the thigh and calf. These particular tribesmen, though by no means alone in the habit, file their teeth to exceedingly sharp points, to enable them to tear at this tough, sinewy flesh.”
– Assistant Resident in Upper Sarawak, c. 1895

“The perseverance of the Dyaks during an expedition is wonderful. They get their information in advance from the women of some distant campong who have been taken prisoner in a foray. In proceeding toward a campong, their canoes are never seen on the river in day-time; they invariably commence their journeys about half an hour after dark falls. They pull rapidly and silently up the river, close to the bank. One boat keeps immediately behind another, and the handles of the paddles are covered with the soft bark of a tree so that no noise whatsoever is made.

“After paddling without intermission, about half an hour before daylight they pull their canoes up on the river bank amongst the trees of the thick jungle, so that from the river it is quite impossible to see them or discover their tracks. Should their chieftain, or the leader of the expedition, feel the desire for human flesh, then one of the followers is killed. This not only provides him with a good meal, but provides also a head.

“Some of the tribesmen then ascend the tallest trees in order to examine the surrounding territory and see whether a campong, or even an isolated hut or two, lies near at hand. They discover this from the smoke of the fires. Should it be a solitary hut, then they swiftly surround it and take very good care that not one its occupants escapes. Should it prove to be a campong of any considerable size, they go much more warily to work…”

“[After fire-balls made of dry bark are thrown onto the thatched roofs of the campong] the hut roofs immediately and simultaneously burst into flames. Then the war-cry of the warriors is heard amid the crackle of blazing thatch and of the collapsing hut-poles and walls. The work of the massacre begins at once, in the pandemonium that ensues. The male inhabitants of each hut are speared or hacked to pieces as they stumble down the ladders from their huts, many of which stand high on stilts, in a desperate attempt to escape the leaping flames. The flames give sufficient light for the warriors to distinguish between men and women.

“The women and the children – those who are not burned alive – escape into the jungle by the well-known tracks; but only to find these already guarded by sentries, from whom there is no escaping. They have no choice but to surrender, and are thus rounded-up and placed under guards…”

“I have been present when Selgie has taken two campongs. The inhabitants were surprised and the fighting as a consequence was all on one side, though in a few instances some resistance was offered. I did not observe them attempt to parry blows with any weapons; rather, they took them on their shields or on their bamboo caps. The noise was terrific during such a massacre – for it can be called no less than that, and is joined in heartily by such of the tribe’s women as have prevailed upon the warriors to allow them places in the canoes. An old Dyak loves to dwell on his success in expeditions such as these; and the terror of the women and children he has seen captured, mutilated, and then mercilessly killed affords a fruitful source of gratification and even amusement when they are gathered together to talk over past exploits.”
– John Dalton

“The code of the Battas of Sumatra condemns to be eaten alive those guilty of adultery, those who commit theft at night, prisoners of war, those who treacherously attack the inhabitants of a house, or a lonely man. The execution takes place without delay, in the presence of the whole population. In cases of adultery, one last formality is necessary: the relatives of the criminals must be present at the carrying out of the sentence. The husband, the wife, or the persons most directly offended, have the right to retain the ears of the condemned for themselves. Then, each according to his rank chooses his fragment, and the chief judge cuts off the head and hangs it like a trophy at the door of his hut.

“The brain, to which they attribute magical properties, is preserved in a gourd. The intestines are not devoured, but the soles of the feet, and the heart, cooked with rice and salt, are regarded as a delicious dish. The flesh is always eaten raw, or grilled at the place of punishment, and the use of palm wine and other strong liquors is strongly interdicted at these judicial feasts, where the men alone have the right to be present. Sometimes also they collect the blood in bamboo stems. In defiance of the law, the women use a thousand subterfuges, and employ all their deductions, in order to share in this secret and horrible feast.

“Some travellers affirm that the Battas prefer human flesh to all other, but only indulge in it during warfare and following the death sentence. Others accuse them of immolating, in times of peace, from sixty to a hundred slaves annually. But today the Battas no longer put their parents to death when age has rendered them useless as workers or fighters. Formerly, every year at the time of the ripening of the citrons, old men were to be seen voluntarily submitting to death. The family assembled; the victim, weighed down with age, collected all his energy and sprang towards the branch of a tree, there to remain suspended by both arms until his strength failed and he fell to the ground. Then the neighbours and children, who had been dancing round him in a circle, sang this refrain: “When the fruit is ripe it needs must fall!” They thereupon precipitated themselves upon him, beat him to death, dismembered him and devoured his flesh, soaking it in samboul or sprinkling it with kari. When an Englishman offers tea and milk, the Battas often reject them with scorn, retorting: “Only children drink milk; Battas drink blood!””
– Dr. Felix Maynard & Alexandre Dumas: The Whalers, Hutchinson, 1937


Members of the brain-eating cannibal Fore tribe of Papua New Guinea

Members of the brain-eating cannibal Fore tribe of Papua New Guinea

The Rev. James Chalmers, one of a long line of amazingly courageous missionaries who have worked there, and all too often fallen victims to the very practices they had devoted their lives to attempting to eradicate, was successful in discovering the legend underlying cannibalism in New Guinea. There is a curious parallel, here, to the Garden of Eden Story, and one is inclined to suspect that the native who told him the legend was already a convert, and had learned at any rate the basic Old Testament story!

“I asked him [Chalmers records] why they ate human flesh. He told me that it was the women of the tribes who first urged the men to kill their fellow human beings for the purpose of eating them. The husbands were, the man told me, returning from a successful hunt far inland. As was their custom, they were blowing their conch-shells and singing and dancing.

“As they approached the village, coming down the river in their canoes piled high with wallabies, boars and cassowaries, the women called out to them:”What success, husbands, that you sing and dance so?” “Great success,” the men shouted back. “Plenty to eat. Here, come and see for yourselves.”

“The women approached the canoes, and when they saw what was in them, they called out: “What, just that dirty stuff?” And then, in voices of scorn: “Who is going to eat that? Is that what you call successful hunting?”

“Then the men began reasoning among themselves: “What do our wives mean, mocking us like this?” And one of them, wiser than the others, said after much thought: “I know. They want the flesh of man!”

“Then, throwing the wallabies and boars and cassowaries over the sides of their canoes, they went quickly along the river to a neighbouring village and brought back with them ten bodies. But, the man said to me, the men returned in their canoes without their usual singing and rejoicing.

“When the women who were waiting for them on the river bank saw them approaching the village, they called out: “What have our husbands brought for us to eat, this time?” And then they looked, but their husbands did not look at them, only cast their eyes downwards at what lay in their canoes. “Yes, that is right!” shouted the women. “Dance and sing again, now, for you have brought back with you something worth dancing and singing about?”

“Then the ten bodies were taken out of the canoes and put on the river bank. And the women cooked them, and pronounced them good. And from that day till now, the men and women of these tribes have always said that the flesh of human beings is better than the flesh of any other animal.”
– Garry Hogg: Cannibalism and Human Sacrifice, Robert Hale & Co., 1958 quoting the Rev. James Chalmers: Life and Work in New Guinea, RTS, 1895

“The corpses of grown men were tied by hands and feet to a pole and carried face downward. In the case of a child, one hand was tied to one foot, and a warrior would sling the body over his shoulder as a hunter might a wallaby’s. Usually the victim was dead before being bound in this manner. An ingenious, if gruesome, method of carrying human flesh was observed by a former Resident Magistrate in the Division. The limbs had been peculiarly treated. The ankle-joints had been severed, leaving the Achilles tendon intact. The bones of the leg had been excised and the pelvic bone removed. The ham had been neatly cut off. The boneless leg was wrapped carefully round a three-foot stick and the foot secured to the stick by a piece of vine. In this manner the flesh could be carried comfortably on one’s back.

“Brought home by the [Orikaivan] raiders, the corpse of the victim was set upright in the village, still attached to its pole. during the night there was dancing to the accompaniment of the drum and the hui, a trumpet of wood or shell. In the morning the body was taken down to the stream and cut up in the running water, in order to wash away the blood. Various portions were then distributed, as they are in the case of a pig, and little odds and ends were given to the children, who played at roasting them in the fires.”
– F. E. Williams: Orikaiva Society, Clarendon Press, 1930

“Certain tribes here like human flesh and do not see why they should not eat it. Indeed, I have never been able to give a convincing answer to a native who says to me, “Why should I not eat human flesh?…””

“The people of the Purari Delta are naturally secretive as to their religious beliefs and practices, and not inclined to discuss them with strangers, but information emerges in the course of trials and official investigations. For instance, in the year 1909 I tried a man called Avai, a native of Baimuru, who was charged with the murder of a women of Baroi. His statement contained some curious details. He said; “Bai-i told us to kill three Baroi people. We caught Aimari and his two wives, in Era Bay. Kairi killed Aimari. I killed one wife, and Iomu the other. I killed the women with a dagger of cassowary bone. We put the bodies in the canoe and took them back with us. I did not bite off the woman’s nose. It is not our custom to bite off the nose of a person you have killed. If I kill man or woman, someone else bites off his nose. We bit off the noses of people that others have killed. We bite them off; we do not cut them off.”

“We left the three bodies in our canoe till morning. Then we took them into our village and put them on the platform. Then we singed them, cut them up into small pieces, mixed the pieces with sago, cooked them, wrapped them up in leaves of nipa-palm, and distributed them. I ate a hand of one woman, but it was not the hand of the woman I myself killed. It is not our custom to eat a person we have ourselves killed. But if, after killing a man, you go and sit on a coconut, with also a coconut under each heel, and get your daughter to boil the man’s heart, then you may drink the water in which the heart has been boiled. And you may eat a little of the heart also, but you must be sitting on the coconuts all the time.”
– J. H. P. Murray, Lieutenant-Governor and Chief Judicial Officer in Papua: Papua, or British New Guinea, Faber Unwin, 1912

“There suddenly began to appear in sight, with the first dim grey of dawn, the leading war-canoes of a powerful native armada. The came on up the river out of the semi-darkness with swift and steady strikes of the paddle, with a silence and regularity that was almost spectral.”

“When I examined their canoes I found that the marauders had captured some ten or twelve people. There were, in four separate canoes, four adult, undivided dead bodies. In another there was the body of a little girl of seven or eight, still tied by the hands and feet to the pole on which her tender little body had been carried.”

“A village had been raided, and the canoes were full of plunder. A host of miscellaneous articles had been collected, all of which were lying about in the canoes, with here and there a human hand protruding.”

“A nearer examination showed that the member had been detached, clumsily and unskilfully hacked from the body of an inexperienced hand, and this it was already half-cooked, probably to keep it longer sweet. On the platforms of the canoes were also little made-up parcels and packets of human flesh, deftly enveloped in leaves and tied with bark. On some of the platforms were large and small uncovered pieces, some cooked and ready for the table, others apparently the remains left over from an interrupted meal. One of these was a large portion of the back of a child, half cooked, and corresponding exactly to what is known to the cook as a “saddle.” In the hold of the canoes were coils of human intestines, sorted as one folds a fishing-line, with a stick through the coil supporting it by resting on the edges of the canoe so as to let the coil fall into the hold but without the lover end reading down to the bilge-water.”
– Sir William MacGregor, probably from the Foreword of Murray: Papua, or British New Guinea, Faber Unwin, 1912

“Human flesh is stated to resemble pig in flavour, but to make better food, since – although they both taste much alive – the former has the more delicate flavour, as well as the further advantage, claimed for it by every one who can be persuaded to talk freely on the subject, that it never produces any painful feeling of satiety, or induces vomiting. It has been emphasized by these people that if too much pig flesh were eaten, a man’s stomach would swell up and he would be sick; but that human flesh might be eaten until a man found it impossible to swallow any more, without producing these unpleasant symptoms…”

“The court at Samarai tried a case of desecration of sepulchre, two adult women and a girl – mother and two daughters – being the offenders. the little child of the elder of the two daughters had died, and had been buried in the usual manner. About one day after the burial, the three accused had dug up the body, and eaten it. The women belonged to a village near the head of Milne Bay. They protested that what they had done had always been, and still remained, a custom of their country. In the light of their statement, the penalty they incurred was only a short term of imprisonment.”
– C. G. Seligmann, south-eastern New Guinea: The Melanesians of British New Guinea, Cambridge University Press, 1910

“One of the New Guinea Papuan tribes has the custom of taking out its grandparents, when they have become to old to be of any use to the tribe, and tying each of them loosely in the branches of a tree. The populace will then form a ring round the tree and indulge in an elaborate dance, which has some affinity with the traditional Maypole dance. As they dance, they cry out in chorus a refrain which has a somewhat sinister double-barrelled meaning: “The Fruit is Ripe! The Fruit is Ripe!” Then, having repeated this cry, they close in upon the tree and violently shake its branches, so that the old men and women come hurling to the ground below, there to be seized and devoured by the younger members of the tribe.”
– A. P. Rice, in The American Antiquarian, vol. XXXII, 1910

“We decided to rush the village of Kanau, but when we got there we found it deserted. In the centre of the village was a kind of small, raised platform, on which were rows of human skulls and quantities of bones, the remnants of many a gruesome cannibal feast. Many of the skulls were quite fresh, with small bits of meat still sticking to them, but for all that, they had been picked very clean. Every skull had a large hole punched in the side, varying in size but uniform as regards position. The explanation for this we soon learnt from the Notus, and later it was confirmed by our prisoners.

“When the Doboduras capture and enemy, they slowly torture him to death, practically eating him alive. When he is almost dead, they make a hole in the side of the head and scoop out his brains with a kind of wooden spoon. These brains, which are often warm and fresh, were regarded as a great delicacy. No doubt the Notus recognized some of their relatives amid the ghastly relics…”

“We were talking in subdued tones for some time, expecting every moment to hear the thrilling war-cry of the Doboduras. We could hear the dismal falsetto howls of the native dogs in the distance, and they were not particularly exhilarating at such a time, and I more than once mistook them for distant war-cries.

“The Papuans do not as a rule torture their prisoners for the mere idea of torture, though they have often been known to roast a man alive – for the reason that his meat is supposed to taste better thus. I have heard of cases of white men having been roasted alive, one case being that of two miners, Campion and King. But we had learned that this Dobodura tribe had a system of torture that was brutal beyond words.

“In the first place they always try to wound slightly, and capture a man alive, so that they can have fresh meat for many days. They keep their prisoners tied up alive in the huts, and cut out pieces of their flesh just when they want them; we were told that, incredible as it may seem, they sometimes manage to keep them alive for a week or more, and have some preparation which prevents them from bleeding to death.

“Monkton advised both Acland and myself to shoot ourselves with our revolvers if we saw that we were overwhelmed, so as to escape these terrible tortures, and he assured us that he should keep the last bullet in his revolver for himself.”
– H. W. Walker, FRGS : Wanderings among South Sea Savages, Witherby, 1909

“When a party of [Kukukuku] warriors take an enemy prisoner, either in combat or by abduction, they tie the captive to a thin tree-trunk and bring him horizontally back to their village. So that their prisoner shall not escape, they then break his legs with a blow of the club, bind him to a tree and adorn him with shells and feathers in preparation for the forthcoming orgy. Fresh vegetables are brought in from the fields and a big hole is dug in the ground for an oven. As a rule, the children are allowed to “play” with the prisoner; that is to say, to use him as a target, and finally stone him to death. This process is designed to harden the children and teach them to kill with rapture.

“When the prisoner has been killed, his arms and legs are cut off with a bamboo knife. The flesh is them cut up into small pieces, wrapped in bark and cooked, together with the vegetables, in the oven in the ground. Men, women and children all take part in the ensuing orgy, usually to the accompaniment of dances and jubilant songs.

“Only enemies are eaten. If the victim is a young, strong warrior, the muscular parts of his body are given to the village boys, so that they can absorb the dead man’s power and valour.”
– Jens Bjerre: The Last Cannibals, Michael Joseph, 1956


“Directly an enemy was slain, his head – and sometimes his body, if the people were strongly cannibalistic – was taken to the village and a great dance given, either at once or after the skull has been cleaned of its flesh by boiling, or by being buried for a time in the ground. At the feast, every man-slayer of the village danced round, generally with a skull in one hand and his machete in the other. Sometimes the body of the enemy was brought in whole; sometimes it was cut in pieces in advance to facilitate transport. It was then boiled in native pots and shared out, occasionally among the man-slayer’s family and friends, but sometimes among all the people of the village, until it was wholly consumed. In some tribes it was forbidden for women and children to partake of human flesh; in others, for example among the Kalabari, the eldest sister of the hut was forced to taste it, however strongly she might protest.

“Among the Abadja, the whole body of anyone slain was ordinarily taken back to the village and theee consumed, though it was tabu to eat women or children. A man only divided his “kill” among his own family. The body was cut up and cooked in pots; the fingers, palms of the hands, and toes were considered the best eating. Sometimes, if a family had been satisfied, part of the body would be dried and put away for later.

“When an Nkanu warrior brought a head back, everyone who heard of the deed gave him a present, and much palm-wine was drunk. The trophy was boiled, and the flesh cut away. The skull was then taken out, accompanied with all the others in the village, and the flesh was then boiled and eaten.

“Much cruelty was practised among certain of these tribes. For example, the Bafum-Bansaw, who frequently tortured their prisoners before putting them to death. Palm-oil was boiled in a big pot, and then by means of a gourd enema it was pumped into the bowels and stomachs of the prisoners. This practice was said to make the bodies much more succulent than they would otherwise have been. The bodies were left until the palm-oil had permeated them, and then cut up and devoured…”
– P. A. Talbot: Southern Nigeria, Clarendon Press, 1926 (3 vols.)

“Every moment, men, women and even children passed me. One would be carrying a human leg on his shoulder, another would be carrying the lungs or the heart of some unfortunate Kroo-boy in his or her hands. Several times I myself was offered my choice of one of these morsels, dripping with gore.”
– Father Bubendorf of Freiburg, an eye-witness to the slaughter of a group of captives outside the hut of a tribal chief, Onitsha, Nigeria, c. 1921

“Cannibalism is widespread from the delta of the Niger for a long way up its course. Among the Okrika Tribe, a hundred and fifty prisoners were taken from a tribe on the opposite side of the river and divided amongst the chiefs. With the exception of eleven, who fell to the lot of converted chiefs, and were therefore spared, the remaining 139 prisoners were divided up among the chiefs and the men who had captured them, and killed and devoured by them.”
– Bishop Crowther


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