Cannibal Continuity: Social Cannibalism in Melville and Coates

Photo via Flickr

By David Collings

(UBC Arts One, Miranda Burgess Seminar)


Herman Melville’s Typee depicts cannibalism at a time when the practice’s nature, and even its existence, is an uncertain question for its contemporary readers. During the colonization of Pacific islands such as the Marquesas, on which Melville spent time after abandoning a whaling vessel and subsequently set Typee, groups indigenous to the islands were often assumed to practice anthropophagy, but evidence for these practices was primarily second-hand and of limited reliability. Melville’s text is similarly limited in its ability to view or provide evidence for cannibalism, but Tommo’s perspective on it nevertheless changes over the course of the work. Geoffrey Sanborn’s The Sign of the Cannibal suggests that the specific mechanism at work is a change in the understanding of cannibalism’s motive: from enjoyment of the taste of flesh to a belief that the Typees possess no motive and the practice is fictitious; then to vengeance against enemies such as the Happars; and finally to an understanding that the figure of the cannibal, which generates fear and apprehension in colonizers, is more significant than the act itself (Sanborn, 76-7). However, although Melville’s portrayal of cannibalism is more nuanced than might be expected of the time, to the degree that scholarship like Sanborn’s frames it as postcolonial in its exposure of imagined cannibals in contrast with the truth of the practice, it is equally noted that Melville does not finish Typee in postcolonial terms. While Melville interrogates the practices of colonialism, Typee still confines the Typee people he depicts to a purely natural setting, and through narrative sidelines such as the British takeover of Hawai’i suggests that such indigenous groups need not be afforded equal footing in contexts British or American readers might recognise as civilized; these elements of the work may be read as providing a model for continued inequity, complicating access to any postcolonial work in Typee.

Elsewhere, in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, both cannibalism and the effects of Melville’s revised social structures are visible, to lesser and greater extents. Cannibalism is mentioned explicitly only once in Between the World and Me, when Coates considers the ramifications of “a democracy independent of cannibalism” (Coates 105). Though its appearance is brief and the text itself does not mark its use as significant, Coates’s definition of cannibalism can be loosely mapped onto Melville’s work with the concept, and these links are illustrative of a possible continuity between Typee and Between the World and Me. Coates’s cannibalism, which might more clearly be called “social cannibalism,” describes the creation of the Dream through the systemic destruction of Black bodies, elevating the Dreamers into their comfortable world by situating them apart from and above America’s Black citizens. In this system, where an ingroup is created and defined through the literal or figurative consumption of an outgroup, Melville’s work echoes; certainly one of the motives proposed for Typee cannibalism, ritualized vengeance against a Happar outgroup, bears some similarity to the process Coates describes, but in a broader sense Melville critiques the reliance of colonial groups such as the French occupiers of Nukuheva on the same force. The indigenous peoples of the Marquesas are used exclusively to reinforce French superiority, without any real insight into the peoples so used. However, Melville’s new framework for the handling of non-white outgroups, where such groups can be accepted and celebrated only on the terms of the ingroup, renders Typee as much a precursor to Coates’s modern Dream as it is a critique of its principles. Although these two texts are most often read separately, both leave space for the other to contribute important elements, and their complexly interlinked relationship is worth exploring.

Cannibalism’s invisibility in Melville is central to its depiction, and to the effect it has on the sailors who fear it. When Tommo first arrives in Nukuheva’s largest bay, he says of the groups living on the island that “although I was convinced that the inhabitants of our bay were as arrant cannibals as any of the other tribes on the island, still I could not but feel a particular and most unqualified repugnance to the aforesaid Typees” (Melville 25). This demonstrates two linked factors essential to the way cannibalism works in Melville: first, that distant sailors arrive convinced of cannibalism’s presence in spite of the absence of evidence; and second, that the figure of the cannibal that Tommo and the sailors fear is disconnected from the act of cannibalism itself, as Tommo expresses greater terror at the thought of the Typees’ cannibal reputation despite his certainty that all the inhabitants of the region practice anthropophagy in equal measure. As his experience with the reality of Typee life grows, Tommo briefly disbelieves their cannibalism altogether, but the appearance of “three long narrow bundles, carefully wrapped in ample coverings” after a skirmish with the Happars and before a grand celebration to which Tommo is refused entry persuades him that the Typees have brought home and devoured Happar bodies, an understanding that Sanborn terms “vengeful cannibalism” (Melville 235; Sanborn, 91). This representation suggests, but does not mirror, the social cannibalism of Coates, as Typees seem to devour Happar bodies after a border skirmish in defense of Typee space; cannibalism occurs after a conflict between ingroup and outgroup, and the subsequent consumption only reinforces Typee-ness instead of creating it. It is worth noting, as well, that even in this moment of apparent clarity Tommo makes assumptions based on seemingly-implicating evidence—it has been suggested that non-cannibalistic Polynesian burial practices may have produced evidence capable of being mistaken for cannibalism (Jones). Returning to Sanborn, Melville may already have grappled with this idea: the absence of definitive evidence can allow cannibalism in Typee to be read as “a kind of stage effect,” produced by the unfamiliar sailors as a category into which the Typee people and others can be comfortably fit, easing and justifying colonialism in the process (Sanborn 77).

The colonial figures most clearly described in Melville are the French soldiers sent to Nukuheva to claim the island, and they adhere neatly, in different ways, to both Melville’s and Coates’s account of cannibalism. When the “king” of Nukuheva, set up with French backing as the rightful ruler of the island to cement their control of it, boards the French man-of-war alongside his wife, the ship band “[strikes] up ‘The King of the Cannibal Islands,’” mocking the Nukuhevans while appearing to honour them (Melville 7). This is the social cannibalism at work in Coates transposed directly into a colonial setting; the French soldiers perform their French-ness and their supposed colonial superiority at the expense of the king and queen, elevating their own position by making explicit both who the outgroup is and where they are situated—namely, below them in power and prestige. The words they use for this practice, however, resonate with Melville’s treatment of cannibalism: the Nukuhevans are other because they are cannibals and their king is a cannibal king, more out of colonial fear of the term than due to any authentic consideration of the practices the term implies. The greater comprehension of cannibalism’s role that Melville demonstrates over the course of the novel gives him standing to criticize the colonialist practices which rely on it, putting weight behind his suggestion that the forcible French occupation of Nukuheva is “a signal infraction of the rights of humanity” (Melville 17). Here, the Typees and other inhabitants of the island are included in the definition of humanity, bringing the human underlying the figure of the cannibal to the foreground. Melville critiques social cannibalism by revealing, despite Tommo’s reflexive revulsion, the complex nature of the actual cannibals it uses as fuel.

When so laid out, Coates’s critique of the Dream, that it relies upon the inferiority of Blackness and forcibly projects this vulnerability onto America’s Black citizens, seems to align itself closely with Melville. The comfort the Dream provides to the Americans who “believe that they are white,” a belief Coates goes on to interrogate, is composed of “bedding made from [Black] bodies” (Coates 7, 11). The Dreamers are elevated because they have created a division along racial boundaries, allowing them to ensure “that there was someone down in the valley because a mountain is not a mountain if there is nothing below” (Coates 105). This is social cannibalism on a grand scale, although Coates refers to it as such only rarely; the Dreamers, having defined Black Americans as the outgroup fit to fuel their worldview, leverage their otherness to create and reinforce their own superior whiteness in the same way that Melville’s French soldiers leverage the Nukuhevans. The racism common to both groups, then, is also a common method of social cannibalism. In Coates, the complicating factor is the degree to which such social cannibalism is systematized; from America’s foundation on the back of slavery, the system has enshrined “rape so regular as to be industrial,” referring to the constant violence both literal and figurative experienced by Black Americans in the course of daily life (Coates 103). The Dreamers can benefit from their brand of cannibalism even without directly perpetrating it, as the system embedded in Coates’s description of American culture will continue to perpetuate the superiority of the Dream. Coates, then, represents the individual act of social cannibalism committed by Melville’s French sailors taken to a further extreme, where the process of group creation the act aims at has succeeded and become self-perpetuating.

Although accepting that Melville and Coates align neatly in their respective philosophies would simplify the collaborative reading of the two texts, an important question remains unasked: what does Melville offer in place of the old colonial processes he critiques? The answer has much more to do with the Dream than Melville’s apparent opposition to social cannibalism suggests. Throughout Typee, although he praises the idyllic, almost Edenic lifestyle of the Typees for its unexpected beauty, Melville does not extend the unusual-for-the-time privileges that Polynesia’s indigenous groups enjoy in the text beyond a natural setting. The failures of indigenous peoples in “civilized” settings are often remarked upon, and these remarks do more than denigrate the prospective civilizer. Indeed, Typee’s final chapter praises the British Lord George Paulet’s time governing over Hawai’i, then called the Sandwich Islands, for the fondness it supposedly inspired in the native Hawai’ians, who “look back in gratitude to the time when his liberal and paternal sway diffused peace and happiness among them” (Melville 258). By Melville’s account, the trouble is that the Hawai’ians and their king are “half-civilized” (Melville 255). Although the act of colonization itself was inexcusable, once colonized, the denizens of the various Pacific Islands cannot be afforded equality; they are not equipped for independence, and it is hardly the fault of the individual governor that their subjects have already been hauled from “prelapsarian bliss,” as A Political Companion to Melville puts it (Frank 37). These are conditions conducive to the Dream that Coates describes, rather than precluding it: the individual acts of social cannibalism committed by parties such as the French sailors are inexcusable, but the broader system established by these initial acts must simply be accepted. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that the America Melville calls home, reading Melville’s accounts of Polynesia, produces the Dream in spite of Melville’s apparent protests.

Melville’s protests—the anticolonial or imaginatively postcolonial content of his work—occupy uncertain space in the work in light of the Dream he enables. His objections to colonialism and social cannibalism still exist within the text, and his critiques that colonial forces “burn, slaughter, and destroy… and sailing away from the scene of devastation, call upon all Christendom to applaud their courage and their justice” hew closely to Coates’s suggestion that Dreamers rely on “the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land” (Melville 27; Coates 8). However, Melville’s tacit acceptance of the system that has been established in spite of his critiques is difficult to read past, and the momentary flashes of postcolonial space created by tearing away the image of the cannibal are obscured by the work’s apparent disinterest in accessing it on a wider scale. Coates’s presence in any reading of Typee further complicates the matter; in Between the World and Me, social cannibalism is problematic because of the systems that Melville seems to half-knowingly endorse,enforcing in Black life in America a series of altercations with the Dream and whiteness, as when a young Samori is shoved aside in a crowded theater. Coates’s encounter with this injustice is not personal—the figures he argues with are “a white woman” and “a white man,” not specific individuals (Coates 94-95). The woman pushes Samori because in the crowded, majority-white theatre her membership in the ingroup provides a basis for such an action. Modernity leaves no room and little justification for Melville’s suggestion that distinct cultural groups should remain entirely isolated, and no other models for the absence of social cannibalism exist in Typee.

Coates, however, offers no clearer account of a future absent social cannibalism than Melville does. Although his insights into the nature of the Dream are incisive and far more modern than Melville’s anticolonial language, Coates is hesitant to suggest that the world will ever actually change in accordance with these insights. Coates asks his son to struggle for the sake of his individual life, but also advises that Samori should not “pin [his] struggle on [the Dreamers’] conversion” (Coates 151). To Coates, no outside force can cause the Dreamers to change, and the comfort they are afforded as beneficiaries of the Dream makes them unlikely to change themselves. Dana Williams, summarizing criticism of Coates for this fatalist quality of his work, notes the absence of worthwhile new perspectives for Black readers already familiar with the broad-strokes systemic issues Coates depicts, exacerbated by “an unwillingness to offer even the smallest meaningful insight into the interior lives of those Coates narrates as powerless and disembodied” (Williams 182). The descriptions of Blackness used as fuel for the dream are not new to Black audiences, Williams says, making the white readers who might be surprised by these accounts an important part of Coates’s audience—but Coates has already established his belief that they will not change as a result of his outside input, making the function of his text an open question. Like Melville, Coates struggles to elaborate on any possible future beyond the flaws he critiques, and although the absence of such a blueprint for a future is unlikely to lead Coates to seeming acceptance of that which he critiques, as it did for Melville, there is a similar sense that the text is missing a conclusive takeaway for readers who still hope for a better world.

If neither Melville nor Coates satisfactorily produce a description of a future beyond social cannibalism, the connections between the two works may help to fill in the space left by both Typee and Between the World and Me. Coates’s reference to “a democracy independent of cannibalism,” cursory as it is, provides the essential connection to Melville’s work with the same subjects (Coates 105). In Melville, the literal cannibals, who possess complex and uncertain motivations for the practice of anthropophagy and are not defined by it, are obscured by the image of a cannibal conjured by colonists. Be they French or otherwise, colonial groups practice social cannibalism by reducing indigenous Polynesians to a single label, that of the cannibal, and reinforcing their own group’s boundaries and superiority in relation to the feared other who supposedly lusts after human flesh. By exposing the shallowness and inaccuracy of this conceit through a progressive exploration of the motives underlying Typee cannibalism, Melville gradually humanizes for the reader the formerly-obscured Typees. When Tommo’s failure to discover definitive evidence of the practice reveals the image of the cannibal’s total disconnect from reality, its absence briefly creates postcolonial space for the Typees, independent of the impositions of social cannibalism. Coates’s suggestion that any progress towards the death of social cannibalism in America must come from the Dreamers themselves is less hopeless in light of Melville’s success displacing an outgroup label, limited as it may be. Melville may be complicit in the creation of the conditions which produced the Dream in America, but if even he understood and was able to set in widely-read writing the flaws of the Dream 200 years before Coates, there is hope that the Dreamers may one day wake themselves in the manner that Coates suggests. Though Melville fails to extend his criticisms of social cannibalism and Coates fears that those who need to will never produce broadly-accessible self-criticism at all, a connected reading of Typee and Between the World and Me allows each to answer the gaps in the other.

In Melville and Coates alike, cannibalism is an object of criticism, and these criticisms are levied in often-similar terms. In Melville, the image of the cannibal supplants the humanity of Polynesia’s inigenous peoples in the eyes of colonizers, while in Coates the idea of Blackness as a designation used by the Dreamers to elevate themselves causes untold damage to America. Both authors criticize the use of humans as resources to enforce an ingroup’s superiority, although colonial forces and Dreamers alike aim to obscure the basic nature of the practice through systematization; the Dreamers have already achieved this, while Melville addresses colonialism in Polynesia at a time when its systems are still being established. It must be acknowledged, however, that the two texts do not read entirely neatly when set alongside each other. Melville is responsible for endorsing Lord Paulet’s governorship and other impositions on Polynesian natives with the justification that these indigenous groups, once removed from their natural isolation, will not function in society if they are treated as equals. This meek acceptance of the systems established by social cannibalism and casual racism, although common at the time Typee was written, fosters the conditions which ultimately lead to the Dream. Though Melville’s work opposing the image of the cannibal has utility to Coates precisely because of his proximity to the Dream, the fact remains that the postcolonial work in Melville’s text can only be accessed if the reader consciously pushes through his responsibility for the very situation that his text critiques. The effect of this conflict on the hopeful future that can be cautiously synthesized from Typee and Between the World and Me together is uncertain; perhaps uncertainty is appropriate, for opposition to the force of social cannibalism is a task as monumental as it is necessary.



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