Patrick Brantlinger's Taming Cannibals: Race and the Victorians (2011) is the third in a trilogy of scholarly monographs devoted to tracing ideas of race in British imperialist discourse. Perhaps best known as the author of Crusoe's Footprints: Cultural Studies in Britain and America (1990), an overview of cultural studies as it coalesced in the late nineteen-eighties, Brantlinger opened his earlier book with an analysis of Crusoe's paranoia on discovering Friday's footprint. Following Michel de Certeau's influential interpretation, Brantlinger casts Friday as the emblem par excellence of the docile, oppressed and therefore always somewhat anxiety-provoking colonial subject. Taming Cannibals extends this analysis by attending to similar moments gleaned from a variety of Victorian genres and contexts, from travelogues and anthropological texts to fantasy and adventure stories.
According to Brantlinger, a central contradiction embedded in Victorian racial stereotyping permitted writers to at once consolidate and justify British imperial authority. If few questioned the value of the Victorians' mission civilisatrise, no one noticed that the project was, in fact, impossible and, moreover, that the very impossibility of the project helped to sustain it. Moreover, while the "natives" were always considered more or less civilizable, this patronizing position masked a different, more implicit and pervasive attitude. No amount of missionary zeal would ever satisfactorily civilize these non-European subjects. Yet, for decades and despite the impossibility of the task, its pursuit was so vitally necessary that an entire research agenda sprang up to support it. But then again, as hard as Victorians worked to make a scientific research project out of race, they only managed to fetishize it. In tracing these ironies, Brantlinger shows how short the step was between, for instance, the sensationalist fantasies of savage cannibalism that appeared in the Victorian popular press and the stereotypical Victorian race scientist in his study, surrounded by his collection of human skulls.
Taming Cannibals consists of four sections, ordered chronologically, which address cannabalism-related racial stereotypes in British literature, travelogues, and belles lettres from the 1830s to World War I. During this period, Brantliger claims that "there were thousands of British Crusoes throughout the empire" whose projects produced and sustained a peculiar bifocal perspective on native inhabitants of the colonies. These "Crusoes" saw natives not simply as "savages or barbarians" who might any any point visit unimaginable violence on their colonizers but also as "potential Fridays" (18) who could be counted on for help. This ambivalence concealed an enduring bewilderment, with unpredictable consequences all around. In Part 1, Brantlinger focuses on missionaries and others who, in trying to "save" a population by "civilizing" it, managed instead to decimate it. George Stanley Robinson's effort to "save the remnants of the Aborigines in Tasmania" is contrasted with later efforts by James Bonwick to accomplish much the same thing in the name of science (19). Robinson's mission eventuated in the roundup of the Tazmanians on Flinders Island where they were said to have died out, but not before the ethnographer Bonwick made a thorough study of these "rude and cannibal Fiji islanders" (54), noting details of their daily lives as well as measurements of their crania. If we don't know exactly what happened to the Tanzanian Aborigines — even as a group defined primarily by their colonizers — we do know what happened to at least two of them, King Billy and Trugernanna, two Fijians who became posthumously famous when it was discovered that their remains had been turned into tobacco pouches and other objets that came ultimately into the possession of certain, mostly unnamed doctors and scientists who had apparently developed a taste for that sort of thing.
Often disoriented and suffering from culture shock, missionaries and others struggled to sustain their view of themselves as "civilized." Some responded to this challenge to their identities by adhering rigidly to the behavioral standards and ideologies of Britain's imperial center, while others succumbed to the temptation to "go native." This latter phenomenon involved adopting native habits of dress, comportment, and diet, the last of which provoked special anxieties in light of widespread horror stories of natives as cannibalistic. Going native was also, and perhaps even more powerfully threatening because it inverted the expectation that natives should "mimic their betters, not the other way around" (21). But, as Brantlinger shows, not everyone adhered strictly to this point of view. Some Victorian novelists, for instance, used accounts of Europeans "going native" in order to track the enduring power of a different fantasy: escape from a civilization that had come to be seen as burdensome, or even violently oppressive. As the popular novelist H. Rider Haggard's Allan Quatermain put it, civilization was "only savagery silver-gilt" (qtd on p. 76). Although much of Brantlinger's source material in this section is familiar, his close readings of core texts such as Kipling's Kim are nevertheless fascinating set pieces, and his summaries of recent sources such as Linda Colley's Captives (2002), a study of first-person accounts of captivity experiences between 1600-1850, are cogent, useful and crisp. Even more interesting is Brantlinger's characterization of Disraeli as a polarizing figure whose racist views put him in uncomfortable ideological proximity to his detractors. Despite his imperial policies and conversion to Christianity, not to mention his position as Prime Minister, Disraeli's Jewish origins nonetheless rendered him "racially distinct, dangerous and alien" (21). If nothing else, Brantlinger's discussion suggests the obduracy of Victorian anti-Semitism, which even Disraeli's status as Prime Minister could do little to subvert.
Brantlinger turns next to Darwin and Darwinism in order to explore how racialist ideas shaped, and were shaped by, contemporary debates about heredity. In tackling the reception of Darwin's ideas, Brantlinger's perspective widens to include not only cannibals, as in the first section, or barbarity, as in the second, but the lower social classes to whom both labels — barbarian and cannibal — were frequently applied. With the appearance of Darwin's Origin of Species and, what is perhaps more relevant, Francis Galton's eugenics, the threatening natives of the distant colonies reappeared closer to home, in the teeming slums of England's major cities as well as at the borders. Brantlinger pays special attention to the racialization of the Irish as an example of this geographical and ideological inversion. Using Matthew Arnold's "On the Study of Celtic Literature" (1867; text on Project Gutenberg) as a touchstone, Brantlinger traces the production and dissemination of the stereotype of the Irish as "feathery, frivolous and full of blarney" (22), intellectual lightweights who stood in stark contrast to the Anglo-Saxonist stereotype of the upright, if stolid, English.
The book's final section considers the circulation of racial stereotypes in late Victorian discourse about past and future. One lively chapter explores archaeological fantasies in the novels and short fiction of H. Rider Haggard whose "vivid porno-tropic imagination," according to which "ardent love or lust doesn't lead to fulfillment within the confines of the real world but is typically cancelled by death" (175), allowed him to imagine and deploy racialist hierarchies of ancient peoples that implicitly supported contemporary British imperial policies. The past was not the only imaginary space vulnerable to such use. The future could be made to serve the purpose as well. Here, Brantlinger turns to early science fiction writers such as H. G. Wells who, in his futurist scenarios, transformed the cannibals of earlier in the era into invading Martians, or outsized insects, with a special taste for human flesh. This transformation is epitomized in Wells' "The Empire of the Ants" (1905), in which mammoth man-eating ants make a stab a world domination. In his novel The First Men in the Moon (1901), Wells elaborates on the entymological theme by means of his "Selenites," moon dwellers who are a combination of human and insect, who live and work in a vast anthill, and who are subject to invasion by humans who "would annex the planets," as one character, under the influence of a fungus, puts it, or even the moon: "There must be no shilly-shally. This is part of the White Man's Burthen" (quoted on p. 184). In this way, the Victorian civilizing mission extended even into outer space.
Ideas of race also intersected with futuristic fantasies of mechanization. "The central question," Brantlinger writes, "is whether the machines of the future will liberate humans or make them so dependent they become slaves or the machines or themselves turn into robots" (192). Once again, Brantlinger's use of a variety of sources freshens a familiar trope. So while readers may be aware that Edward Bulwer-Lytton saw machines as a new species of organism capable of evolution, as elaborated by in his 1872 sci-fi novel The Coming Race, they may be less familiar with George Eliot's essay, "Shadows of the Coming Race," which drew on Bulwer-Lytton to make made a similar point. Shifting to technology also allows Brantliger to link his cannibalism theme with ideas of monstrosity. For example, if we think of cannibalism as, in essence, an assemblage of found materials, Frankenstein (1818) comes to seem less about a monster than a machine made from re-purposed body parts. And the implicit cannibalism of Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897), considered as "a nightmare emanating from the distant past," neatly reprises the preceding chapter's theme. I admit that the argument at this point struck me as bit ragged, as it strayed into a consideration of theater as a "vampiric medium" (197) and relatively recent debates about posthumanism. Although it was difficult to follow Brantlinger's synthesis of so many disparate texts in the book's final section, the bulk of Taming Cannibals is free of these distractions, and strikes an admirable balance between the familiar and the strange.
References and Further Reading
Brantlinger, Patrick. Crusoe's Footprints: Cultural Studies in Britain and America. New York and London: Routledge, 1990.
Brantlinger, Patrick. Taming Cannibals: Race and the Victorians. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2011.
Landow, George P. Variations of Robinson Crusoe. From Images of Crisis.
Last modified 19 June 2012