Anyone familiar with the Caribbean has certainly heard lurid tales about the fearsome natives of the Lesser Antilles, the Caribs. They have been described as bloodthirsty savages; cannibals who attacked the peace-loving Tainos, killing the men, kidnapping the women, and capturing young boys who were kept in pens to be castrated, fattened and eaten. The very word “cannibal” comes from “Caribal,” referring to the Carib tribe.
Who are these people, and what is behind the Carib myth?
The Carib’s savage reputation preceded actual European contact. Columbus first learned about them from the Lucayos, the Tainos of the Bahamas, whom he encountered on his first voyage. According to the Lucayos, a fierce and warlike people ruled many islands to the east.
Peter Martyr, who interviewed sailors returning from the first transatlantic voyages, documented: “The Caribs emasculated the boys whom they seized and those who were born of the captives, fed them fat and, at their festivals, and devoured them.”
Columbus did not personally encounter the Caribs until his second voyage, when the fleet came ashore on the island of Guadeloupe. Entering the Caribs’ homes, shore parties found “man’s flesh, duck’s flesh and goose flesh, all in one pot, and others on the spits ready to be laid to the fire. Entering into their inner lodgings, they found faggots of the bones of men’s arms and legs, which they reserve to head arrows, because they lack iron; the other bones they cast away when they have eaten the flesh. They found likewise the head of a young man, fastened to a post, and yet bleeding and drinking vessels made of skulls,” wrote Martyr.
On Guadeloupe, Columbus found six women, two children and a young man – Tainos from Boriken (Puerto Rico) – who had been captured by the Caribs. According to Columbus’s son Ferdinand, the Tainos begged the Spaniards to help them escape. “They elected to give themselves over to an unknown people so alien to their own, rather than remain amongst those who were so manifestly horrible and cruel and who had eaten their husbands and children.”
On his next stop, which was St. Croix, Columbus rescued more Taino captives. “Two slaves had so recently been castrated that they were still sore,” reported the leader of the St. Croix shore party, Michele de Cuneo.
Later on, rumors and tall tales of cannibalism circulated throughout the West Indies.
“The Caribbeans [Caribs] have tasted of all the nations that frequented them, and affirm that the French are the most delicate, and the Spaniards are hardest of digestion,” reads a passage in the book, History of the Carribby Islands.
A Frenchman named Laborde reported that he had had occasion to speak with a Carib whom he encountered on the island of St. Vincent eating a boiled human foot. The Carib explained to Laborde that he ate only Arawaks [Tainos] because “Christians gave him the belly-ache.”
On a similar note, there is the story that was told around the Caribbean of a Carib tribe in Dominica that became so ill, upon eating a Franciscan friar, that they vowed never to eat that variety of European again.
Knowing about this, when a crew of Spaniards sailing past Dominica needed to come ashore to reprovision, they shaved the head of a sailor like a Franciscan monk, put him in a gunny sack, tied a rope around his waist and sent him safely on his way. The Caribs, fearing indigestion, gave him a wide berth.
Tales such as these inspired Daniel Defoe’s famous novel, Robinson Crusoe, which supposedly took place on the island of Tobago. Crusoe’s “Man Friday” was an Arawak who had been captured in a raid. He had escaped and was hiding from the Caribs when Crusoe found him.
In all probability, these accounts of the Caribs’ taste for human flesh were exaggerated. The Caribs did not hunt humans for the purpose of providing food for their tribe. What they did was practice ritual cannibalism: They ate people or body parts ceremonially in order to absorb their spiritual and physical powers.
Certain human parts, such as the testicles, were considered to be especially empowering. Having nothing comparable to this in their own culture, Europeans jumped to the conclusion that the Caribs ate people for sustenance.
When they observed the two recently castrated captives in St. Croix,* they again explained the phenomenon through the experience of their own culture, in which food animals were tenderized and fattened in this manner.
The European fascination with cannibalism had another unexpected result. At the time of the discovery of the New World, the Caribs were far fewer in number, inhabited far less territory, and had a less-advanced culture than the Tainos. Nonetheless, this preoccupation with the consumption of human beings was responsible, to a great extent, for the fact that the islands of the West Indies and the sea that they define were ultimately named the Caribbean.
More importantly, the European revulsion of cannibalism was used as propaganda to justify the enslavement of the native islanders. In many cases, when laws were passed to protect the Tainos, slavers simply reclassified their captives as Caribs.