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Letter: Eating people was not a routine activity

Sir: I'm not sure that Captain Cook makes a strong witness for cannibalism 'as a routine form of sustenance' among natives. He describes 'some of the officers' going ashore 'to amuse themselves'. They then come across a fresh corpse, and 'one of the gentlemen pick(s) off the head and brings it on board'.

This eye-witness account of supposed native eating habits in New Zealand then goes on to describe how 'a piece of flesh (from this head) was broiled and eaten by one of the natives before all the officers and men'. Not much meat on a head, unless you boil it whole.

The supporting role played in this episode by the witnesses, the participating officers and men, would seem to me to raise more questions than it answers. In this, the passage corresponds to much other purported first-hand evidence of cannibalism.

Nigel Evans (letter, 26 February) is selective in his quoting of my arguments, too. Montaigne was invoked by me as someone who pointed to barbarism at home, not as a disbeliever in cannibalism per se. Indeed, Montaigne knew that it had taken place, too close for comfort, during the sieges of the Wars of Religion in France.

My Reith lecture was principally about myths pinned on to inhabitants of the Caribbean. For this reason, I did wonder about the headline in your paper on 23 February (the day the lecture was broadcast) over a photograph of a jubilant West Indies cricket team, 'West Indies smell blood of Englishmen'. But I know it wasn't meant literally.

Yours sincerely,


London, NW5

28 February