History of the common cannibal: It's not everyone's idea of a wholesome meal, but over the ages human flesh has been eaten by surprisingly large numbers of people. Raj Persaud reports

Raj Persaud
Tuesday 11 May 1993 00:02 BST

JONATHAN SWIFT told how he had been assured by 'a very knowing' American in London that a healthy one-year-old child was a most delicious, nourishing and wholesome meal, be it stewed, roasted, baked or boiled, or served in a fricassee or ragout.

Swift's suggestion in his pamphlet of 1729, A Modest Proposal, that mothers should raise their children for a year and then sell them at a small profit to landlords, was a satirical attack on those who kept Ireland poor, but then complained it was full of beggars and thieves. But he may not have known that cannibalism did exist in Ireland during times of famine in 1588 and 1601. Elsewhere in Europe, in 1594 when Henry IV of France besieged Paris, bread was made from the bones of the charnel house. And in 450, famine in Italy led to parents eating their children.

For hundreds of years, the world over, people starved when harvests failed, and outbreaks of cannibalism occurred. Between 695-700, both England and Ireland suffered a three-year famine, during which men ate each other, according to Divine Hunger (Peggy Sanday, Cambridge University Press, 1986). Much the same happened in Scotland following a four-year famine beginning in 936, and again in England in 1022.

During the famine of 1201 in Egypt, a medical writer of the time reported widespread hoarding of large quantities of human meat by pickling the flesh in water and salt and storing it in large jars, in case the famine went on for so long that men became too skinny to eat.

But the habit of eating human flesh often lingered once the famine was over. In China, frequently victim to famines, during the 10th century human flesh continued to be sold openly in markets and human-

meat restaurants opened in northern China. Distinctively named dishes were prepared, made from the flesh of men, women and children.

Shih Hu, who ruled northern China between 334-349, used to serve one of his harem to guests, while the uncooked head was passed round on a platter to prove he had not sacrificed the least beautiful. Kings and leaders were often given to cannibalism as a symbolic act of power. Hence it is reported that during the third crusade Richard the Lion-Heart dined, in the presence of Saladin's ambassadors, on curried hand of Saracen.

In the 18th century, cannibalism was almost routine when sailors ran out of food after being shipwrecked. Referred to as the 'custom of the sea', it was regarded as legitimate as long as straws were drawn to determine who would be on the menu. Despite this democratic method, the smallest member of the lifeboat, usually the cabin boy, had an uncanny knack of ending up as the first meal, so much so that it was a captain's right to ensure that the cabin boy was on board his lifeboat when the ship was abandoned.

Lemery's Medical Dictionary, a standard text of the 18th century, listed almost all the human body for medicinal uses. These included powdered skull as a treatment for epilepsy (skulls were expensive in 1685 in London, costing 8s-11s each), and the gruesome advice that 'liquid expressed from the testicles when crushed is esteemed as a tonic and invigorator'.

During the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe, criminals were often victims of this medicinal cannibalisation - hanged prisoners would be cut down, still alive, whereupon their warm blood would be given to epileptics and other patients waiting with cups in the crowd, ready to drink it for its therapeutic qualities. Until the 18th century in Germany and Hungary, it was an official executioner's perquisite to sell a criminal's blood as it flowed from the headless torso.

Witches in Europe in the Middle Ages were frequently accused of medicinal cannibalism - using human material for their magic potions - particularly during their celebration of Black Mass. One recipe from 1450 was to tie a naked, red-

haired male Catholic to a bench and subject him to the unbridled attentions of venomous snakes. Once expired, he was hung upside down with a bowl beneath him to catch drips. These were mixed with fat from a hanged man, children's entrails and reptiles for 'use as required'.

Another remedy that appears worse than any possible disease is 'tincture of mummy' - an ancient Egyptian medical prescription to be found in Flesh and Blood, A History of the Cannibal Complex (Reay Tannahill, Hamish Hamilton, 1975). It was prepared by selecting the cadaver of a 24-year-old killed by hanging, cut in pieces, sprinkled with myrrh and aloes, then marinated for a few days.

Powdered mummy, according to Lemery, was also good for epilepsy, vertigo and palsy. It was, at 5s 4d a pound, also cheaper than skull.

In case the quaintness of these recipes suggests cannibalism is remote from modern times, there have been numerous recent examples. In 1988, a boatload of South Vietnamese refugees adrift in a leaking vessel began to kill and eat each other as starvation set in. Four people, including two children aged 11 and 14, were beheaded, dismembered and their cooked flesh distributed to others on the boat.

Other recent examples of 'survival cannibalism' include the 16 young plane-wrecked Uruguayans who survived 70 days in the bitter heights of the Andes in 1972 by eating the flesh of their fellow passengers killed in the crash. However, a dark side of this episode is carefully omitted in the film of their experience, Alive, now on release. There was indeed initial revulsion, but for a few this passed, and they began to enjoy their new diet. They developed a taste for brain and lungs. Rescuers reported one survivor trying to identify the remains, tossing a skull to another and saying cheerfully: 'You should know who this guy is; you ate his brains.'

Although the Andes survivors' story has received much media attention, another revealing incident concerning the nature of cannibalism was occurring at roughly the same time; this incident, however, remains virtually unknown. In November 1972, despite bad weather, a pilot, Martin Hartwell, took off with a nurse from Cambridge Bay, Canada, to try to reach two seriously ill Inuit patients and take them to hospital. Unable to get bearings on his instruments, the plane flew too low and crashed. Only one patient and the pilot survived. Twenty days later they ran out of food. The remaining patient then died, leaving Mr Hartwell alone to make the agonising decision to eat his companions to survive.

This he did, before finally being rescued in December. In contrast to the Andes survivors (who have not been so shy of media attention) and despite possible financial inducements, Mr Hartwell has refused to speak of his experiences.

It is clear the trauma of eating human flesh was a very different experience for him than the Andes survivors. This perhaps suggests that cannibalism can occur sustainably only as a group decision - a shift of culture under extreme conditions. When the individual is left to face this ultimate taboo alone, without the 'normalising' influence of other people similarly disposed, it becomes a very difficult thing to do, and perhaps permanently damages the psyche. This contrasts with the relative ease with which cannibalism seems to have been adopted throughout history once a group faces the choice between this and death.

The author is a psychiatrist at the Institute of Psychiatry, south London.

(Photograph omitted)

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