Pirates, Caribs & Cannibals

by Steve McCabe

"The Caribs, it was thought, found Spaniards to be stringy and grisly, as opposed to the French who were rather delicious and the Dutch who tended to be fairly tasteless."

And though there has never been any hard archaeological evidence that would indicate widespread and systematic cannibalism (such as scorched human bones, bones with knife or saw cuts or which are unnaturally fractured) the myth persists.

As the debate rages over Hollywood's depiction of the Caribs as cannibals in the forthcoming Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, what exactly is the basis for the almost universal idea that the Caribs were in fact cannibals?

None really. In fact, evidence suggest the notion of the fierce savages who ate European flesh (and favoured French cooking) was more used as the perfect excuse to justify their own slave-taking of islanders and colonial thrust through the region.

Indeed, what better excuse to get round Queen Isabella of Spain's 1503 prohibition "to arrest or capture any Indians... or to do them any harm or evil to their persons or possessions", for she had also consented to make exception of, "a people called Cannibales ...(who) waged war on the Indians who are my vassals, capturing them to eat them as is their custom."

The earliest mention of the Caribs, according to Dominica historian Dr. Lennox Honychurch, is that made by Columbus in his journal on 26 November 1492: "All the people that he has found up to today, he says, are very frightened of those of caniba or canima." (Hulme & Whitehead 1992:19). His initial reference to the word is as a place where people were located, rather than the name of the people themselves.

In other statements the Tainos may have been using the term to refer not to a specific ethnic group but to any hostile band who attacked their villages, particularly those who came from the small islands to the east of where they were in Hispaniola. ). They have variously been called canima, canybal, caraibe, carebie, caribbee, charaibe and cribe in other European languages."

Reviewing early documents related to the Island Caribs, anthropologist Robert Myers found a pattern of low-scale raiding and slave-taking throughout the Windward Islands, but there was no reliable evidence to support their reputation as cannibals.

But the report of the ferocious Caniba continued to influence Spanish policy.

In short time, Columbus's 'Caniba' were being called 'Caribe'. The English used 'Caribbees' 'Charibs' or 'Caribs', the French used 'Caraibes' and, for those on the mainland, 'Galibis'. Fr. Raymond Breton, who lived amongst the Indians in Dominica from 1641 to 1655 (and though French never ended up in a pot), said, however, that the men called themselves 'Callinago' and the women called themselves 'Callipunam'. Today, the favoured name is 'Kalina' but those still living in St. Vincent call themselves 'Garifuna' and in Dominica 'Karifuna', which is now widely accepted to be the Caribs own name of for women.

See also Wild Majesty: Encounters with Caribs from Colombus to the present day
Hulme & Whitehead, P & N (Oxford, 1992)

News Source: http://www.news-dominica.com/articles/articles.cfm?Id=3794 15-Feb-05