Insatiable Appetites

Imperial Encounters with Cannibals in the North Atlantic World

By Kelly L. Watson

From The NYU Press

288 pp / 7 halftones / 2015

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Cannibalism, for medieval and early modern Europeans, was synonymous with savagery. Humans who ate other humans, they believed, were little better than animals. The European colonizers who encountered Native Americans described them as cannibals as a matter of course, and they wrote extensively about the lurid cannibal rituals they claim to have witnessed.

In this unique, comparative history of cross-cultural encounters in the early north Atlantic world, Kelly L. Watson argues that the persistent rumors of cannibalism surrounding Native Americans served a specific and practical purpose for European settlers. These colonizers had to forge new identities for themselves in the Americas and find ways to not only subdue but also co-exist with native peoples. They established hierarchical categories of European superiority and Indian inferiority upon which imperial power in the Americas was predicated.

In her close read of letters, travel accounts, artistic renderings, and other descriptions of cannibals and cannibalism, Watson focuses on how gender, race, and imperial power intersect within the figure of the cannibal. Watson reads cannibalism as a part of a dominant European binary in which civilization is rendered as male and savagery is seen as female, and she argues that as Europeans came to dominate the New World, they continually rewrote the cannibal narrative to allow for a story in which the savage, effeminate, cannibalistic natives were overwhelmed by the force of virile European masculinity. Original and historically grounded, Insatiable Appetites uses the discourse of cannibalism to uncover the ways in which difference is understood in the West.

Reviews & Quotes

"Insatiable Appetites is a well-crafted and fascinating book—an important read for students of race, gender, and sexuality in the early modern world. Readers won’t look at imperial discourses of 'civilization' and 'savagery' in quite the same way after consuming and digesting this wide-ranging history."
— Thomas A. Foster, DePaul University

"Insatiable Appetites offers a thoughtful and wide-ranging analysis of cannibalism as a crucial ingredient of European imperialism during the early modern period. . . Tracing the connections among cannibalism, savagery, and deviant sexual and gender practices, Watson provides a convincing account of how Europeans mobilized discourses about man-eating women and consumed men to distinguish themselves from the populations they wished to dominate."
— Kathleen Brown, University of Pennsylvania

"Kelly Watson’s Insatiable Appetites is a compelling analysis of the relationship between tales of cannibalism and the gendered dimensions of Spanish, French, and English imperialism in the early modern North Atlantic. In the descriptions of cannibalism produced by explorers and conquistadores, missionaries and settlers, Watson shows us the interrelationship between the gender norms articulated in these tales and the justification of imperial domination over Indigenous men and women. By focusing on cannibalism, sex, and gender together this book is a useful contribution to our understanding of the relationship between discourse and power in the unfolding of empire."
— Carole Blackburn, The University of British Columbia

About Kelly L. Watson

Kelly L. Watson is Assistant Professor of History and a member of the faculty in Women’s and Gender Studies at Avila University in Kansas City.

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"The Early American Places series is an exciting development in scholarly publishing, one that will highlight the most important part of the study of history: the local and particular dimensions of global issues and trends. This is where the rubber meets the road, where ordinary people's lives help to make, and are made by, the bustling wider world in which they live. Early American Places is an original series, and it will publish important scholarship."

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