Romanticism, Race, and Cannibalism in the “South Seas”

  • Peter J. Kitson
Part of the Nineteenth-Century Major Lives and Letters book series (19CMLL)


This chapter moves the focus of the debate about human difference in the Romantic period away from the anatomy theaters and far from the transatlantic concern with the slave trade to another crucial area of geographical discovery, exploration, and exploitation, the area now known as “Oceania,” but usually referred to in the period and after as the “South Seas.” The discovery of new varieties of human being with quite striking physical differences often located in comparatively close proximity to each other created new puzzles and problems for the philosophers of human difference. It forced Blumenbach to expand his fourfold typology to include a fifth human type, the “Malay” in the second edition of his De Generis Humani Varietate Nativa of 1781. It also made Europeans confront, once again, but perhaps more urgently, the strangely compelling phenomenon of human beings eating other human beings. As the nineteenth century wore on, anthropophagy or cannibalism also became a key marker of the essential differences between human beings and increasingly it became a racialized phenomenon. This chapter attempts to show how this gustatory practice in Oceania also served to distinguish between varieties, then races, of humans who inhabited the region. Enlightenment empirical observation was never neutral and the highly charged and richly symbolic discussion of Southern and Central Pacific diet reveals much about the ideological desires and anxieties of the West.


Romantic Period Pacific People Human Difference Human Flesh Colonial Encounter 
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  1. 7.
    A similar point was made in Southey’s “Review of William Ellis’s Polynesian Researches,” in Quarterly Review 43 (1830): 1–54.Google Scholar

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© Peter J. Kitson 2007

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  • Peter J. Kitson

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