“Certainly the deepest horror, as far as I'm concerned, is what happens to your body at your own hands and others.” —Wes Craven
It's Halloween and I'm thinking of bones, of my own guts, of the third-trimester alien growing inside of me, and of my husband who wants to eat the placenta, an act that to me seems taboo, dangerously close to cannibalism. Maybe I'm just cautious, an overly sensitive vegan, but I'm not sure I can trust a man with a taste for human flesh, even if the placenta will soon be, technically, a “spare part”. This near-breach of barriers has called into question our unity, not only as a species but as a married couple. Our social contract is on the line, and it gives me little comfort to know that ours is not the first relationship to be rattled by cannibalism. One could even claim, historically speaking, that cannibalism and marriage are part of the American Experience, traceable back to the first English colony at Jamestown.
Recent archeological findings at Jamestown have verified claims of cannibalism during the Starving Time, a period of brutal famine from 1609-1610, when an estimated seventy-percent of Jamestown's population perished. Excavated skulls show marks from cutlery. Bones show butcher cuts.
These findings shouldn't be a shock considering the many testimonies of colonists, including famously morbid sections of Captain John Smith's account, as well as the lesser-known, but image-rich writings of Governor George Percy who, unlike Smith, was actually present, living and famishing in the colony during the Starving Time. Because their topics overlap, it is especially fascinating to examine the differences between the writing of Captain John Smith and Governor George Percy. In the excerpts below, we can see how Smith, in his General History of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles (published in 1624), approaches the Starving Time as novelty, not as a personal tragedy. Where Percy's writings on the time are loaded with details of misery, Smith's account takes on a tone that is part recipe and part joke. He writes of the colonists killing a native:
"[After the colonists buried the native] they took him up again and eat him, and so did divers one another boiled and stewed with roots and herbs: And one amongst the rest did kill his wife, powdered her, and had eaten part of her before it was known, for which he was executed, as he well deserved; now whether she was better roasted, boiled or [barbequed], I know not, but of such a dish as powdered wife I never heard of."
Smith's accounts are third-person, and he broaches the topic of cannibalism with a more socially acceptable incident (for the time), the English eating the “other”. When he delves into a more taboo tale where a man kills and eats his own wife, Smith attempts to offset the horror with humor, possibly because the incident seems to baffle him to amusement, and possibly because he is aware that this type of cannibalism is somehow a more grave departure from the social code of acceptability, even in times of great hardship.
Unfortunately, with the exception of a few funny spellings, George Percy's documentation of the Starving Time is completely humorless. Few laughs can be found in his personal account, A Trewe Relacyon, the confessional memoir about his New World experience which, although written in 1623, wasn't published in its entirety until 1922.
Early in Relacyon, Percy prepares the reader for horror, appealing to the reader's most visceral sensibilities:
"Now all of us att James Towne beginneinge to feele the sharpe pricke of hunger w[hi]ch noe man trewly descrybe butt he w[hi]ch hathe Tasted the bitternesse thereof. A worlde of miseries ensewed as the Sequell will expresse unto yow, in so mutche thatt some to satisfye their hunger have Robbed the store for the w[hi]ch I Caused them to be executed."
Although Percy is the highest ranking official in Jamestown, he makes certain to include himself in the tale of suffering, as though setting up a buffer which he will later need. Here, Percy's writing demonstrates his particular attention to the collective, beginning the tale with “all of us att James Towne.” He uses pronouns to his advantage, the collective “we” and the singular “I.” He distinguishes himself as as governor and judge, yet relies on the collective “we” to cushion his involvement in the acts of cannibalism which are to follow. He goes on to describe the general menu decline of the colony:
"Then haveinge fedd upour horses and other beastes as longe as they Lasted, we weare gladd to make shifte w[i]th vermin as doggs Catts Ratts and myce all was fishe thatt Came to Nett to satisfye Crewell hunger, as to eate Bootes shoes or any other leather some Colde come by and those beinge Spente and devoured some weare inforced to searche the woodes and to feede upon Serpentts and snakes [...]"
The list goes from bad to worse. Percy continues to communicate the sense that all is not well. The colonists have picked a poor location—they never planned on growing their own food, assuming instead that they would trade trinkets with the natives in exchange for nourishment. But Powhatan, the powerful chief of the region's tribal confederacy, is more interested in annihilation than in trade. As as result, many of the colonists, while foraging for food, are killed by the natives whose tribes surrounded the colony on three sides. Because it is dangerous to leave the protected walls of the fort, the colonists turn inward in their search for nourishment. Percy relates the worsening conditions which finally lead to cannibalism:
"And now famin beginneinge to Looke gastely and pale in every face, thatt notheinge was Spared to mainteyne Lyfe and to doe those things w[hi]ch seame incredible, as to digge upp deade corpes outt of graves and to eate them."
Eating dead people seems particularly gross, but even so, consuming the already-dead seems more kind than killing people for food, which is the next step in Jamestown's downward progression of hunger. In arguably the most grisly section of Relacyon, infanticide combines with matrimonial cannibalism*. In a manner far more startling than Smith's, Percy sets the scene:
"And amongste the reste this was moste lamentable. Thatt one of our Colline murdered his wyfe Ripped the Childe outt of her woambe and threwe itt into the River and after Chopped the Mother in pieces and sallted her for his foode, The same not beinge discovered before he had eaten p[ar]te thereof. For the w[hi]ch Crewell and unhumane factt I adjudged him to be executed the acknowledgm[en]t of the dede beinge inforced from him by torture haveinge hunge by the Thumbes w[i]th weightes att his feete a quarter of an howere before he wolde Confesse the same."
Unlike Smith's, in Percy's version, there are no jokes about barbeque. This is one of rare moments in straight-forward Relacyon where Percy uses emotional language; it's one of three instances of the word lamentable.
With all of the New World gore Percy carries out, the slaughter of natives, the execution of his own colonists, why, a decade and a half later, when Percy writes A Trewe Relacyon, does he still seem so rattled by the cannibalism at Jamestown? After all, from his accounts, there was only one murder—the rest of the cannibalized residents are all dead before they were exhumed for dinner.
Does the Starving Time, to Percy, represent a departure from morality? It's doubtful. Percy and the colonists are not missionaries or otherwise motivated by morality or religion; they are gold-seekers, and they operate under a set of rules that are more fitting for the military, where desertion or mutiny threaten the survival of the group. A more plausible explanation for Percy's lingering horror might have more to do with social class than morality. Half the colonists are gentlemen, not used to hardship or working. They certainly aren't used to eating rats, horses, cats, or humans. The debasement of groveling for food alongside commoners is an unwelcome lowering of class, a crossing of lines that should not be crossed. The loss of distinct social class hints at a blurring of identity, but the problem seems more complex than that, or at least more visceral. It seems the real terror comes from the inability to distinguish one body from another, a human carcass from an animal's, a baby from offal, a pregnant wife from salt pork.
Perhaps it is the recognition of himself as a cannibal that startles Percy so deeply. Maybe this is why he uses the collective voice when he talks of cannibalism. He always says “we”, never implicating himself alone in these actions, though other depravities which are arguably just as horrific are admitted to without hesitation. He orders the execution of men, but this is commonplace for others of his social and political standing. There is acceptable precedent for his actions as a governor, but not as a hungry, cannibalizing human. It seems that being a cannibal is not something Percy is comfortable with.
When identity is debased to the bare bones of ego, when it degrades into the most basic difference between I and not-I, the not-I becomes more personally defined, and even corporeally defined by the boundaries of one's own skin—not skin color, but actual skin, the largest and most protective organ of the human body, which is also the first barrier of the recognizable self. Our skin keeps us from looking like meat, keeps our faces from appearing as something other than wet skeletons. Skin made Narcissus gaze into the water. Skin makes human faces look human.** So when Percy looks in the mirror, he doesn't want to admit, “I am a cannibal.” Instead, he would rather surround himself with his fellows—his writing illustrates this desire. The distinction between I and we is important; it is the difference between collective dread and isolated horror.
Dread becomes horror when the liminal lines break, when the act of approaching abjection (eating rats and horses, dogs and cats, and placenta) crosses over into complete immersion in taboo (cannibalizing one's own species, friends, loved ones), and perhaps it is here, on the other side of defilement where we are the most uncomfortable, where we must call into question our own identities, both as individuals and as members of a social contract.
*This seemed relevant to the placenta debate, so last week, over dinner, I read this section aloud to my husband.
**Placenta has neither face nor skin, which is an argument for classifying the placenta as a viable piece of meat.
All George Percy quotes taken from A Trewe Relacyon, by George Percy (Mark Nicholls’s transcription)
Rachel G. White is a Creative Nonfiction MFA student at the University of Iowa.