The History of Consumption and The Cannibalistic Nature of Whiteness

Home Race The History of Consumption and The Cannibalistic Nature of Whiteness

Europeans devouring Egyptian mummies. The Donner Party cannibalizing their Indigenous American guides. White people have consumed the Other in many ways.

TW/CW: This essay discusses cannibalism, murder, lynching, suicide, and bodily mutilation 

Mercy Brown was not the first to die. Her mother and sister had already gone, nearly a decade before her. Still, Mercy would be blamed for the unfortunate luck of the Brown family, which would ultimately lose four of its members to tuberculosis. The disease was often referred to as consumption because of the way that those who fell ill appeared to be consumed from the inside, their bodies shrinking as the disease advanced. When Mercy followed her mother and sister to the grave in 1892, the New England family’s neighbors began to suspect that the cause of these deaths was vampirism. But not the kind of blood-sucking vampirism that has been sensationalized in entertainment media over the past 150 years—though, Mercy’s story would help to inspire Bram Stoker’s Dracula. This kind of vampire would gradually drain the life from their victim from afar, and the consumed would slowly wither and die. 

Mercy’s brother, Edwin, was deathly ill now, and they wanted to save him. So they exhumed the bodies of the fallen family members. The mother and sister were almost fully decomposed after years of decay, but Mercy’s body did not appear to have changed at all during the months it had been entombed. It was the cold winter weather that had helped to preserve her, but the exhumers were convinced that it was because Mercy had been the vampire all along. She had been draining the life from her family members for years, and ridding her of her power was the only way to save Edwin from becoming her next victim. 

They cut out Mercy’s heart and liver, burned them, made the ashes into a tonic, and fed it to Edwin. He died a few weeks later. 

One college professor at my alma mater used to say, “White people are the most vampiric race.” I keep coming back to this simple, piercing truth, again and again. One of the defining aspects of whiteness and white supremacy, in my eyes, is its vampirism. Its indulgent consumption. When I think on Mercy Brown, vampirism, and what consumption does to a body, it inevitably brings me to white supremacy—and not just because tuberculosis is also known as the White Plague. It’s not even because a history of medical racism has led to a recent outbreak of the disease in a predominantly Black community, or because health disparities across racial lines causes it to more adversely impact BIPOC. 

The thought of vampirism and consumption bring me so easily to the doorstep of white supremacy because it is an entity which, too, requires the consumption of the Other in order to subsist. Beyond that requirement, consumption is often simply yet another gruesome byproduct of white supremacy and colonialism. Yes, I do mean consumption in a literal sense, as well as a figurative one. 

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If you’ve ever wondered why Egyptian mummies are so rare, it’s because wealthy Europeans ate them. Between the 12th and 17th centuries, while pilfering the continent for goods, resources, artifacts, and Africans themselves, colonizers also looted and exoticized Egyptian tombs. Mummies were ground up into medicines and consumed by the elite, believed to be a remedy for various ailments and an infusion of life-energy from the spirits of the dead. When Egyptian mummies became scarce after hundreds of years of eating them, corpses from other parts of North Africa and Guanche mummies from the Canary Islands were instead exported and sold to European apothecaries. But even as they engaged in cannibalism for their own selfish indulgences, one of the primary ways that Europeans demonized Indigenous peoples was by naming them all as savages and cannibals. 

Colonizers have not limited their use of racial cannibalism to the medicinal. They have also used it punitively and vindictively. During the genocidal King Leopold II’s occupation of the Congo (1885-1908), Belgians massacred more than 10 million Africans. Most were forced to work for the Anglo-Belgian India Rubber Company, and were severely punished if they did not meet their rubber quota. In Don’t Call Me Lady: The Journey of Lady Alice Seeley Harris, there is a black and white photo of a Congolese man named Nsala, seated at the edge of a porch. His eyes are fixed on the severed hand and foot of his 5 year-old daughter, Boali. The Belgian militia had cut them from her body before killing her and her mother. To further exact their cruelty, they ate Nsala’s wife and child. They did this because he had failed to meet his rubber quota for the day. 

The thing about white supremacy is that it does not merely subsist through the consumption of the Other; it whitewashes by de-emphasizing and lessening these misdeeds and others. History looks very different when white people are not the protagonists in its retelling. A significant instance: the accepted and well-known white feminist narrative about the Salem Witch Trials of the 1600s is that it was a hysteria driven by rampant misogyny and a pointed persecution of white women, the survival of which they harken to as evidence of their historical resilience. I prefer to think of it, more accurately, as a community of racist, religiously-intolerant enslavers and colonizers of stolen Native land cannibalizing itself—and I wish it had finished its meal instead of begetting centuries of white people who would gorge on the lives and cultures of Black and Indigenous folks.

As the Donner Party traveled across the U.S. as part of a violent westward expansion in 1847, a small group that broke off from the larger party became stranded without food in a grueling wintery hellscape. So, they conspired to murder their two Native American guides, Salvador and Luis, for food. The two men ran away, but were found a few days later and were swiftly eaten, the only members of the party to be hunted and murdered before they were cannibalized. Salvador and Luis are rarely spoken of when the story is told to relay the suffering and survival of the people who ate them. In the version of the story that tells the truth about colonialism and the violence it requires, the Donner Party are the monsters, not the damsels. 

The Transatlantic Slave Trade was a monstrosity of boundless proportions. Its enormity altered the world in a multitude of ways and none were/are more changed by it than Africans and their descendants. Many Africans believed—or, rather, knew—that white people were cannibals and feared that they would be taken away and consumed, like the others who had disappeared and not returned once white people began to arrive on African shores. Fear of white cannibalism on the ships carrying Africans to other lands was indeed palpable, and often led to attempted mutiny and escape or suicide by jumping into the waters below. 

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Olaudah Equiano recalls being teased by a ship captain who threatened, in jest, that Equiano would be killed and eaten by the crew if food ran out. As such, the peril of being consumed was also used as a tool of terrorism and to enforce discipline among the enslaved. Manuel Barcia’s “White Cannibalism in the Slave Trade: The Curious Case of the Schooner Arrogante” details the case of Portuguese slavers accused of having killed and consumed one of the 300 Africans they were holding on their vessel. Though they were dismissed by the British Jamaican courts, Barcia believes it likely that this act of cannibalistic murder absolutely did occur. 

Some captives may or may not have been eaten by their captors on these Transatlantic voyages (and it is my belief that they were), but they were definitely eaten by sharks. The predators were known to follow ships traveling from Africa so that they could feed on the bodies of those thrown overboard or who plunged into the ocean to escape a harsher fate. It has been suggested that this was so significant that it caused a change in shark migration patterns in the Atlantic. However, that part is still only speculation. Regardless, the presence of the sharks encompasses another foul thing about white supremacy—that it enables, facilitates, and engenders the consumption of the Other in more ways than one.

In 1934, Claude Neal was lynched in Florida, and his murderers forced him to eat his own genitals before hanging him. Thousands attended the spectacle, and his fingers and toes were kept as souvenirs by a few. When his body was taken down by authorities, local whites rioted and demanded that his body be strung up again, because they wanted to see it. They wanted to take it in, to ingest, and digest it. Not only did they make Neal cannibalize himself, but they demanded that they now be granted the ability to consume even more of him. Lynchings and their gruesome aftermath were—and are—acts of white consumption of Black flesh, in one way or another. 

When Nat Turner was lynched after leading his famed insurrection in 1831, white people feared that he would “rise from the grave and rebone himself.” And this, apparently, was one reason why they consumed his body. In The Southhampton Insurrection (1900), William Sydney Drewry recorded that Turner’s body was skinned by doctors, parts of his flesh boiled down to make grease and others dried to be fashioned into a man’s money purse. They were also said to have used his remains for medicinal purposes, much in the same way Egyptian mummies were devoured. Vincent Woodard, author of The Delectable Negro, views this act of making Turner’s body into things to be possessed and perform ongoing service to their lives as a “limitless consumptive use.” And this, to me, is a concise way to describe what white supremacy and its enactors do with our bodies, whether living or dead. 

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The consumption is continuous and it is, indeed, about the uses of our bodies. Police and white vigilante murder of Black folks is a consumption of Black life, as is the subsequent spectacle and display of the victims. Black life and death become used towards white supremacist interests, to fulfill the needs of the nation-state and sustain the colonial empire. Vampiric consumption—much like the kind Mercy Brown was accused of—is a slow drain on our energies, meant to help keep the beast alive and satiated. White supremacy is an ugly, hungry thing. 

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