As British colonialist expansion brought traders, whalers and missionaries to the South Pacific, gruesome tales of cannibalism among the savage natives they encountered began to trickle back to a horrified public at home.
To the civilized sensibilities of the British, the thought of 'godless men' consuming the flesh of their slain enemies was an abomination, the high mark of immorality. Captain James Cook – explorer, cartographer, and eventual main course at a Hawaiian warriors' banquet – wrote of the New Zealand Maori: “Few consider what a savage man [is] in his original state. […] This custom of eating their enemies slain in battle has undoubtedly been handed down to them from the earliest times. It is not an easy matter to break a nation of its ancient customs [that] let them be so inhuman and savage, especially if that nation is void of all religious principles.”1
The horror generated by these cannibalistic practices was used to justify the suppression or elimination of native populations on the basis of racial, cultural, and moral superiority over “primeval savagery”. The colonial project was not only about expanding whaling and trade routes, but also of civilizing a 'godless and savage' world.
The great irony in all this Eurocentric 'Age of Empire' arrogance is that a popular culture of cannibalism existed simultaneously among the British people, as it did in other civilized European countries at the time. They drank human blood, ate human flesh, made ointments from human fat, and manufactured drugs from powdered human skulls. Nearly every part of the human body was used to treat the ailments and afflictions of the day: hair, brain, heart, skin, liver, urine, menstrual blood, placenta, earwax, saliva, and feces.2
For hundreds of years, Europeans – rich and poor, educated and illiterate – routinely participated in acts of cannibalism. When acknowledged at all, corpse medicine is thought of as a few bizarre, but isolated, folk remedies relegated to the ancient and medieval periods. But in reality these cannibalistic healing practices were widely used, and the peak in their popularity coincided with the social and scientific revolutions of the Renaissance and the Early Modern Era... and in Britain they remained popular right up through the Victorian Age.