Early American Places


NYU PressNYU Press

Insatiable Appetites:

Imperial Encounters with Cannibals in the North Atlantic World

by Kelly L. Watson

A comparative history of cross-cultural encounters and the critical role of cannibalism in the early modern period

288 pages

ISBN: 9781479877652



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

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 definitive analysis, 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.

About the Author

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.

Insatiable Appetites offers a thoughtful and wide-ranging analysis of cannibalism as a crucial ingredient of European imperialism during the early modern period. Watson finds references to cannibalism as a savage manifestation of disordered sex and gender in the accounts of Spanish, French, and English chroniclers across four centuries before it finally gives way to a new representation of cannibalistic men in the nineteenth century. 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
An insightful study for faculty and graduate readers interested in early modern empires and colonization.
— Choice
Insatiable Appetites provides an engaging comparative study of how a complex, long-standing trope, emerging out of the earliest encounters between Europeans and Amerindians, became a mainstay of European imperial thought for hundreds of years.
— Journal of Interdisciplinary History
In this engaging book based on a 2010 doctoral dissertation, Kelly L. Watson documents the ubiquity of cannibalism as a discursive trope in the literature of North American encounters from 1492 to 1763.
— Journal of Jesuit Studies
This fine book follows untraveled paths, combining fascinating discoveries in new primary sources with refreshing interpretations of a difficult subject.
— Journal of American History
Watson integrates relevant theory with a deft hand, provides a clear overview of the development of cannibalism studies, and makes a clear case for a closer look at sexuality and gender in scholars’ analysis of man-eating.
— Journal of Early Modern History