Cannibal Encounters

Philip P. Boucher, professor of history at the University of Alabama, has set himself a daunting task: to resurrect the neglected and largely forgotten history and identity of a civilization that suffered virtually complete extinction (from disease as well as warfare) in a breathtakingly short time, at the very beginning of European exploration and conquest of the New World.

He strives against a historiographical anti-legacy exemplified by Bryan Edwards, an eighteenth century historian whom he quotes on the West Indian consequences of Anglo-French rivalries: “The disputes and hostilities, which these attempts of the English on the one hand, and resistance of the French on the other, gave rise to, in this part of the world, are no longer interesting, and therefore need not to be brought again to remembrance.”

Using a wealth of primary sources, Boucher in five chapters does his best to set the demise of the Caribs within the contexts of European political and intellectual history, and to construct a narrative of the uneven encounter of two civilizations. He explores the apparently not completely unfounded European myth of Carib cannibalism, and does not ignore the complexities of intra-Amerindian politics and ethnic identity. (His introduction includes a discussion of the literature on the possibly European-imposed distinction between “Caribs” and “Arawaks.”

Boucher’s research is thorough and his contribution to the historiography of the Caribbean and of colonialism is valuable. Students will find his twenty-eight-page bibliography useful. His title is a “modest tribute” to COLONIAL ENCOUNTERS: EUROPE AND THE NATIVE CARIBBEAN, 1492-1797 by Peter Hulme (Metheun, 1986), a book Boucher calls “superlative.”