Cannibalism was long associated with the indigenous peoples of the Americas and Sub-Saharan Africa. It acquired new meaning when abolitionists used it to dramatize the suffering and death of slaves who produced sugar for European consumption. Abolitionists turned the tables on Europeans by accusing them of being cannibals when they ate sugar tainted with the flesh and blood of slaves. White abolitionists and black abolitionist Olaudah Equiano also famously wrote that Africans believed white people were cannibals. Europeans were rarely pictured as cannibals—this was a literary trope. The pro-slavery caricature by Gillray shown here is a sensationalized exception.


Blood, Sweat and Tears
"Celui qui boit mon sang, mes sueurs et mes larmes … me refuse un morceau de pain et m'assomme," frontispiece, engraving. In Jean Marsillac, Le More-lack, ou Essai sur les moyens les plus doux & les plus équitables d'abolir la traite & l'esclavage des négres d'Afrique. London and Paris, 1789.

This frontispiece for an anti-slavery tract, likely written by a European posing as a slave ("Le More-Lack"), emphases the blood, sweat, and tears expended by a slave in producing the sweetened beverages on the table in this West Indian scene. While the image shows a white man beating a hungry slave, the even more horrible specter of white cannibalism is raised only in the inscription ("Those who drink my blood, my sweat and my tears … refuse me a piece of bread and beat me").


William Fox, An Address to the people of Great Britain on the propriety of abstaining from West Indian sugar and rum. [London], 1791.

Fox's pamphlet was widely circulated, and helped promote the idea that sugar was contaminated with the blood and flesh of the suffering slaves who made it.

Nay, so necessarily connected are our consumption of the commodity the misery resulting from it, that in every pound of sugar used, (the produce of slaves imported fromAfrica), we may be considered as consuming two ounces of human flesh.

A French writer observes, 'That he cannot look on a piece of sugar without conceiving it stained with spots of human blood.'


Caricaturing Atrocity on a Sugar Plantation
James Gillray, "Barbarities in the West Indias," hand-colored etching, 23 April 1791.

Gillray appropriates the abolitionist trope of white cannibalism, transforming a sugar vat into a cannibal's pot. The slave is reduced to desperately waving appendages that set up a ghastly resonance with the black arm and ears tacked up on the wall next to some vermin.

This pro-slavery print is a satiric effort to discredit testimony given before the British Parliament during debates on ending the slave trade.  The testimony claimed that a white slave driver had thrown a slave into a vat of boiling sugar as punishment. Caricature depends on exaggeration, and here Gillray maximizes the horror in order to show how supposedly absurd abolitionist testimonies of such atrocities were.


Cannibal Hell
"Brasiliaensche Klendigen", engraving. In Simon de Vries, Curieuse aenmerckingen der bysonderste Oost en West-Indische verwonderens-waerdige dingen. Utrecht, 1682.

In a hellscape compressed into the foreground, these Brazilian natives represent the height of exotic barbarism; wearing elaborate headdresses, they cook a human in a pot.  Animal parts and a human leg hang overhead.  This grisly collection of parts eerily resonates with the one on the wall in Gillray’s Barbarities, published a century later.  While the British caricature is deeply satiric, this Dutch print indulges in a bit of wit by way of contrast: the cannibals’ cooking pot echoes the round bath containing indigenous Virginians in the Arcadian background.


Elegant Cannibals
[Scene of cannibalism], engraving. In Hans Staden, "De voorname scheeps-togten" issued as a part of Naaukeurige versameling der gedenk-waardigste zee en land-reysen na Oost en West-Indiën. Leiden, 1706.

Tupinamba (from Brazil) prepare a human victim for boiling in this engraving that illustrates a republication of an early account (1557) by Hans Staden of cannibalism in the New World. Unlike Gillray's monstrous slave driver, the cannibals in this early eighteenth-century engraving are represented as idealized nudes. The standing female in the center manages a graceful pose as she raises the victim's severed arm. Horror and aesthetic pleasure are both on offer here.


Blood in the Refinery
"Des Friches, [Scene in a boiling house]," engraving.  In Henri-Louis Duhamel du Monceau, Art de rafiner le sucre. [Paris], 1764.

This illustration comes from a detailed account of sugar refining in Orleans. Cattle blood was used in the refining process—revealing yet another link between blood and sugar beyond those made by abolitionists a few decades later. The cask labeled 8 (on the left) contains cattle blood.  According to the text, such casks were usually placed outside the boiling house because of the bad odor. The author claims that when the refinery was at full capacity, it was necessary to import cattle from Paris to provide enough blood for the process of clarifying the liquid sugar extract.


Blood, Refinement, and Pollution
“Sugar bakers,” hand-colored wood engraving. In Cuffy the Negro’s doggrel description of the progress of sugar.  London, [1823].

This page showing sugar refining in England (rarely pictured) makes a sly double reference to blood, refining, and pollution.  As the verse below the image suggests, the baker seems to be adding a dark liquid, like blood, to the sugar cones: this references both the practice of clarifying sugar with cattle blood (see image to the left) and the abolitionist campaign against “blood sugar.”


Exhibition may be seen in Reading Room from SEPTEMBER 2013 through december 2013.

K. Dian Kriz (Professor Emerita of History of Art and Architecture, Brown University), guest curator, with assistance from Susan Danforth (Curator of Maps and Prints); Elena Daniele (JCB Stuart Fellow 2012-13), curatorial assistant.