Hans Staden Among the Tupinambas
Grand Voyages to America (1593)
Theodor de Bry
Harry J. Brown
In 1552, Hans Staden, a young Hessian, signed on with a Spanish
expedition to Brazil, found himself shipwrecked in the land of the infamous
Tupinambas, a tribe imagined throughout Europe as dog-headed man-eaters
who breed, fatten, and butcher human children as civilized men do with
pigs. Staden soon discovered that these were not the Cynocephali
of legend (Lestringant 15) but a tribe a of cannibals with a healthy
hatred of the Spanish and Portuguese who had for years made cruel and senseless
war on them. Since Staden had wrecked with Spaniards, the Tupinambas bound
him and prepared him for execution as they stoked the fires under the boucan
and the communal cooking pot. Staden pleaded vigorously while they
executed his shipmates with a large wooden mace, swearing to heaven he
was not a Spanish enemy but a French ally. Konyan Bebe, the Tupinamba chief,
challenged the frantic German to prove that he was neither Spanish nor
Portuguese, but French. "I have already captured and eaten five Portuguese,"
the chief threatened. "They all claim to be French -- but they lie!" Staden,
who did not speak French, improvised by answering in a nonsense language
that sounded enough like French, and unlike Spanish, for Bebe to spare
him from the boucan (Rosenstiel 29).
In 1557, Staden returned to Europe and compiled a narrative of his capture, complete with graphic woodcut prints depicting cannibalism and other elements of Tupinamba life. The story was an immediate sensation, a fantastic tale of an unfortunate but ingenious European stranded among the savage cannibals, published 162 years before Daniel Defoe would write Robinson Crusoe. The images in Staden's The Captivity of Hans Staden of Hesse, in A.D. 1547-1555, Among the Wild Tribes of Eastern Brazil occupy a significant place in the history of the European colonizing project. Though the woodcuts themselves are crude, their iconography is spectacular. They are earliest published images based on interactions with Native Americans themselves. Previous New World travel accounts were either unillustrated or their illustrations were taken from popular myths (Philadelphia Print Shop). So Staden's woodcuts, in the vehicle of captivity narrative, provided the popular European audience with their first authenticated look at Indians.
The woodcuts also provided later publishers such as Theodor de Bry not only a source for their own illustrations of the New World but also immense commercial appeal. These cannibals were not the mythological Cynocephali found in European folk tales since the Roman era but something much more familiar and disconcerting. These Tupinambas were families who lived, worked, and raised children together not unlike European families did. They shaved their heads into tonsures that reminded Staden and other European visitors of the quiet monks back home. They played jokes, laughed, and were loyal and generous to their friends. But there was also something very un-neighborly about these Brazilian Indians. They were demonically cruel to their enemies. They buried Portuguese prisoners to their waists and threw darts at their heads and torsos for sport. They bound prisoners from enemy tribes by the waist, spit on them, challenged them to die a courageous death, and ritualistically brained them. Then they butchered the corpses of the vanquished enemies and cooked them on a wooden barbecue called a boucan, while old women dabbed their fingers in the fat dripping away from the flames, old men reclined contentedly in hammocks, and children played ball with the discarded heads and plucked out their eyes as if they were plucking cherries (Lery 129).
For an opportunistic publisher and engraver like de Bry, such a scene had phantasmagoric potential in the popular market and could also serve a more political agenda. The Inquisition forced de Bry, a Protestant, to flee his native, Spanish-controlled Flanders and set up his operation in Frankfurt. In 1590, de Bry and his two sons began an ambitious project called Grand Voyages to America, a widely circulated series of volumes filled with previously published accounts of New World exploration and de Bry's own exquisite copper plate engravings. Before his death in 1598, de Bry published eight volumes, and between 1599 and 1634, his sons published twenty-two more. Assisted by the Oxford cosmographer Richard Hakluyt, a strong proponent of English colonization of the Americas, de Bry used his Grand Voyages to popularize accounts of French, English, and German explorers and generate publicity throughout Europe for a Protestant colonizing project that could compete with that of Catholic Spain and Portugal.
Even as the use of more advanced printing techniques spread and de Bry and other publishers abandoned woodcuts for copper plate engravings, the fantastic iconography produced by Staden's adventure among the Tupinambas evolved into more detailed, elaborate forms but remained elementally the same throughout the latter half of the sixteenth century. The image here is a reproduction of a copper plate engraving from the third volume (1593) of de Bry's Grand Voyages, the "Brazil" volume containing Staden's Captivity (1557) and Jean de Léry's History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil (1578) reissued in Latin, English, French, and German. Like many of de Bry's engravings, it presents a spectacularly violent view of the New World. Still, on its surface, the image remains somewhat ambiguous in its "meaning," or ideological import. In the upper left, de Bry depicts a man reclining in his hammock and chatting amicably with his family while an execution takes place only a few feet away. The figures in the background stand in poses suggestive of Graeco-Roman statues, while those in the right foreground disembowel a corpse with the matter-of-factness of a couple of Frankfurt butchers. In the center, a woman collects the severed limbs, preparing them for the boucan, and in the left foreground, a child plays with the severed head, appearing both cherubic and horrific. These striking ambiguities must have simultaneously shocked and fascinated de Bry's readers, who, like the bearded figure of Hans Staden at center, were quick to denounce the practices of the cannibals as paganistic and savage, yet were nonetheless inclined to lean in for a closer look. Why did de Bry juxtapose images of peaceful domesticity with images of extreme brutality? Why did he inscribe a humanistic idealization into this portrayal of quintessential "savagery"? And why was this type of portrayal often used to justify the conquest and slaughter of the same Indians it sought to idealize? To answer these questions, we need to look beyond the image itself, to the cultural context of de Bry's Grand Voyages. What we find suggests that these popular visual representations of Native Americans were shaped as much by political and religious conflicts in the Old World as by actual observations of the people of the New World.
Collaborating with Hakluyt, de Bry published the initial volumes of Grand Voyages intending to generate grass roots support for a Protestant program of exploration and colonization that would eventually break up the Catholic monopoly in the New World. In order to do this, de Bry first had to ensure that a large number of his books would be bought and circulated. Having never set foot in America himself, de Bry imitated Staden's woodcuts in the engravings for the third volume and wisely capitalized on their already well-established popularity. But Staden's images were rough and undetailed, and copper plate engraving had evolved into a more sophisticated and commercially viable technology since they were first circulated as woodcut prints in 1557. So de Bry dressed up Staden's initial images of the cannibals as slicker, more marketable products. Sacvan Bercovitch explains that it was de Bry's eye on the market that partially motivated him to use classical conventions in his depictions of the Indians, such as the postures of the figures around the hammock. This, he says, was "the image European book buyers would expect" (Bercovitch 67) since the myth of the subhuman Cynocephali had already been disproved by Staden and others. Classical motifs also lent themselves to moral allegory, reinforcing the Protestant missionary belief that although these cannibals acted as savages, they were inherently human and therefore redeemable to Christianity. But, according to Bercovitch, this attempt to idealize the Indians in Graeco-Roman forms also strips the Indians of their cultural and racial attributes: "On the one hand, [de Bry's] assimilation of the [Indians] to a mythical model of universal humanity implies that in their own guise they fall below the human form. On the other hand, it expresses the view that they can be raised up" (67). In other words, de Bry emphasized the Indians' potential humanity by negating their actual humanity.
Nevertheless, de Bry's visual "humanization" of Staden's Tupinambas
did mark progress in Europe's understanding of the mysterious Canibali
of the New World. Most obviously, the natives of Brazil were no longer
seen as the half-animal aberrations they were thought to be only fifty
or sixty years before. De Bry demythologized the cannibals in other ways
as well. Like the accounts of Staden and Léry, de Bry's images attempted
to locate cannibalism within its proper cultural context. They introduced
the idea that cannibalism was not simply demonic but part of a complex
social system of war, retribution, and inter-tribal relations, as reflected
in the detail of the ritual execution of the prisoner. In this context,
Léry explains that if one refuses to share in the communal
repast, as Staden does here, it is interpreted by the Tupinambas not as
a moral decision against
eating human flesh but as a sign of disloyalty (Lery 128). The images also
dismissed several persistent myths about cannibal practices. Previous iconographies
had the Indians set up in European-style butcher shops, stringing up fresh
cuts of human limbs on the walls or quartering a torso with European knives
and cleavers. De Bry presents a more authentic scene, with the Tupinambas
eviscerating a body on a makeshift wooden table and roasting the crudely
butchered meat on a boucan.
As we see in Staden's protesting stance, these insights could not make Europeans sit down to dinner with the Tupinambas, nor could he make them approve of them, but it did bring them one step closer to understanding them. With understanding comes sympathy. Travelers like Staden and Léry, who had spent time among the Brazilian cannibals, had returned with positive impressions of their society (Lestringant 94). They were praised both for their openness and generosity to their French friends and their cruelty to their common enemies, the Spanish and Portuguese. Although these favorable accounts of the cannibals were mostly by-products of intra-European rivalries, they, with de Bry's accompanying engravings, were the first signs in Europe of a sympathetic "multicultural" view of native Americans. The accounts and images in Grand Voyages would later inspire Montaigne to write "Of Cannibals" that "one calls 'barbarism' whatever he is not accustomed to" (Montaigne 113) and eventually evolve into the idea of the "noble savage."
But de Bry's attempt to humanize the cannibals in the eyes of his European audience was not motivated entirely by enlightened goodwill. As I have mentioned, his plan in Grand Voyages was to promote Protestant colonization and to denounce Catholic colonization. De Bry's reimagining the Indians more human was part of his plan to vilify the Spanish conquista. In 1599, de Bry's sons published an edition of Bartolomé de Las Casas' Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, with engravings of the barbaric cruelties Las Casas alleges that the Spanish inflicted on the Indians. The volume had burnings, flayings, dismemberments, "savaging" with dogs and other assorted tortures, all fantastically illustrated to provide even the illiterate audience with an idea of just how nasty Catholics can be (Conley). Because of their edition of Las Casas' Short Account and the general vilification of the Spanish conquista in Grand Voyages, de Bry and his family are often credited with Las Casas with the invention of the "Black Legend" (Hulme 113), popular accounts of Spanish colonial atrocities that generated enough anti-Spanish sentiment throughout Europe and even within Spain itself to destabilize Spanish power in the New World (Gibson).
Though not denying that the Spanish did brutalize the Indians, Anthony
Pagden points out in his introduction to Las Casas' Short Account
that the Black Legend itself was mostly a corruption of Las Casas' original
idealism, an "instrument of Anglo-Dutch propaganda" (xiv) very much in
agreement with Hakluyt and de Bry's intent in Grand Voyages. As
part of the first volume, de Bry reissued Thomas
Hariot's A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of
Virginia (1588), a clear proposal, in Robert F. Berkhofer's view, that
the "natives were readily available for English colonization and exploitation"
(17). In the same volume, de Bry also published John Smith's Generall
Historie of Virginia, accompanied by his characteristic images
of massacre. But this time it's the saintly colonizers, calmly eating at
their tables, who are attacked and slaughtered by the not-so-Graeco-Roman
Algonquians (Hulme 135). With slashed mothers and children occupying the
center of the scene, de Bry's humanizing idealization of the Indians is
put on hold.
The image informs our understanding of his depiction of the Tupinamba cannibals as well. Though he made them more "familiar" with scenes of peaceful communal life and classical European physical forms, it seems he did so in order to turn them into more useful victims, to give Spain's slaves a human face and consequently stir up sympathy for the more "benevolent" Protestant colonizers. They retain their basic pagan inferiority, their barbaric habit of cannibalism that Europeans, like their representative Staden, must disapprove of. At their best, when they are obstacles to Spanish colonial interests, de Bry's Indians have shapely bodies and humble souls. At their worst, when they are obstacles to Protestant colonial interests, they degenerate into the howling, contorted, blade-wielding baby-killers ubiquitous in colonialist propaganda. For de Bry, the Indians, although "human," were still ripe for enslavement, just not by the papists who had driven him and his family from Flanders. And the cannibals? They were quaint, just as long as it was a Spaniard on the butcher block.
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