The Spectre of Cannibalism in Patrick White’s A Fringe of Leaves

Sukhendu Das


Patrick White’s take on cannibalism in A Fringe of Leaves is a least discussed issue. Australian critics felt uncomfortable to deal with it. Surprisingly, only few non-Australian critics commented on this issue. White’s take is marked by ambivalence as cannibalism tends to stand for both savagery and sacramental. The article seeks to locate White’s discourse of cannibalism within transnational and continental cultural networks. White’s take on cannibalism in the text seems to be caught in an impasse of representation.

Keywords: cannibalism, savagery, sacramental, representation, impasse

Continental Narratives of Cannibalism

Cannibalism is a very old trope in folklore, fairy tale, mythology, gothic tale etc. Trope of cannibalism can also be traced in our contemporary literature, such as Thomas Harris’s 1988 novel, Silence of the Lambs and Yann Martel’s 2001 novel, The Life of Pi. Critics are divided in ascertaining authenticity of the practice of cannibalism. The debate precisely arises from the fine line between actual and socio-religious implication associated with it. Cannibalism is labelled as a taboo in every culture and considered to be the darkest of acts. In certain cultures, however, it is associated with mystic spiritual act.

Cannibalism is a potent trope in colonial discourse which made horror flow across borders. Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is considered to be a blue print for colonialism. It fed the fantasy of ‘savage’ other in Western imagination and tacitly justified expansionist agenda of the empire ang genocide against the ‘savages’. John Curtis’s book, The Shipwreck of the Sterling Castle is in many ways structurally dependent on Defoe’s text. Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal” unabashedly exposes cannibalistic nature of colonial rule in the context of colonised Ireland. However, it would be an error to homogenise Europeans’ responses to colonisers’ atrocity. French Philosopher, Michel de Montaigne in his essay “On Cannibals” argues that Europeans were no less barbarous than so-called ‘savage natives’:

I consider it more barbarous to eat a man alive than to eat him dead; to tear by rack and torture a body still full of feeling, to roast it by degrees, and then give it to be trampled and eaten by dogs and swine – a practice which we have not only read about but seen within recent memory, not between ancient enemies, but between neighbours and fellow-citizens and, what is worse, under the cloak of piety and religion – than to roast and eat a man after he is dead. (Montaigne 113)

Montaigne’s words might also be seen as a critique of inhuman torture in the colony as depicted in A Fringe of Leaves.

Representation of Cannibalism in A Fringe of Leaves

Cannibalism has been employed as a pluri-potent trope in the text. Characters are haunted by the spectre of cannibalism at different points in the text. Captain’s Fraser’s irrational obsession with terror of native cannibalism could be located in the discourses discussed above. Moreover, throughout the late 18th century and early 20th century circulation of apocryphal stories of native cannibalism was an integral part of sea-faring culture. Many of the stories were twisted and re-packaged later. Kay Schaffer points out:

Apocryphal stories similar to these (as recorded in the journal of Johann Reinhold Forster) may have fuelled Captain Fraser’s morbid fear. They may have also aided Captain Green in his ability to embellish his tales of the South Seas, embellishments which were added to the Eliza Fraser story. (Schaffer 109)

Anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere argues that Victorian England had a thriving market for such adventurous stories which enabled flow of it across the continents. Like Captain Fraser, explorers and voyagers used to carry ideological baggage of cannibalism with them:

What is called cannibalism at this period is a British discourse about the practice of cannibalism, rather than a description about its practice. This discourse is initiated by British ethnological inquiry and stimulated in turn by the demands of their reading public…The British discourse has to be understood in terms of a larger pervasive fantasy of cannibalism resulting from European socialization of that period and, more narrowly, from a subculture of sailors with a tradition of the practice of cannibalism that in turn get locked into the primordial fantasy and then, cumulatively, produces shipboard narratives and ballad literature on the subject. (Obeyesekere 641)

Obeyesekere’s contrapuntal reading of ‘British cannibalistic complex’ exposes the politics hidden underneath of such narratives. Robert Dixon also argues that to cater ‘…demands of a reading public for whom travel literature, ethnography and adventure novels were often consumed indiscriminately’ (Dixon 115). It should be noted that 17th century saw a rapid expansion of colony and discovery, which in turn increased sea-faring activities. Cannibalism became a natural phenomenon with white ship-wreck survivors. The liminal environment of marooned island or sea would never impose any taboo on it:

The survivors could calmly talk about the killing and subsequent cannibalism in a matter-of fact manner …When the survivors were formally sentenced to prison (only to be pardoned soon after), they expressed resentment and shock at what they felt was legal harassment. (Obeyesekere 639)

There are numerous instances of white cannibalism in the convict history of Australia. Robert Hughes in his seminal book, The Fatal Shore: A History of the Transportation of Convicts to Australia, 1787-1868 shows how runaway convicts often involved in cannibalism. Alexander Pearce, the only survivor of a party of runaway convicts had brutally murdered his fellow convicts (Thomas Cox was one of them.) and subsisted on their flesh. As Hughes writes:

… [T]he exhausted Pearce was back in the settlement where he told the commandant that he had killed Cox two days before  and had been eating him since…being cut right through the middle, the head off, the privates torn off, all the flesh off the calves of the legs, back of the thighs and loins, also off the thick part of the arms, which the inhuman wretch declared was the most delicious food. (Hughes 225)

Were the Aboriginal Australians cannibals or was cannibalism a product of the British fantasy? There is much disagreement and less agreement among the researchers, historians, anthropologists, ethnographers, explorers and colonists on this issue. The problem is that in many cases primary sources are not properly verified and examined. Researchers mostly rely on pre-existing archives. Aboriginal scholar, Larissa Behrendt in Finding Eliza: Power and Colonial Storytelling observes:

… [T]here is no evidence to prove cannibalism was practised anywhere in Australia, and it would be unjustified, given the unreliability of most evidence, to attempt to identify specific groups by name … It is likely that many observers misunderstood what they were viewing and made assumptions about the acts they witnessed, and possibly mistook metaphorical allusions for literal acts. (Behrendt 131)

It is to be noted that colonists and Aborigines were reluctant to enter into cultural dialogues. The lack of dialogue resulted in a cultural clash, experienced by both sides. Kay Schaffer notes:

Whatever customs (i.e. cannibalism) might have been practised or observed at the time were placed inside available Eurocentric understanding and given meaning within it. The indigenous survivors were never given a voice; the understandings, perspectives and imaginings which they brought to first-contact events have been lost to history. ‘Our’ ethnocentrism produces ‘their’ barbarism. (Schaffer 107)

What established ‘barbarism’ of Aborigines is the depiction of Captain Fraser speared to death by the natives. But two eyewitness, Mrs Fraser and Henry Youlden dismissed it. It is to be noted that discourse of native cannibalism was employed by colonists as a tool to further the frontier of empire. It is also used as an excuse to frontier violence by colonists. Ronald and Catherine Berndt argue that “the Australian Aborigines are not, generally speaking, cannibals who kill other human beings for the specific purpose of eating them … Only a small part of the flesh may be eaten by certain specified relatives” (Berndt and Berndt, 466-70). The practices of cannibalism among the Aborigines can certainly not be homogenised. But the colonial discourse purposefully homogenised this practice for their own sake. Behrendt exposes the politics of homogenisation:

The label ‘cannibal’ made Aboriginal people appear less human and justified their subordination, and their supposed savagery was also used as a rationalisation for denying Aboriginal rights, for taking and occupying Aboriginal land, and for destroying Aboriginal culture. The label camouflaged the atrocities on the frontier committed against Aboriginal people and reinforced racist stereotypes about them. (Behrendt 140)

Etymologically the word cannibalism is thought to be derived from the Caribs of the Caribbean. Needless to say, it is charged with racial overtones. ‘Anthropophagy’ which in Greek denotes eater of human beings, was replaced by cannibalism; and got currency in the writings of Christopher Columbus. Peter Hulme argues:

…to leave ‘anthropophagy’ for those who want to talk for whatever reason – about the eating of human flesh, and reserve ‘cannibalism’…as term meaning, say, ‘the ferocious consumption of human flesh frequently used to mark the boundary between one community and others’, a term that has gained its entire meaning from within the discourse of European colonization. (qtd in Sigrun Meinig, 263) 

Hulme also argues that cannibalism implies more about ideology than about dietary practices (Hulme 86). Captain Roxburgh and shipwrecked crew members started feeling paranoid about native cannibalism. Aborigines are not exclusively cannibals in the text. References to white cannibalism permeate the text. In a dream, Captain Roxburgh eats the dead body of Spurgeon self-disgustedly even before being captured by the Aborigines:

As one who had hungered all his life after friendships which eluded him, Austin Roxburgh did luxuriate on losing a solitary allegiance. It stimulated his actual hunger until now dormant, and he fell to thinking how the steward, had he not been such an unappetizing morsel, might have contributed appreciably to an exhausted larder. At once Mr Roxburgh’s self-disgust knew no bounds. (FL 206)

Captain Roxburgh also dreams of having Captain’s Purdew’s body as a good meal:

Yet his thoughts were only cut to a traditional pattern, as Captain Purdew must have recognized, who now came stepping between the heads of the sleepers, to bend and whisper, This is the body of Spurgeon which I have reserved for thee, take eat, and give thanks for a boil which was spiritual matter … Austin Roxburgh was not only ravenous for the living flesh, but found himself anxiously licking the corners of his mouth to prevent any overflow of precious blood. (207)

The spectre of cannibalism even haunts in a conversation between Ellen and Pilcher, another shipwreck survivor:

And what about your companions? Did they favour eating one another?’

Mr Pilcher swallowed. ‘Some of ’em was eaten.’ (340)

Ellen takes part in a cannibalistic feast with the Aborigines. Patrick White describes the whole incident in a language that is highly ambivalent:

Her stiffened body and almost audibly twangling nerves were warning her against what she was about to do, what she was, in fact, already doing. She had raised the bone, and was tearing at it with her teeth, spasmodically chewing, swallowing by great gulps which her throat threatened to return. But did not. She flung the bone away only after it was cleaned, and followed slowly in the wake of her cannibal mentors. She was less disgusted in retrospect by what she had done, than awed by the fact that she had been moved to do it. The exquisite innocence of this forest morning, its quiet broken by a single flute-note endlessly repeated, tempted her to believe that she had partaken of a sacrament. But there remained what amounted to an abomination of human behaviour, a headache, and the first signs of indigestion. In the light of Christian morality, she must never think of the incident again. (244)

At the time of publication of the novel, many Australian critics felt uncomfortable to deal with Ellen’s participation in cannibalistic feast. Only a few non-Australian critic commented on this issue to date. Canadian Critic, Terry Goldie holds that in A Fringe of Leaves ‘…Aboriginal cannibalism quickly rises from the imperative of hunger to metaphysics’ (Goldie 204). Ethnographers and anthropologists primarily believe that cannibalism plays a metaphorical role in Aboriginal cultures. Taking insights from cultural relativism, it could be argued that cannibalistic feast is culturally equivalent to transubstantiation in the Christian theology. Goldie explains the implications of Ellen’s experience:

Ellen not only participates in the Aboriginal life, she partakes of the Aborigine. If the theory is that the dead person’s powers will be acquired by the eater, the young girl is a perfect choice, established before as ‘inexhaustible’ symbol of youth and beauty. (Goldie 205)

Cannibalism among the Aborigines is part of their cultural system. It is non-gustatory and not driven by hunger. Patrick white’s vocabulary tends to work against this interpretation. But what is more problematic is the ending of the novel. How should we interpret Ellen’s regression to ‘an ordered universe’ of middle-class marriage? Has she been able to live up to her vision? Cannibalistic feast caused Ellen’s ‘headache’. She does not wish to remember her participation ‘in the light of Christian morality’ (FL 244). This testifies to her negation of the spiritual and mystical implications associated with the Aboriginal cannibalism.

Patrick White’s discourse of cannibalism cannot be dealt in isolation. It is to be traced within maritime cultural networks and European discourses on cannibalism. What is more problematic is Patrick White’s modernist narrative which tacitly keeps the trope of noble savage in circulation throughout the text. Undecidability has made White’s discourse locked into an impasse. It is very difficult for any critic of White to take a particular well-defined critical position on this issue.

Works Cited:

Behrendt, Larissa. Finding Eliza: Power and Colonial Storytelling. University of Queensland Press, 2016.

Berndt, Ronald, and Catherine Berndt. The World of the First Australians. Aboriginal Studies Press, 1999.

Curtis, John. 1838. The Shipwreck of the Sterling Castle. London: George Virtue.

Dixon Robert. “Cannibalising Indigenous Texts: Headhunting and Fantasy in Ion L. Idriess’s Coral Sea Adventures” Body Trade: Captivity, Cannibalism and Colonialism in the Pacific, edited by Barbara Creed et al., Routledge, 2001, pp. 112-25.

Faery, Rebecca Blevins. Cartographies of Desire: Captivity, Race and Sex in the Shaping of.

Goldie, Terry. Fear and Temptation: The Image of the Indigene in Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand Literatures. McGill-Queen’s UP, 1989.

Hughes, Robert. The Fatal Shore. Vintage Books, 2003.

Hulme, Peter. Colonial Encounters: Europe and the Native Carribean, 1442-1797. Methuen, 1986.

Meinig, Sigrun. Witnessing the Past: History and Post-colonialism in Australian Historical Novels. Gunter Narr Verlang, 2004.

Montaigne, Michel de. Essays. Translated by J.M.Cohen. Penguin Books, 1993.

Obeyesekere, Gananath. “‘British Cannibals’: Contemplation of an Event in the

Death and Resurrection of James Cook, Explorer.” Critical Inquiry, 21 Dec. 2019,

Schaffer, Kay. In the Wake of First Contact: The Eliza Fraser Stories. Cambridge UP, 1995.

White, Patrick. A Fringe of Leaves. Penguin Books, 1976. (FL stands for an abbreviation of this text)

About the Author:

Sukhendu Das teaches in the Department of English, Bankura University, India. He is pursuing PhD on Patrick White and visited University of Wollongong, Australia in the capacity of Visiting Doctoral Fellow (2017). His research interests include exploration history of Australia, critical theory, gerontology, Anthropocene, transnationalism. He is a member of IASA (ER) since 2013. He has published articles on Patrick White in peer reviewed journals. His forthcoming book from Cambridge Scholars Publishing (UK) includes Reimaging Yeats: Contestations and Negotiations (co-eds) He can be reached at [email protected]