Even among the most lurid topics, few are quite so shocking as cannibalism. It’s one of humanity’s oldest taboos, but it also carries problematic implications - especially in the 19th century. As Europeans continually encroached upon Indigenous peoples’ territory during this time, rumors of supposed cannibalism were used to justify Europeans' belief that they were superior to people groups.
While there were isolated incidents of voluntary cannibalism committed by Indigenous people against Europeans in the 1800s, most cases of Victorian cannibalism during this period occurred out of necessity - usually, by voyagers who became trapped in remote locations.
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Some Victims Of The Great Irish Famine Ate Those Who Had Died Before Them
In the early 1840s, almost half of Ireland’s population relied exclusively on potatoes for nutrition, and many of these people were subsistence farmers. When a form of water mold that causes potato blight arrived in 1845, it drove many of those Irish to desperation.
Although Prime Minister John Peel’s government did send relief efforts to the country that year, his successor, John Russell, believed in a laissez-faire form of capitalism - in other words, he didn’t believe the government should get involved in the economy. As a result, about 1 million Irish perished due to famine by 1851, with another 2 million forced to emigrate to countries like the United States.
As can be expected in a famine, some Irish resorted to cannibalism. Parish priests recorded incidents of cannibalism in Counties Cork, Gallway, Kerry, and Mayo, detailed in the 2020 documentary The Hunger: The Story of the Irish Famine.
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Sailors On The Yacht ‘Mignonette’ Ate Their Cabin Boy
In 1883, an Australian lawyer Jack Want, a yachting enthusiast, traveled to England to purchase a new pleasure vessel. He landed on the Mignonette, a 52-foot vessel best suited for short voyages on calm seas.
The only way for Want to transport the yacht home was to hire a crew to sail it, and after considerable difficulty, he did. The crew consisted of four people: Captain Tom Dudley, Edwin Stephens, Edmund Brooks, and 17-year-old cabin boy Richard Parker.
The ship set out in 1884. On July 5, when the yacht was anchored near the Cape of Good Hope (about 700 miles from land), a large wave capsized the vessel, forcing Dudley to order the crew to abandon ship. The only provisions the crew could salvage were an improvised anchor and two tins of turnips - and most importantly, no water.
Around July 20, Parker became extremely sick after drinking both saltwater and his own urine. Believing him to be on death's door, and noting that he was the only member of a crew without a family, the remaining survivors decided to kill Parker and consume his remains. They were rescued just nine days later.
Once they returned to England, Dudley and Stephens were accused of murder and ultimately sentenced to six months in prison. The case in which their fate was decided, R v. Stephens and Dudley, established a key legal principle in British common law that even extreme necessity does not excuse murder. The case continues to be studied in law schools.
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The 1890s Rinderpest Plague Led To Grim Cannibalism Stories In Ethiopia
Ethiopia's climate makes agriculture a prosperous business. Even so, the country experienced at least 23 major famines between 1540 and 1800.
By the 1880s, Ethiopia found itself caught in a conflict between its Egyptian neighbors to the north, as well as colonial adversaries from Italy. In 1887, an invading Italian army imported Indian cattle infected with rinderpest, a virus that primarily affects cattle.
The virus wiped out livestock populations in Ethiopia and surrounding countries, and eventually infected wild animals. On top of that, an invasion of locusts and caterpillars in 1889 wiped out many of Ethiopia's crops, leading to widespread famine and isolated cases of cannibalism, according to contemporary reports.
One writer, Mikael Aragwai, offered insight, “Mothers have cooked and eaten their own children. Terrible things take place which I cannot write," but the writings of Afewerk Gabre Yesus were more detailed. He described an exchange between one woman and the Emperor:
“Have you really eaten human flesh?” the sovereign asked her. “Yes, Your Majesty,” she replied, “being hungry I ate seven children.”
When asked about where she found the children, she said she “had strangled them where she had found them playing.”
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The Icebound Sailors Of John Franklin’s Expedition May Have Cracked Open Bones To Eat The Marrow
Sir John Franklin’s 1845 attempt to discover a northwest passage through the Arctic should have gone much more smoothly than it did. He was an experienced explorer with a crew of 129, and they brought along five to seven years’ worth of food. The mortality rate for this sort of job was only about 1%.
The plan was to make a multi-year voyage on two ships, which would freeze into the ice during winter but could theoretically break free in summer. Unfortunately for Franklin and his men, the ice didn’t thaw, and they remained stuck until 1848.
At that point, Franklin and company decided to travel over 1,000 miles on foot to the nearest trading post, through a region scarce in food. Nobody made it more than 200 miles, and scientists have been recovering remains ever since.
Many of those remains have cut marks on them, indicating butchering and cannibalism. A 2016 study in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology determined some of the bones had been broken to access the marrow inside.
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Cannibalism Was Observed In The Great Persian Famine Of 1870-'71
Since the dawn of agriculture, variations in weather have caused famines that led to cannibalism. From 1869-70, almost no rain fell during the winter in many parts of Persia, AKA modern Iran.
By 1871, grain prices became so high, the average Persian family's income could only afford one-10th of the food necessary to sustain themselves for a year. This led to the Great Persian Famine of 1870-71.
According to researcher Shoko Okazaki, who published an account of the famine in 1986, food shortages forced Persians to consume dogs, cats, rats, other animals, grass, and dung, as well as human remains. According to reports, parents ate their children, and Muslim Persians disinterred Jewish cemeteries to consume the remains.
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Inhabitants Of Erromango Killed And Ate Two Missionaries
This is one of the few instances in which 19th-century cannibalism was committed voluntarily and not out of necessity. Erromango is a small island that today is part of the nation of Vanuatu in the South Pacific. When Europeans first made contact in the 18th century, the population was an estimated 5,000 people, but disease and violence soon lowered that number.
This story begins in 1839, when an Australian sandalwood trader visited the island and killed two sons of a local chief. In response, Indigenous locals banned foreigners from their territory, erecting boundary warnings to send the message.
Weeks later, two Christian missionaries, John Williams and Jacob Harris, landed on the island and either didn’t notice the warnings or didn’t understand them. Locals killed and ritually cannibalized them to symbolically consume the strength of a vanquished enemy.
In 2009, descendants of Williams traveled to the island for a reconciliation ceremony.