Scholarly Source: Carole A. Myscofski, “Imagining Cannibals: European Encounters with Native Brazilian Women”

European Exploration, Perception of the Other, and the Columbian Exchange

How did Europeans perceive the new people they encountered and how were they in turn perceived?

Carole A. Myscofski, “Imagining Cannibals: European Encounters with Native Brazilian Women” History of Religions, 47, No. 2/3 (November 2007/February 2008): 142-155

Carole A. Myscofski is McFee Professor of Religion at Illinois Wesleyan University where she teaches courses in women, religion, Native American and Latin American religions and religions of the African diaspora. One of her research interests is women’s religious lives in colonial Brazil.

The naming and categorizing of the peoples of the Americas was, I would argue, central to the conceptualizing of “otherness” in America. . . At first the emphases remained on likenesses, with useful differences noted; only the often-repeated claim that indigenous Brazilian alphabets lacked the letters f, l, and r indicated that the peoples—lacking “fé, lei e rei,” or faith, law, and king—might be cultural blank slates on which new identities might be inscribed. Later, however, church and state alike articulated their problems with the unfamiliar, with “cannibals,” and especially with “cannibal women.” Then the beings who might have been “like us” become “other”; their stories serve not just to titillate the European readers but also to justify violence against them by the colonial powers in the New World and criticisms of them in the Old. . .
. . . In the earliest records of the colonial encounters between Europeans and native Brazilians are found the bases for the relationship that was to be fostered between them in the New World. As the scribes, ship captains, mercenaries, and missionaries wrote, they failed to perceive and describe the exotic in front of them and instead returned to the imagined exotics of Europe: they selected motifs from the European imaginary to fix and manipulate the alterity of America and its inhabitants. Authors and artists alike relied on the well-known conventions of the “wild man,” witch, Amazon, and cannibal to convey the differences they discovered in—or constructed about—the New World. In those Spanish and Portuguese views, people of the New World were portrayed first as possessed of odd and discordant habits and customs but nonetheless compliant and ultimately malleable to the imperial will. As the land and its people presented more resistance to the Portuguese and Spanish missionaries and military leaders, the unfamiliar nature of native Brazilians was represented in increasingly violent terms: Brazilian men suddenly bristled with spears and arrows, and Brazilian women became Amazons, witches . . .
. . . The Portuguese and Spanish accounts of the natives of Brazil reflected less their surprise at their outlandish discoveries and more their expectations about alien populations. Their representations of savages and barbarians in America drew on centuries of Western thought concerning the nature of humankind, the dichotomy between civilization and the wilderness, and the perceived differences—from the perspective of Christian theologians— between the saved and the damned.

Quiz Content

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. What does Myscofski say Europeans originally emphasized in their encounters with new peoples?

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. How did this change?

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. What did the Brazillian lack of the letters f,r,l in their language indicate to the Portuguese?

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. Why did the Portuguese start to write about the natives as cannibals?

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