Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Five Cases of Survival Cannibalism

Tuesday's going to be a very busy day, so I'm writing this a few hours in advance, to post early Tuesday morning. Sometime between now and then, the weatherman says, my part of Maine may get the first snow of the season. It's unlikely, but the snow/rain line will be very close to Augusta; we may see some flurries, and they'll have snow to the west.

This news brings a superstitious dread, especially since we barely had a summer this year. My kitchen pantry is full of soup, boxes of oatmeal, and a giant bag of popcorn that I have no idea why I bought (I don't particularly like popcorn, though I'll eat it at the movies). If we're snowed in, Dizzy and I have about a week's worth of food before we start looking for fresh meat.

It's important, and it's all because of the Donner Party. I don't remember how old I was when I first heard the story; it was probably in Girl Scouts, in third or fourth grade. The Donner Party had 87 members when it left Missouri, and only 46 of them made it to California. Some of them were food along the way.

I don't know how far I'm willing to go to stay alive, and I hope I never have to find out. I keep these five stories in mind whenever I start to run low on rice.

1. The Siege of Maarat, 1098. The First Crusade was not very well planned. The Crusaders made it to the Middle East and defeated the infidels at Antioch, but started to run out of supplies. The knight Robert Pilet led a siege against the walled town of Maarat, south of Damascus in what is now Syria. After several defeats, the Crusaders ultimately built a siege tower and made it into the Maarat walls — where they found that the city was not as wealthy or well-stocked as they had hoped. As Bohemond of Antioch and Raymond of Toulouse squabbled over who was entitled to the conquered city, the soldiers inside its walls starved — and started roasting and boiling their enemies. Several contemporary historians reported that the Crusaders dined on the dead bodies of Saracens; the horror of it comes through in the narratives, though the historians hastened to reassure their readers that a) the crusaders only ate pagans and b) those eaten were already dead, not killed for the purpose. Finally the Crusade continued south to Jerusalem, and Maarat was left in ruins.

2. The St. Francis Raid, 1759. During the French and Indian War, New Hampshire ranger Robert Rogers led an attack on the Abenaki village of St. Francis, Canada. Rogers and his band of about 140 men slaughtered the village, including women and children — Rogers estimated the death toll at close to 300, though French accounts reported it as much lower. In retaliation, French forces pursued Rogers' men from Canada down into New York; Rogers broke his group into smaller bands of 10-15 men apiece, which made them all more vulnerable. They lacked supplies, got lost, and many were killed or captured. Lieutenant George Campbell led a group of starving men to a cabin whose inhabitants had been killed by Indians; seeing the scalped bodies, the men ate human flesh without even taking the time to cook it. Separately, Rogers butchered a female Indian captive, and divided her flesh among his men. The survivors of the raid who eventually made it back to Fort Crown Point, NY, were hailed as heroes. Rogers lived another 35 years, dying in 1795 at the age of 64.

3. The wreck of the Medusa, 1810. The subject of an immortal painting by Theodore Gericault, the Medusa was a French Navy frigate that was on its way to Senegal, to receive the port city of Saint-Louis from the British. Its passengers included the newly-appointed governor of Senegal, Colonel Julien-Desire Schmaltz, and his wife. The Medusa ran aground off the coast of Mauritania, thanks to a combination of ignorance and arrogance that continued after the wreck. The sailors built an unwieldy raft, to be towed by the Medusa's boats. It was nowhere near large enough or sturdy enough to carry 147 passengers and crew, and had no room for supplies. Some of the crew stayed with the ship; others rowed away in longboats, without the raft. Those on the raft were left to their fate. They had wine casks instead of water; they had no real food. By the fourth day, only 67 were left alive, and some had already resorted to cannibalism. By the 12th day, when rescue finally came, only 15 survived. Five of those died within a week of rescue.

4. The Donner Party, 1846–47. Eighty-seven people left Missouri in the wagon train led by George Donner, his brother Jacob, and James Reed. They took a new, untested route that had been advertised by a real estate promoter. The snows came early, and by the end of October they were stuck in the Sierra Nevada. A group of 15 settlers — 10 men, five women — decided to try to get to Sutter's Fort on foot, and set off in mid-December wearing homemade snowshoes. They got lost and caught in a blizzard. Two men and five women made it to Sutter's Fort a month later, having resorted to cannibalism along the way. When the First Relief reached Donner Lake in February, they found the survivors weak, but living on boiled ox hides. Sometime during the week before the Second Relief arrived, however, the survivors had begun to eat their dead. The last man rescued alive, Louis Keseberg — in April 1847 — was charged with (but not convicted of) the murders of several of his fellow travelers, mainly because he spoke with such ease of eating human flesh.

5. The Cospatrick fire, 1874. 477 passengers and crew left Gravesend, England for Auckland, New Zealand in September 1874. On November 17, some 400 miles southwest of the Cape of Good Hope, the Cospatrick caught fire. Only two lifeboats made it into the water, though the ship had five. Of the 61 people who made it into those lifeboats, only five men were still alive ten days later, when they were rescued by another ship, about 500 miles northeast of where the Cospatrick had burned. The survivors had lived — barely — by eating the bodies of their companions; two of the five had gone mad, and died within days of being rescued.


Sue Lin said...

One of the great experiences of touring the Louvre is seeing "The Wreck of the Medusa." The sheer size and power of that painting is like nothing you'll ever experience. Like this blog - Ric Burns's PBS documentary on the Donner Party is truly haunting and very well done.

Anonymous said...

My usual lunch time treat is to read your blog at my desk while I eat. I'm going to save today's post for this evening.

SteveHL said...

Have you ever seen the film, Northwest Passage? It's a 1940 movie about Roger's Rangers. They do show one member of the Rangers who eats one of the Abenaki. It's an amazingly strong sequence, considering when the film was made.

Also, I imagine you are familiar with W. S. Gilbert's "The Yarn of the Nancy Bell", but if not, here it is. It's the only comic poem about cannibalism that I know. (Or non-comic poem either.)


AnswerGirl said...

Kenneth Roberts' great adventure novel NORTHWEST PASSAGE is how I know about Robert Rogers; I had forgotten they made a film version, and I've never seen it. Thanks for the recommendation!

Anonymous said...

Not a poem per se but check out "Cannibal! The Musical". It's a film Trey Parker made in college (his first film I think) about Alferd Packer.

Obviously it is silly and it's nowhere near the standard of the comedy he does now but it's still worth a look.