Taming Cannibals: Race and the Victorians by Patrick Brantlinger

Sejuti Sneha Serah Roy


Brantlinger, Patrick. Taming Cannibals: Race and the Victorians. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011. 288 pp.


The argument presented by Patrick Brantlinger in this final installment of a trilogy is prefaced by his earlier scholarly projects, Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830 – 1914 (1990) and Victorian Literature and Postcolonial Studies (2009). The trilogy expatiates on the concept of Victorian literature as subject to postcolonial criticism, and Taming Cannibals may very well be considered a coming to fruition of Brantlinger’s prior two texts. His critique is predicated on a pair of mutually reinforcing historical premises: first, the self-congratulatory rhetoric of the Western civilizing mission that, at the same time, is persistently undermined by the impossibility of ‘complete civilization’ for the non-Western savage; and second, the sacral issue of race which deeply informed the Victorian intellectual ethos and also closely colluded with the projects of imperialism and colonialism. Brantlinger further emphasizes how the high priests of Anglo-Saxon racial superiority were, on the one hand, complicit with the colonial project but were, on the other, themselves haunted by a specter of racial degeneration. Much of this was owing to their proximity with inferior Others and/or racial supplantation by a more evolved species. Through such an historical lens, Brantlinger finalizes his exploration into the Victorian era in this enjoyable and well-researched monograph.


Drawing on literary texts from a wide variety of genres ranging from novels, poetry, journalistic treatises, travelogues and memoirs, Brantlinger makes quite an eclectic case about how inextricably enmeshed the Victorian literary imagination was with the subterranean virtues of its professed ‘humanitarian’ missions (49-58). The first major section of Taming Cannibals, titled “Two Island Stories,” begins by comparing the unequivocally antithetical twin island missionary experiences at Fiji and Tasmania, respectively. Brantlinger notes the differing colonial climate on each island. In Fiji, Chief Thakombau was coerced into “voluntarily” agreeing to lotu [convert] to Christianity and renounce warfare and cannibalism (42-3). Conversely, on the island of Tasmania, where the indigenous inhabitants “were overrun and [nearly] exterminated by British convicts and settlers,” missionaries and humanitarians led by George Augustus Robinson were said to have arrived just in time to intervene and prevent a “complete annihilation” (46). Brantlinger himself doesn’t spare more than a passing remark on this prospect, yet the conscientious reader cannot help but interrogate the actual transparency of Robinson’s ostensibly named “Friendly Mission” (47), which, despite all its good intentions, failed to save the last vestige of the Tasmanian Aboriginals. Brantlinger also fails to shed sufficient light on the conflict of interest between the apparently morally righteous imperialists and the more spiritually driven missionaries, reserving comment for the unfortunate times in history when the two purposes might not necessarily have appeared discretely distinguished.


“Racial Alternatives” — the second section — makes for an interesting read. Brantlinger deftly discusses the “going native” instances of “nabobs,” “Pakeha Maoris” and “white blackfellows,” gleaned from both fiction and non-fiction works produced in the Victorian era (70-5). Brantlinger sees these racial “backsliders” as men from the West who demonstrated the kind of cultural hybridity that Homi K. Bhabha alludes to in The Location of Culture (76-8). However, Brantlinger poignantly points out that, as early as in the eighteenth century, the same men had come to be viewed with suspicion by their racial counterparts as harbingers of the imminent business of Anglo-Saxon racial degeneration (78-80). Brantlinger explains how the “Race question” was molded into an all pervasive presence: “Over time, […] racism becomes inscribed in laws, institutions, languages, and cultures in ways that make it more than a matter of individual prejudices” (10). And it is precisely this idea that is germane to his analysis of Benjamin Disraeli’s conservative politics that found articulation in his excessive “philo-Semitism” vis-à-vis the robust anti-Semitism that he was subjected to throughout his career (94-108). Brantlinger creates space for the reader to reflect on how greater ideological (im)position might be subjugated to serve a local, personal agenda, albeit, without acknowledging so.  


The penultimate section, entitled “The 1860s: The Decade after Darwin’s Origin,” corroborates this issue of manipulating ideology to serve a local agenda further by interrogating the linguistic shift from the term “racial degeneration” to “biological degeneration,” a shift that reoriented the underpinnings of the race crisis from social to scientific (127-35). Aided by anthropometry and the widespread acceptance of Darwin’s theories of natural selection — which were based on monogenism — what could only be described as scientific racism entered the Victorian socio-cultural and intellectual discursive fields (114-18). As a result, Social Darwinism had become the order of the day, comfortably accommodated within the Malthusian population discourse, which advocated for moralistic population control tactics to circumvent a food shortage catastrophe. Moreover, increasingly negative consequences of racial division —  characterized by Francis Galton’s eugenics movement, the emaciated Irish condition battered by the Great Famine, which subsequently lent itself to Matthew Arnold’s stereotyping of “the ‘immaterial,’ ‘sentimental,’ feminine, and ineffectual Celt” (145), the rate of unemployment, the burgeoning London slums and the consequent horror in encountering Britain’s own manifestations of the “lower orders” or “the residuum” (127) — began to surface as the new plague afflicting the hitherto pristine, enlightened, invincible, colonial superpower  that was Victorian Britain. So, the undesired refuse of the colonial frontiers also had counterparts at home.


Calling the final section “Ancient and Future Races,” Brantlinger traces the arc of the Victorian race imbued inventiveness in a rather judicious manner by focusing his analyses on texts which span the dual temporal frameworks of past and future. In the former category are placed H. Rider Haggard’s novels which are, quite paradoxically, both skeptical and affirmative of the imperial colonial project: glorifying the ethnographic dimensions of Victorian archaeology in its unraveling of a lost civilization, while also damning the inklings toward necrophilia and putrefaction in the Anglo-Saxon imaginings of the Oriental psycho-sexual landscape. So much so that Brantlinger offers an “indication of Haggard’s vivid porno-tropic imagination[:…] ardent love or lust doesn’t lead to fulfillment within the confines of the real world but is typically canceled by death” (175). If the axis of the past is delineated through the Haggardian perspective, then that of the future hinges on the Wellsian trajectory. According to Brantlinger, H. G. Wells’s scientific romances, along with similar publications by other Victorian science-fiction writers, represent that other turn in contemporary racialistic thinking — nothing short of a paranoia — that had gripped the age (183). Reflecting the previously established concerns of a Malthusian catastrophe, in fictional realms, as well, the hapless Victorians had also to worry about being over-run by a superior race — perhaps giant carnivorous ants or heartless machines? Galton’s eugenics could only do so much.


At this juncture, Taming Cannibals takes a shift in tone and Brantlinger gives a curious reading of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). He offers that not only would Dracula have stoked people’s fears through positing oneself as a “demonic version of a super-race,” but he is equally fearful as the protagonist of an “industrial novel,” one who demonstrates sufficient relish for the technological inventions of the times — typewriters, a Kodak camera and a wax cylinder phonograph, to name a few (196). This discussion is followed by what may be summarized as his musings on the status of art in an age of mechanical reproduction, which nevertheless reads occasionally as a bit strained. Shortly thereafter, slipping into pondering the chimera of the (post)modern age with its technological ingenuities, Brantlinger sounds a near note of resignation in echoing historian G. M. Trevelyan’s opinion, which he paraphrases as

the new mass men and women, creatures of the mass media, would overwhelm the world as a self-replicating population of mental zombies, sucking the life’s blood out of genuine culture and marching, like Stoker’s vampires or Karl [sic] Čapek’s robots, into totalitarianism and disaster. (202)

Finally, the epilogue appends enjoyable rejoinders to the infamous exhortations of Rudyard Kipling and his “white man’s burden” on both sides of the Atlantic (203-25). Lastly, Brantlinger critiques how despicable our existence has been rendered under the aegis of American neo-colonialism.


Overall a well researched monograph, this volume further contributes to Brantlinger’s dedicated engagement with the Victorian Studies project. Undoubtedly, the trilogy as a whole is a substantive addition to scholarship devoted to this area. However, greater clarity in Brantlinger’s discussion of a few points would, I think, have lent a greater sense of decisiveness to the dialogue. For example, while disentangling the close nexus between Victorian literary productions and imperialist colonialism, it is mandatory to debunk the race question as being informed not only by a naïve scientific reasoning logic, but at a more immediate level, by the economic determinism of the time. For how can one forget the kind of un-scientific scramble for the racist paraphernalia in which those most unapologetic scientists had indulged? Or the actual motivations behind the Orientalist projections culled from the Empire at the Great Exhibition (1851)? By eliminating the fundamental material coordinates that consistently fed the Victorian colonial, state and socio-political policies, Brantlinger unwittingly leaves half the argument in lurch to catch up from behind.


Works Cited


Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994. Print.

Stoker, Bram. Dracula. Eds. Nina Auerbach and David J. Skal. New York: Norton, 1997. Print.




Currently pursuing an M.Phil in English at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, Sejuti hopes to deploy critical tools acquired from her immediate training in literary criticism to explore the Cultural Studies paradigm in its ever expanding scope, through a substantial mooring in theoretical formulations. While strictly believing in an “over determined” view of literature; her project aims to weld the innate virtues of literary criticism with allegedly ‘non-literary’ approaches.



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