‘Provisions being scarce and pale death drawing nigh, / They'd try to cast lots to see who should die’

The Justification of Shipwreck Cannibalism in Popular Balladry


  • Duncan Frost University of Kent




Ballads, Cannibalism, Shipwreck, Nineteenth Century, Anthropophagy, Sailors


Ballads actively shaped contemporary popular mentalities and through analysing ballads historians are presented with a world of propaganda and persuasion, aimed at a broad spectrum of society from literate to illiterate. Nineteenth-century ballads describing shipwrecks highlight the moral ambiguities present in extreme life-or-death situations. Many such ballads teach that survival cannibalism was rational, pragmatic, civilised and should be actively encouraged. This article demonstrates how ballads placed cannibalism into a chivalrous context, allowed sailors to vicariously experience the events thereby learning a prescribed ‘ritual’ to follow and made breaking the anthropophagic taboo socially acceptable, even virtuous.

In fictitious ballad narratives, cannibalism is a test of virtue as one person offers their body as sustenance to preserve a starving friend. It is not a horrific departure from civilised attitudes, but a heroic self-sacrifice. Ballads recounting real events of shipwreck cannibalism helped to promote the ‘civilised cannibalism’ ritual of drawing lots to select the victim, placing anthropophagy within a democratic, equitable process. Shipwreck cannibalism ballads offer a contrast to other European descriptions of cannibalism, as the sailor-cannibals are never presented with any of the traits associated with the imagined, non-European cannibal of colonial discourse.


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