15 April 2010

Just when you thought it was safe to collect shells you get eaten by the natives

This is from the August 1891 issue of The Nautilus:

I have just learned through Mr. Rossiter, of the Island of Noumea, that Mr. de Latour and his son (from whom I have received so many new shells from Aura Island, New Hebrides) have been murdered by natives; Mr. Garrett was wont to tell me of the great danger to be encountered by these collectors in these islands from the natives. When he was collecting in some of these islands he was obliged to be a walking arsenal and would never trust a native behind his back for fear of being stabbed and dragged off into the bushes and eaten.
New Hebrides was the former name of a group of islands now called Vanuatu. A Google search using the string "New Hebrides cannibalism" returned more than 38,000 hits. Most of the hits appear to be 19th century or early 20th century hearsay accounts. Here is an example from 7 October 1899 New York Times:

The 1st paragraph gives an idea how many times the "news" must have been told and retold took before it reached New York. It's amazing that "reputable" newspapers took such stories seriously. The provenance of the item from The Nautilus was equally murky: it was an excerpt from a letter sent to Henry Pilsbry (the editor) by a Dr. W.D. Hartman who had heard the murder story from a Mr. Rossiter and the perilousness of the islands from a Mr. Garrett.

This is not to say that New Hebrides was a safe place for Western shell collectors; it probably wasn't and ritualistic cannibalism may indeed have been performed by the natives. But I suspect most Western accounts of savage, rampant cannibalism in the South Pacific and elsewhere were baloney.



Carl C. Christensen of Hawaii, where there were no cannibals, has e-mailed these clarifications:

Here's another account of the death of Mr. George De Latour and his son: link

Alan Solem briefly noted the event in his 1959 work Systematics of the Land and Freshwater Mollusca of the New Hebrides. You also mention several other individuals important in the history of malacology in the South Pacific. Andrew Garrett (1823-1887) was a diligent collector of land snails as well as marine mollusks whose collection is now held by Honolulu's Bishop Museum. W.D Hartman (1817-1899) published papers on South Pacific land snails in the Proceedings of the ANSP and elsewhere in the 1880s, among them a description of the species now known as Diplomorpha delatouri (Hartman, 1886) from the island of Aore in the New Hebrides. Richard Rossiter (1841-1903) was a malacologist who lived for many years in New Caledonia. Whether the "cannibalism" angle of the story is true or not, I think it is safe to say that field malacology was a rather more adventurous activity then than it is for most of us now.

Deniz Bevan said...

A modern travelogue for these islands: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sex_Lives_of_Cannibals