Hans Standen's True History

A German stood with a rifle in his hands, the heat of the Brazilian coast soaking his bearded face in drops of sweat. He’d followed this same routine for two months now, patrolling the fort that sat next to a river, watching the water flow into the forest just beyond. This daily rhythm had proved so dull that he’d tried to sail home, but was induced to sign on for two more years of duty by the promise of higher pay. And so he remained in the place known as Brikioka.

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Hans Staden's True History

Hans Staden Landing in Brazil

The man’s name was Hans Standen. Of German birth, he’d frequented the Brazilian coast over the last decade, interacting so much with the Tupí-Guarani peoples that lived there that he learned their language — which, needless to say, was a far cry from German. On his most recent voyage he had sailed with the Spanish. His ship, however, wrecked near a Portuguese colony, Santo Vicente. Part of the crew, including Staden, walked from the shoreline to Santo Vicente, a journey of at least a few days on foot. Upon arriving, the Portuguese offered Staden a position none of them wanted to fill: arquebusier of the nearby fort, Brikioka. Staden accepted.

He did well enough in the role, helping to fend off a few incursions by the neighboring Tupinamba nation. The Tupinamba had no love lost for the Portuguese or their allies, as they, like so many other peoples throughout the following three centuries, took exception to the European advancements into their land. The Portuguese, in turn, labeled them as savages, and invented all kinds of strange intellectual machinations to justify their imperial efforts.

Capturing members of Tupí-Guarani nations hostile to their colonization efforts and selling them as slaves proved one of the Portuguese’s favorite means of exploitation. And, on the day our story begins, Hans Staden roamed the forest with a slave given to him by his Portuguese employers, looking for game. That the man meant little to Staden is clear by the fact that his name is never mentioned.

“I had sent my slave into the forest to hunt for game,” Staden wrote. “I wanted to follow the next day to fetch the catch… As I was walking through the forest, loud screaming — such as that made by savages — sounded both sides of the path.” (Hans Staden’s True History, 48)

Staden found himself surrounded, a target of the Tupinamba, whose lands lay near the Portuguese garrison he patrolled. Upon reaching the boats the Tupinamba warriors had come in, a man of power, who Staden calls a king, walked before the German. “He preached and told them how they had captured me, their slave, the Perot (that is how they name the Portuguese). They would now avenge the deaths of their friends on me.” (Hans Staden’s True History, 49)

Hans Standen's True History

Tupí-Guarani peoples engaged in mourning wars.

This was no special case, however, signaling out this strange, bearded German. The Tupí peoples had a long tradition of wars of capture. In the year 1500, the various Tupí-Guarani nations held around 1 million combined souls — the population of Portugal at the time. And though they shared a common language and many other cultural traits, these various groups constantly fought, engaged in a bloody circle of violence that historians and anthropologists now called mourning wars. The object of war was not to kill, nor seize land; enemy combatants were to be captured and returned to the village of the conquerors. This mode of warfare was common in other parts of the Americas, but, if European accounts are to be believed, the Tupí put their own twist on it. And as Europeans penetrated American shores, the disease and increased warfare they brought in their wake not doubt increased the cultural need to revenge and/or replace loved ones lost.

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On the return journey to their village, Staden’s captures hauled up on an island, dragging their canoes ashore, to spend the night, having already traveled 7 miles since leaving Brikioka. (Hans Staden’s True History, 51) As Staden recalled, “When I came ashore, I could scarcely see, for I had been beaten in the face, and I could not walk properly either, because of the wounds in my leg. I had to lie down on the sand. They they stood around me and threatened me, saying that they would eat me.” (Hans Staden’s True History, 51)  

At night, Staden “slept in a net,” anchored, much like his hammock, to the surrounding trees by a cord wrapped around his neck. His captors, too, rested in hammocks, presumably taking turns watching the prisoner. According to Staden, they jeered him, saying, “you are my bound pet.”(Hans Staden’s True History, 51) And while such taunts run in accordance with human nature and the tales of war, conquest, and capture across time and place, it also seems in accordance with human nature that not every Tupí warrior on that expedition mocked their bearded prisoner.

After two days, the canoes carrying the Tupí war party arrived in a place called Ubatuba (though Staden denoted this place name as Uwattibi). (Hans Staden’s True History, 54) Ubatuba was a seaside village, consisting of seven huts surrounded by a wooden palisade where women busied themselves farming manioc. When disembarking his canoe, Staden claims he was forced to shout, “I, your food, am coming.” (Hans Staden’s True History, 54) While this detail sounds fanciful, the following scenes of his memoir most assuredly took place.

Standing inside the village’s wooden wall, surrounded now by the women of Ubatuba, the men having gone to their homes after landing and bringing the canoes ashore to drink and revel in their success, Staden found himself a figure of both fascination and revengeful reproach. The women of the village poked and punched him, pulled at his beard (which Tupí men shaved off), and threatened him. “With this blow,” the women yelled, according to Staden, “I take revenge on you for my friend, the one who was killed by those, among whom you have been.” (Hans Staden’s True History, 54)

During his time as a hostage, Staden bore the brunt of his captors’ scorn. He claims to have received constant threats of execution and to have been a slave under the control of several of the more powerful men among the Tupinamba. But there’s no need to reiterate his whole story hear, as Hans did that himself and several professional historians have written studies of Staden’s travels and what it can tell of us of the Tupí-Guarani and the Atlantic World. Since I want this to be fun, let’s focus in on the part of the tale that Staden and his contemporaries found the most terrifying and fascinating: cannibalism.

Throughout his entire account of his time among the Tupinamba, Staden constantly brings up the villagers’ not so veiled threats to eat him. But, threats are just words. This could well have just been theater, an act put on to terrify their strange white captive, who probably understood far less about Tupí culture and language than he thought. And, obviously, Staden was never eaten, as he lived to write his tale some years later from his hometown, Hamburg, in Germany.

For most of his narrative, Standen uses a highly detailed style, claiming to remember the exact words spoken to him in a foreign language years before he set pen to paper to recount his experiences. This was, probably, largely for his European readers, a way of creating a compelling narrative to help sell books; a narrative, however, based upon his actual experiences among the Tupinamba. It’s not until the end of his book that he takes on a more ethnographic tone — and it is this section, I believe, that holds the truest of Staden’s observations.

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For the Tupí, the act of cannibalism was not one to be taken lightly. It was a highly ritualized ceremony, in which they hoped to ease the death of a loved one killed in battle by taking the life of an enemy combatant. As Staden put it, “They do not do this from hunger…” (Hans Staden’s True History, 127).

In fact, this process of capturing an enemy to replace a relative or friend occurred in other Native American cultures. As far away as southern Ontario, the Wendat practiced their own version of this phenomenon, in which they captured and adopted enemies to replace members of a village killed by disease or war.

But, in the villages that lined the rivers of coastal Brazil, it seems as though a cannibalistic ceremony evolved. From Staden’s account, it looks as though both the captive to be killed and the captors doing the killing had predefined roles, understood throughout the Tupí-Guarani nations that spread up and down Brazil’s coast. The captive must be brave and accept his fate; the captor must strike true, and avenge his loss. Staden gave a brief summary of the verbal exchange the happened just before the execution of a captive:

“Then the one, who is going to kill him, takes back the club and then says [to the captive]: Well, here I am. I will kill you, since your friends have also killed and eaten many of my friends. He answers: When I am dead, I will still have many friends, who are certainly going to avenge me. The executioner then strikes him on the back of his head and beats out his brains.” (Hans Staden’s True History, 137)

This act of bravery by the man slated for death proved so important to the ritual that some scholars have suggested that Staden’s life was spared due to his cowardice at the prospect of his own execution.

According to Staden’s accounts, the women of the village then placed the newly deceased captive over a fire, skinning him, “making him all white.” (Hans Staden’s True History, 137) Once skinned, the men of the village removed the legs and arms from the corpse, which “four women come and seize.” Then, finally, the men split the body open down the back, the women collecting the innards so they could “simmer them, and make a type of mush, called mingau [Mingáu]…” (Hans Staden’s True History, 137)

Staden’s depiction of the actual act of cannibalism ends there, though he does go on to describe how the man who killed the captive took on a new name after the ceremony and received a cut, with the intention of leaving a scar, from the village leader. But while Staden, like most European’s of the time, depicted the peoples among which he lived as savages, the solemnity and awesomeness of the ceremony among the Tupí still found its way into his account (albeit accidentally).  

Staden described how, after receiving the ceremonial cut, the man responsible for killing the captive “has to lie all that day in a hammock, but they give him a small bow and an arrow, so that he can pass the time by shooting into [a target made of] wax. This is done to prevent his arms from becoming feeble from the shock of the slaying.” (Hans Staden’s True History, 137)

“The shock of the slaying.” Clearly this did not constitute a quotidian act, no matter how hard Staden tried to make it appear so throughout his narrative. When such ceremonies took place, those involved clearly paid an emotional toll. The killing did not come naturally, otherwise, there’d be no fear of shock; and, thus, it stands to reason, the eating did not come naturally either.    

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The idea that the Tupí-Gaurani actually practiced cannibalism has come under considerable debate among many historians. Some claim Staden and others created depictions of New World cannibalism in order to justify their urge to colonize to the people at home, and, in Catholic kingdoms, in the eyes of the Pope. Others argue that cannibalism did in fact occur, but urge approaching European documents on the subject with a grain of salt.

In this post, I treated cannibalism among the Tupí-Gaurani as an historical fact simply because it makes for a better blog post. While I highly doubt cannibalism ever played as large of a role in Tupí-Gaurani culture as Staden and his European contemporaries made it seem, it also seems inappropriate to completely dismiss their accounts. Attempting to place the modern aversion to things such as cannibalism onto a group of peoples who lived in a much difference time and place could end up proving just as harmful to our knowledge of the past as fabricated and fanciful accounts.

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Join the conversation! 4 Comments

  1. I have always found some of the details in Stadens ‘tale’ somewhat supportive of his story. Things like the giving a captured warrior a ‘wife’ for the duration of his captivity- why describe that if one is trying to make them out as savages. Or the corking up the guy after slaughter kind of a needless detail to come up with if it was not real.

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  2. Oh and another ‘argument’ same take concerning the length of time and all he witnessed. He had made multiple voyages and might have been able to pick up a basic understanding of the language before his capture.

    While his narrative essentially follows the progression of a warrior from being a warrior to captive to guest to entrée- who said it was the same warrior? He might have witnessed a execution before he saw how they were treated- just timing I guess.

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    • James, thanks so much for the thoughtful comment! This is a really interesting argument. To be honest this type of reading isn’t one I had considered while writing the post, but it makes a lot of sense and is an interesting way to think about travel stories from this period I general.

      Reply
  3. Lots of ‘travel stories’ from this time were colored by the European need for land, gold, souls and slaves. Though admittedly some loca tribes would claim the guys in the next valley were cannibals or had thegold just to get the white man to get a move on! The church saw no problems with slavery as long as they were cannibals.

    Actually I found the more I read of the Tupi’s practices involving cannibalism the more ‘civilized’ they approached the practice!

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