Too salty

Too salty

In Brief

Musing on "Dignam's potted meat," Bloom thinks of people who actually do consume human flesh: "Cannibals would with lemon and rice. White missionary too salty. Like pickled pork." His thoughts here draw on a host of 19th century reports of South Seas cannibalism, in places like Fiji, Sumatra, New Guinea, New Zealand, and Australia.

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Gifford calls the "too salty" idea a "Legendary (and quasi-cynical) explanation for the survival of missionaries." However legendary some of the stories may be, Bloom is accurately reflecting a number of accounts of Pacific island cannibalism that appeared in the English-language press. On the James Joyce Online Notes website, Harald Beck cites one instance of the idea that cannibals spice human flesh with lemon juice, in a history of Sumatra that was reproduced in an 1814 issue of Evangelism Magazine and Missionary Chronicle: "When mortally wounded, they run up to him as if in a transport of passion, cut pieces from the body with their knives,—dip them in a dish of salt, lemon-juice, and red pepper,—slightly broil them over a fire prepared for the purpose,—and swallow the morsels with a degree of savage enthusiasm."

Beck identifies numerous sources for the idea that white men's flesh was considered too salty. The Diary of a Working Clergyman in Australia and Tasmania (1859) contains this entry from 1852, which was reproduced in the 30 June 1859 Irish Times: "This is the first time I could ever get a confession of cannibalism out of a native. I have been told that the blacks cannot endure a white man's flesh. They say that it tastes very salty, and is highly flavoured with tobacco" (170). The 24 November 1871 New York Times reproduced an account of practices on Fiji from another published source: "At these disgusting carnivals the bodies of native boys of twelve to fourteen years of age only are eaten. From earliest childhood these subjects are fattened for the horrid feast. . . . The native boy flesh is for the palates of the Chiefs only. That of the white man is considered too salty and smoky, and is not regarded as toothsome."

Such reports continued into the 1880s, when Bloom was a young man, although Beck does not cite any published in Ireland. The 1887-88 Transactions of the Annual Meetings of the Kansas Academy of Science published a report by Joseph Savage called "The Pink and White Terraces of New Zealand," containing the following: "Mr. Snow called a congress of these ex-cannibals, and they told him of their former ways of living, killing their enemies and afterwards eating them; all of which we will omit, except this: That white men and sliced missionary were too salty for their taste."

The Pall Mall Gazette of 10 September 1889 printed a story under the headline “Among the Man-Eaters of North Queensland,” which noted that "when you call them cannibals you must remember that human flesh is a very rare luxury, for they only eat foreign tribes. Native tribes, I mean, for the flesh of the white man is nasty to their palate. He has a salty flavour, which is very disagreeable to them." The same article continues: "I never saw a cannibal feast, but every night in their huts the talk was of women and human flesh. . . . I gathered that white man was no good – too salty. Chinaman was not half bad. He fed on rice and had a tender vegetable flavour about him, like a mealy cauliflower. But of all varieties there was nothing so sweet as a native baby – so sweet, so juicy, so fat so tender."

It is probably impossible to determine the veracity of the reports of aversion to white flesh, but much of the surrounding context is clearly factual: cannibalism was indisputably practiced by many tribes in the region, dozens of European missionaries were killed by hostile natives, and some of them were eaten. (In 2009, near Rabaul, tribesmen on the island of New Britain formally apologized to Fiji's high commissioner to Papua New Guinea for their Tolai ancestors' killing and eating of four British missionaries in 1878.) Victorian newspapers regularly titillated their readers with reports of cannibalism in the South Seas, particularly in the Fiji islands, which were known as the Cannibal Isles. Bloom seems not to be indulging in "legend" so much as reflecting on what his culture "knew" about life in the South Seas.

JH 2015
"A Cannibal Feast in Fiji, 1869. The meat, the fire, the cooks," photograph of a reenactment published in Edward Reeves, Brown Men and Women: or, The South Sea Islands in 1895 and 1896 (1898). Source: Wikimedia Commons.
2011 cartoon by Slawek11. Source:
Tribesmen in Papua New Guinea today. Source: