New Work Forum: On Food and Populations in Cevasco’s Violent Appetites

Image courtesy of wikimedia commons.
Image courtesy of wikimedia commons.

By Kate Luce Mulry

A well-fed and numerous colonial populace enhanced imperialists’ military power and colonizers’ claims to sovereignty over the homelands of Indigenous peoples in northeastern North America during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Not only did colonizers aim to remove Native communities and replace them with their own, but they also sought to increase their populations to fend off the incursions of rival empires. They required numbers to “invade a continent” (21). Without food they would be unable to feed the armies and navies that maintained and violently extended European empires. Imperial authorities also sought “stable populations of colonizers and colonized labor” (173); more colonists would oversee the labor of Native and enslaved people they required to cultivate colonial commodities. As Carla Cevasco reveals, “an abundant food supply would be key to this effort to maintain and control populations” (174). Colonizers fantasized about which populations would eat and which populations would starve.

Cevasco’s innovative book reinterprets the histories of settler colonial projects in northeastern North America by centering hunger and ideas about hunger in her analysis. Instead of a land of plenty, she introduces readers to hungry colonists and anxious imperialists. In the northeast, numerous people with vastly different experiences with and cultural understandings of hunger and food came together. While acknowledging the violence, disruption, and displacement of Native peoples that were features of European imperialism in North America, Cevasco also emphasizes how their ability to sustain communities and survive hunger demonstrates critical forms of resistance and resilience. Colonizers, including the English and French, arrived with fewer resources for surviving food insecurity whereas Indigenous peoples possessed a broader range of survival strategies. By highlighting the knowledge that enabled Native peoples to survive the food scarcity that accompanied colonial incursions, Cevasco reveals stories of Indigenous resistance to European imperialism, including fighting “hunger with ethics of reciprocity” (172).

Colonizers often claimed that the health of their bodies and their growing colonial populations offered symbolic evidence of their suitability to North American environments. At the same time, they asserted that hungry or ill Indigenous bodies were not suited to their homelands. Colonists regularly denigrated Native peoples and claimed they were “incapable of properly feeding themselves” (4). This was one of many rhetorical strategies designed to justify their imperial projects. But if colonists claimed their own bodies were better suited to Native homelands, their rhetoric masked the reality of the colonizers’ own hunger. What did it mean if the colonists were constantly hungry and required the assistance of Indigenous peoples to survive in North America? How could they maintain a pretense of imperial power when they struggled to survive and experienced constant waves of food vulnerability? Moreover, as Cevasco reveals, this period of food precarity lasted far longer than most historians have recognized and anxieties about and memories of their vulnerability to hunger continued to shape colonizers’ actions “long after the reality of it” (13).

Preventing hunger was important to colonial and Indigenous peoples alike, in part because they understood the potential connection between food scarcity and social and political instability. For example, British authorities recognized that hunger often led to resistance among borderland soldiers, whereas “feeding people was a primary means of controlling them” (170). As imperial authorities sought to increase their own numbers while violently displacing Native peoples, they sought more food. The English and French invaders understood food an instrument to achieve social and political control. While colonizers sought to deploy hunger as a weapon, Native peoples responded with a range of resources and knowledge about food in their homelands to combat and survive periods of scarcity.

But colonists’ concerns about food were not limited to quantities of food. They were also deeply concerned about food quality, and particularly desired familiar foods. In other words, defining hunger was also about defining what constituted food. Indigenous people had “hunger knowledges” (8) – defined by Cevasco as the many “ways that people respond to and survive hunger” (8) – that allowed them to be more flexible about what to eat and how to eat a range of foods. Colonists, on the other hand, had fewer defenses against hunger and were less familiar with the variety of foods that might be foraged and consumed for survival. According to Cevasco, “Ignorance about North American landscapes, about wild food provision, and about how to eat a diverse diet more generally, placed the invaders at a tremendous disadvantage to Indigenous hunger knowledges” (90). Moreover, colonizers feared their health, appearances, and identities might be transformed by eating unfamiliar or taboo foods, which put any imperial project at risk. A rhetoric of disgust served colonizers’ purposes. Criticizing to the so-called savagery of Native diets became another strategy by colonists to justify their colonization. Leveling claims about widespread cannibalism was one such rhetorical maneuver to reinforce colonizers’ narratives about Native communities’ savage or animal-like appetites as opposed to their own civilized appetites. However, time and again, colonizers’ own “hunger profoundly challenged colonists’ narratives of their superiority over Native peoples” (91). Imperial authorities sought to enhance colonial populations and imperial stability by securing food, but Violent Appetites reveals the persistence of colonists’ hunger and anxieties about food scarcity.

Kate Luce Mulry is a historian of medicine, the body, and the environment in the early modern Atlantic world. She is an associate professor of history at California State University, Bakersfield, and is the author of An Empire Transformed: Remolding Bodies and Landscapes in the Restoration Atlantic (New York University Press, 2021).

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