Cannibals apologise

It’s not just a matter of having your neighbour for lunch, apparently

Of all the apologies to have to make, surely one of the most awkward must be over the small matter of having eaten someone's great-great-grandfather. This, however, is precisely what the inhabitants of Erromango, part of the South Pacific island state of Vanuatu, are doing.

A hundred and seventy years ago, the distinguished missionary career of the Rev John Williams came to a premature end when he and his companion James Harris stepped ashore on Erromango's Dillon Bay. Unfortunately, recent European visitors had killed some inhabitants, and consequently the newcomers' welcome was violent and brief. When a Royal Navy ship later arrived at the island, as Williams's great-great grandson Charles Milner-Williams explains in this BBC report: "The islanders then said that, yes, they had killed and eaten both Harris and Williams."

Milner-Williams and 16 other relatives have just taken part in a reconciliation ceremony during which the place where their ancestor landed was renamed Williams Bay. A local MP, Ralph Regenvanu, says that many of the (now overwhelmingly Christian) islanders thought that their home may have been placed under a curse because of the killing of Rev Williams and were keen to make reparation. But he also hastened to point out that:

Cannibalism, contrary to what a lot of people think, was traditionally a very ritualistic and sacred practice. It was not something like, you know, have your neighbour for lunch. It was practised in a very ritualistic way and was considered to be a very sacred activity. A lot of the time it was a way of vanquishing a threat, absorbing the power of an enemy. John Williams may have been eaten because he represented this threat, this incursion of European civilisation that was coming into Erromango at that time.

The practice of cannibalism exerts a peculiar horror for us, although, if one accepts the idea of some kind of physical ensoulment, it is not entirely without logic. The philosopher Ted Honderich, for instance, once told me that he was convinced that the Hawaiian islanders ate Captain Cook "because they knew he was a great man". (As Ted's wife, Ingrid, then added sagely: "Yes, you'd fortify yourself greatly by eating someone else.")

Not to make light of this in the least, but apart from societal taboos and various medical reasons, I'm not quite sure what the, say, atheist, utilitarian arguments against cannibalism would be. However repulsive it sounds, I can see why an extreme libertarian might argue that if a body is merely a collection of dead flesh and bones, then why not? Some people do eat placenta (a UK mothers' website even has a page with recipes). Others happily donate their bodies to medical research . . . though any doctor can tell you tales of the mischief students get up to with cadavers: disrespectful is not the word. And as was noted in a trial that received a great deal of attention in 2003, cannibalism is not even against the law in Germany.

None of this is to diminish the importance of the gesture the people of Erromango have made. But I have to say that, given the actions of Europeans carving out their empires with the bible and the sword in the 19th century, I don't blame the islanders for attacking the next white men to land on their shores -- even if putting them in the cooking pot was a bit de trop.

 

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Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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The joy of only winning once: why England should be proud of 1966

We feel the glory of that triumphant moment, 50 years ago, all the more because of all the other occasions when we have failed to win.

There’s a phrase in football that I really hate. It used to be “Thirty years of hurt”. Each time the England team crashes out of a major tournament it gets regurgitated with extra years added. Rather predictably, when England lost to Iceland in Euro 2016, it became “Fifty years of hurt”. We’ve never won the European Championship and in 17 attempts to win the World Cup we have only won once. I’m going to tell you why that’s a record to cherish.

I was seven in 1966. Our telly was broken so I had to watch the World Cup final with a neighbour. I sat squeezed on my friend Colin’s settee as his dad cheered on England with phrases like “Sock it to them Bobby”, as old fashioned now as a football rattle. When England took the lead for the second time I remember thinking, what will it feel like, when we English are actually Champions of the World. Not long after I knew. It felt good.

Wembley Stadium, 30 July 1966, was our only ever World Cup win. But let’s imagine what it would be like if, as with our rivals, we’d won it many times? Brazil have been World Champions on five occasions, Germany four, and Italy four. Most England fans would be “over the moon” if they could boast a similarly glorious record. They’re wrong. I believe it’s wonderful that we’ve only triumphed once. We all share that one single powerful memory. Sometimes in life less is definitely more.

Something extraordinary has happened. Few of us are even old enough to remember, but somehow, we all know everything that happened that day. Even if you care little about the beautiful game, I’m going to bet that you can recall as many as five iconic moments from 50 years ago. You will have clearly in your mind the BBC commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme’s famous lines, as Geoff Hurst tore down the pitch to score his hat-trick: “Some people are on the pitch. They think it’s all over. It is now”. And it was. 4 - 2 to England against West Germany. Thirty minutes earlier the Germans had equalised in the dying moments of the second half to take the game to extra time.

More drama we all share: Geoff Hurst’s second goal. Or the goal that wasn’t, as technology has since, I think, conclusively proved. The shot that crashed off the cross bar and did or didn’t cross the line. Of course, even if you weren’t alive at the time, you will know that the linesman, one Tofiq Bakhramov, from Azerbaijan (often incorrectly referred to as “Russian”) could speak not a word of English, signalled it as a goal.

Then there’s the England Captain, the oh-so-young and handsome Bobby Moore. The very embodiment of the era. You can picture him now wiping his muddy hands on his white shorts before he shakes hands with a youthful Queen Elizabeth. Later you see him lifted aloft by his team mates holding the small golden Jules Rimet trophy.

How incredible, how simply marvellous that as a nation we share such golden memories. How sad for the Brazilians and Germans. Their more numerous triumphs are dissipated through the generations. In those countries each generation will remember each victory but not with the intensity with which we English still celebrate 1966. It’s as if sex was best the first time. The first cut is the deepest.

On Colin’s dad’s TV the pictures were black and white and so were the flags. Recently I looked at the full colour Pathe newsreel of the game. It’s the red, white and blue of the Union Jack that dominates. The red cross of Saint George didn’t really come into prominence until the Nineties. The left don’t like flags much, unless they’re “deepest red”. Certainly not the Union Flag. It smacks of imperialism perhaps. In 1966 we didn’t seem to know if we were English or British. Maybe there was, and still is, something admirable and casual about not knowing who we are or what is our proper flag. 

Twelve years later I’m in Cuba at the “World Festival of Youth” – the only occasion I’ve represented my country. It was my chance to march into a stadium under my nation’s flag. Sadly, it never happened as my fellow delegates argued for hours over what, if any, flag we British should walk behind. The delegation leaders – you will have heard of them now, but they were young and unknown then – Peter Mandelson, Trevor Phillips and Charles Clarke, had to find a way out of this impasse. In the end, each delegation walked into the stadium behind their flag, except the British. Poor Mandelson stood alone for hours holding Union Jack, sweltering in the tropical sun. No other country seemed to have a problem with their flag. I guess theirs speak of revolution; ours of colonialism.

On Saturday 30 July BBC Radio 2 will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1966 World Cup Final, live from Wembley Arena. Such a celebration is only possible because on 16 occasions we failed to win that trophy. Let’s banish this idea of “Fifty years of hurt” once and for all and embrace the joy of only winning once.

Phil Jones edits the Jeremy Vine Show on BBC Radio 2. On Saturday 30 July the station celebrates the 50th anniversary of the 1966 World Cup Final live from Wembley Arena, telling the story of football’s most famous match, minute by minuteTickets are available from: www.wc66.org