Manage episode 259813506 series 2659594
What forces an entire settlement into cannibalism? In this two-part episode, we’re looking at Jamestown and Leningrad – two stories of the terrible effects of war and famine on a desperate populace.
Written, hosted and produced by Alix Penn and Carmella Lowkis.
Theme music by Daniel Wackett. Find him on Twitter @ds_wack and Soundcloud as Daniel Wackett.
Logo by Riley. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @tallestfriend.
Casting Lots is part of the Morbid Audio Podcast Network. Network sting by Mikaela Moody. Find her on Bandcamp as mikaelamoody1.
- Busch, R. (2014). Survivors of Stalingrad: eyewitness accounts from the 6th Army, 1942-43. London: Frontline Books.
- Clapperton, J. (2007). ‘The Siege of Leningrad as sacred narrative: conversations with survivors’, Oral History, 35(1), pp. 49-60. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/40179922
- Coates, T. (2004). ‘Grappling with Holodomor: thoughts on Timothy Snyder’s “The Bloodlands”’, The Atlantic. Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/01/grappling-with-holodomor/282816/
- Filimonov, A. and R. Coalson. (2018). Cannibal Island: in 1933, nearly 5,000 died in one of Stalin’s most horrific labour camps. Available at: https://www.rferl.org/a/cannibal-island-in-1933-nearly-5-000-died-in-one-of-stalin-s-most-horrific-labor-camps/29341167.html
- History.com. (2019). Battle of Stalingrad. Available at: https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/battle-of-stalingrad
- Jones, M. (2008). Leningrad: state of siege. New York, NY: Basic Books.
- Kelso, W. M. (2017). Jamestown, the truth revealed. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press.
- Killgrove, K. (2015). ‘Skeletons of Napoleon’s soldiers discovered in mass grave show signs of starvation’, Forbes. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/kristinakillgrove/2015/07/25/skeletons-of-napoleons-soldiers-in-mass-grave-show-signs-of-starvation/#1cd86fa73743
- Percy, G. (2012). ‘“This starveing Tyme”; an excerpt from “A Trewe Relacyon of the procedeings and ocurrentes of Momente which have hapned in Virginia”’, in Encyclopedia Virginia. Charlottesville, VA: Virginia Humanities. Available at: https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/_This_starveing_Tyme_an_excerpt_from_A_Trewe_Relacyon_of_the_procedeings_and_ocurrentes_of_Momente_which_have_hapned_in_Virginia_by_George_Percy
- Pocahontas. (1995). [VHS]. Directed by Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg. United States: Walt Disney Pictures.
- Schubel, T. (2016). Patawomeck Tribe in Stafford. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PVjLvzCTS4o
- Vardy, S. B. and A. H. Vardy. (2007). ‘Cannibalism in Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China’, East European Quarterly, 41(2), pp. 223-228. Available at: https://www.questia.com/library/journal/1G1-167652841/cannabilism-in-stalin-s-russia-and-mao-s-china
Alix: Have you ever been really, really hungry?
Carmella: You’re listening to Casting Lots: A Survival Cannibalism Podcast.
A: I’m Alix.
C: I’m Carmella.
A: And now let’s tuck into the gruesome history of this ultimate taboo…
[Intro Music – Daniel Wackett]
C: Welcome to Episode Three, where we’re going to be talking about Jamestown.
A: And Leningrad.
[Intro Music continues]
C: Would you like to hear about the ‘starving time’ at Jamestown?
A: Most certainly I would. Is this our earliest cannibalism story?
C: I think it may well be. It is 1607.
A: Good solid 17th Century content.
C: I don’t know what you already know about Jamestown, if anything?
A: I could go on a small rant about Chris- No, I’m not going to.
C: I didn’t know much about Jamestown apart from Pocahontas. I didn’t actually know that that was the town until I got to researching this and it mentioned Pocahontas. I was like “Oh, from the Disney film!” So, suffice to say, this will be a bit different from the Disney film. But that’s the context we’re looking at.
A: I’m not quite sure what to say about that. The Disney film is, in and of itself, a… interesting interpretation of history. So let’s add a bit of cannibalism onto the top of that.
C: So, our story starts in May 1607. 104 Englishmen are aboard three ships and they are looking for somewhere to land in the New World and colonise in the name of King James I. So they selected an island in the Powhatan River, which is now called the James River. Imaginatively named.
A: It’s almost like the land had names and white people just went over and stole things.
C: Well, I think even ‘the Powhatan River’ is a name that was given to it more recently in the past century before that. So they’ve been sent by King James I, and more importantly the Virginia Company of London – who are their investors. Their aims are to create a permanent English colony in Virginia; to find gold; to find a route to the Far East (good luck with that one); and to convert the native peoples to Christianity, of course.
A: Is that in order of importance? I’m imagining a meeting board of all of these wonderfully Jacobean gentleman being like, ‘Yes, forsooth, there most certainly must be gold in them there hills’.
C: What, they’ve got a big flipchart? And they’re like ‘Christianity! Underline that one’.
A: Excellent. Bullet point!
C: So they – as I said – name the river James River. They name the island Jamestown Island. And they build James Fort, which later becomes Jamestown. So I am noticing a certain naming convention going on here. They’re very imaginative.
A: They like James. They want to make sure that King James is happy by naming literally everything after him.
C: Mmhmm. So, as I said earlier, the land is already peopled. Jamestown Island isn’t; it has been abandoned by the local people. But the people who live in the surrounding areas are known by the English as the Powhatan, after their chief – who they call Chief Powhatan. His actual name is Wahunsenacawh, but Powhatan I guess is easier for them to pronounce. And it’s one of his daughters who is Pocahontas – also called Matoaka. In any case, the colony has a few early leaders. To be honest, it struggles from the outset. There’s some issues. We’ll get into the issues later, but one of the early leaders is of course John Smith, again from the Disney film. Not actually the man who ends up marrying Pocahontas; that’s a different guy.
A: The problem with you keeping mentioning the Disney film, is I just wanna sing the songs. And you may be able to tell, this is not a high-budget podcast; we cannot afford to pay off Disney. Just imagine them here. Pause the podcast; play ‘Colours of the Wind’, play the podcast again.
C: Yeah, it will give you, I think, a good historical context. We’ll cite it in our Works Cited.
A: Yeah, this one’s slightly less academic than some of our other podcasts.
C: So John Smith is quite successful at befriending the Powhatan people and in trading with them for food. So this was already always the plan of the colony – they weren’t going to be completely self-sufficient. They’ve had some periods of starvation because of that. They’re not really managing to get the agriculture going, partly because it’s a rubbishy island that they’re planting on. They’re also not great at hunting (if it’s not for sport) and fishing – and that’s because most of them are actually noblemen, rather than experienced labourers. These are wealthy guys coming over.
A: Oh my God. I– I love that they can’t hunt unless it’s for fun, and, like just get their little red fox-hunting outfits on. That’s not great. It’s almost as though you should take useful people when starting a colony. Not that I’m advocating starting colonies. Oh, I’ve dug myself into a hole there.
C: I’ve got a good anecdote to go with this. In 1608, John Smith and his friends are in a boat, surrounded by loads of fish, but they don’t have a net to catch them with. So they try to catch them – unsuccessfully – by scooping them up with a frying pan.
A: [Laughs.] Oh my! They tried.
C: They tried. As I said, they didn’t intend to grow all their own food, or at least not initially. So there’s archaeological evidence they brought copper and trade beads for bartering. Smith’s truce with Chief Powhatan was effective, as was his ‘must work for food’ policy. Which, I mean, sounds a lot like some modern anti-Welfare scheme. But I guess with a camp full of young noblemen who have a reputation in the literature for being seen as, perhaps, lazy, and enjoying playing boules more than hunting and, you know, doing construction work; I guess it’s an effective policy.
A: I’m assuming – and this is an assumption – that they were aware enough of the way of the world that in order to start a colony, you can’t just have young men.
C: Actually no – they’re all men! Some ships arrive later with women. They’re much less recorded. So the wealthy men: often listed by name, rank. But the poorer men who come later and all the women – I think only three women are named in the first ten years of the colony. Because who cares? Not important, not important. Only people who are sons of Earls are important. So some women do come later, but it’s impossible to say how many. A lot of them do take Native American wives.
A: I don’t like the phrase ‘take’.
C: ‘Take’ may be the operative word. I don’t know. They have Native American wives… Leave it at that, maybe. Another stroke of bad luck in 1609, John Smith has a mysterious gunpowder accident in the leg. Everything seems a bit vague about how this happens. We know he has a saddlebag of gunpowder. Somehow, the gunpowder is shot at and ignites and blasts a hole in his leg. Whether that was intentional…
A: So I know something about 17th Century gunpowder.
A: And what did you say it was being carried in – do we know what that was? Or just ‘he had some gunpowder’?
C: It says a saddlebag.
A: Saddlebag. So this is not a technical scientific explanation, but in the 17th Century, gunpowder can sometimes be stored in cotton. Gunpowder can turn – or at least, the nitric and sulphuric acids in gunpowder – can create the substance known as ‘guncotton’. Guncotton is highly flammable but does not require a spark in order to ignite. It can ignite due to friction alone, such as the friction between saddlebag, gunpowder and guncotton. So not saying someone didn’t shoot at John Smith – someone may well have done – but it could also be a (quote-unquote) ‘spontaneous’ combustion caused by this chemical reaction. Brought to you by having once watched Brainiac: Science Abuse.
C: Wow thank you, thank you, that definitely clears that up! Well, we’ll say that’s what it was, then. As no one else seems to know. John Smith sails back to England for medical attention, because they don’t have any decent doctors with them.
A: That was sensible.
A: No women, no doctors.
C: Yep! It’s not going that well. There’s a new stand-in Governor. He’s a man named George Percy, the son of the Earl of Northumberland, and one of the highest-ranking colonists.
A: That’s probably not why he got the job – I’m betting he was the best man for the job.
C: Probably highly qualified. He gets pretty badly derided later, and blamed for the period that we’re about to come into called the ‘starving time’. Whether it’s all his fault… Well, let’s have a look. So, after Smith’s departure, relations with Chief Powhatan deteriorate and trade stops. It’s unclear, because obviously there are different sides to the story – it sounds like perhaps Chief Powhatan intentionally told the local tribes to stop trading with the settlers to starve them out. But it’s also very likely that the settlers were unpleasant as neighbours, so, eh.
A: Yeah that doesn’t sound unlikely. Do we have any oral testimony, or is all of the evidence that we have solely from the settlers themselves?
C: We have oral testimony. I was listening to a YouTube talk by the current leader of the Patawomeck people, in which he says that they were the only tribe not told by Chief Powhatan to stop trading, so that implies that all the other local groups were told to stop trading.
A: Oh, it’s interesting, isn’t it? It’s like being a forensic detective.
C: So after the relations deteriorate, obviously there’s no more trade, but also there are violent altercations that keep the colonists confined to their fort, so they can’t even get out to hunt without getting- Have arrows shot at them, or falling into conflict. Interestingly though, there is plenty of archaeological evidence of times where Native Americans have been in the camp to help. There’s pottery and bead that aren’t produced by Europeans, so there’s obviously periods where they’re getting along and everyone’s friendly, and then periods of intense violent warfare.
So the colonists do manage to continue to trade some things for corn. For example, they trade some weapons for corn. So now the Powhatan people do have guns. I think their arrows were pretty effective, and in fact from some of the archaeological evidence of guns that are discovered, the bullets are being recast inexpertly, so actually the bullets they’re firing aren’t very good. So possibly the guns are actually worse than arrows at this point.
A: But still, the distribution of firearms – while, I will say, levelling the playing field – does also add to the number of firearms.
C: On the playing field overall?
A: Yeah. Oh dear. Just my reaction to all of this is ‘Oh dear’.
C: So in 1609, Percy sends Captain West to the Patawomeck village to trade for grain. As we said before, the Patawomeck haven’t been told not to trade. So West goes by boat up the river. And in Percy’s own account, he writes: “He in shorte tyme Loaded his pinnace Sufficyently yett used some harshe and Crewell dealing by Cutteinge of towe of the Salvages heads and other extremetyes.” So that’s sort of severing that lifeline.
A: Really unfortunate turn of phrase.
C: I think that “harshe and Crewell dealing” is putting it a bit lightly if you’re beheading people.
A: Yes, that’s not the way to continue trade. And I feel like I’m definitely coming at this from a very white perspective, and I’m aware that obviously I haven’t researched this topic. So I want to make sure that I’m not saying anything that’s inappropriate. But yeah, perhaps don’t do that.
C: Yeah, perhaps don’t behead people. I don’t care how badly your trade goes! If they won’t strike a deal, don’t behead them. But then Captain West, on sailing back, as Percy writes it: “Comeinge by Algernon’s Fort Capteine Davis did Call unto them” – as in, onto Captain West – “acquainteinge them with our greate wantts exhortine them to make all the Spede they cowlde to Releve us upon which reporte Capteyne Weste by the perswasion or rather by the inforcement of his company hoysed upp Sayles and shaped their Course directtly for England and lefte us in thatt extreme misery and wantte.”
A: Wait what?
C: Yeah. He does some beheading; he gets his corn; sails back to the colony; gets told ‘we’re dying here’; and goes ‘oh, I don’t wanna be a part of that’; sails back for England – and, in fact, sails back for England to embark on some piracy.
A: We could quite firmly say – as someone with quite a lot of authority in a colonial endeavour – ‘not a nice man’. We knew that from the outset. We didn’t need more evidence. But he certainly provided that evidence!
C: Uh-huh. So that’s issue number one in causing the current famine. Another one is that there’s a flotilla of supply ships on the way from England. And they get shipwrecked and have to stop at Bermuda to rebuild. So they were meant to get there before the winter, and now they will not.
A: This is now just, ‘Bermuda? Bermuda triangle? Is there a conspiracy at work?’
C: Oh the aliens stopped them! There’s also a drought that summer, causing poor crop growth for both the residents of Jamestown and their Native American neighbours – so, even if relations were still good, there wouldn’t really be corn to spare anyway. And the drought also means that the wells become brackish, so they don’t have any fresh water, because in dry periods the fresh water table recedes and salt water levels rise. Apparently. That’s an interesting thing I learned. It also means- So they’ve been fishing sturgeon out of the James River, because the sturgeon’s spawning ground is directly next to Jamestown Island because that’s where the fresh water starts. However, because the fresh water’s now receded upstream, the sturgeon aren’t stopping by Jamestown Island and they can’t catch any.
A: It’s all going from bad to worse, and then from worse to death. I assume.
C: Well, from worst to a period known as the ‘starving time’, which hits its peak in the winter of 1609 to 1610. Now, the figures on how many settlers die vary immensely. So we’re gonna say approximately two thirds of the colonists, but how many people that is, is very very difficult to say. John Smith reports 60 out of 500 survived. Which seems very odd, because 500 is a very large number to start with, and we’re not quite sure where that’s come from.
A: And also… He’s not there?
C: That– He’s also not there! That’s a very good point! He also probably wants to discredit Percy’s governance whilst John Smith’s been away, because it’s easier to blame it all on Percy rather than John Smith laying a bad foundation. So that’s a lot of people. The historian William M. Kelso estimated 90 survived out of 245. It’s still a pretty big ratio, but there are fewer people to begin with.
A: Yes that seems quite solid. Especially, and I’m gonna repeat this again: we don’t have that many women.
C: By this point there have been other ships coming in and some of the women are there now. That’s part of the problem, that more ships are coming in and you’re increasing the island’s population without necessary-
A: Not to 500.
C: Not to 500, no.
A: Look, if people are sensible – well, sensible is a tentative word here – but if people are acknowledging ‘oh we’re running out of food’, are you just gonna be like ‘yeah we’ll just hitch up here as well with our extra mouths and no supplies’? I mean, this is pure conjecture… But I wouldn’t.
C: Might sail on to one of the other settlements, yeah. People are now understandably quite hungry on the island. So George Percy writes: “For one Hughe Pryse beinge pinched with extreme famin, In a furious distracted moode did Come openly into the markett place Blaspheameinge exclameinge and Creyinge outt thatt there was noe god, alledgeinge thatt if there were a god he wolde nott Suffer his Creatures whome he had made and framed to indure those miseries and to perishe for wante of food and Sustenance. Butt itt appeared the same day thatt the Almighty was displeased with him, for goeinge that afternoene with a Butcher a Corpulentt fatt man into the woods to seke for some Reliefe, bothe of them weare slaine by the Salvages.”
A: There is a lot to unpack there!
A: First of all… I hasten to point out, they are the ones who got themselves into that situation. Let’s not talk theology, let’s not talk about whether, you know, there is a God, and God is an all-encompassing good being. They’re the ones that went there! God didn’t tell them– Let’s not go down theology lines.
C: Well, I mean, if it’s the edict of King James I, is King James I not God’s chosen representative?
A: You do make a convincing argument. I am a 17th Century gentleman here, that makes a lot of sense, divine right of kings.
C: And isn’t it proof that they went into the forest after blaspheming and were killed by the people that they’re at war with?
A: No! Just a very quick geography on Jamestown and James Island. The island that they’re settled on is uninhabited, apart from by them. And they have the fort on the island. So in order for our ‘corpulent fat man’ and our blasphemer to go off into the forest, they’ll have had to cross from Jamestown Island to the other side of the river.
C: It’s kind of an island, kind of a peninsula. It’s a very shallow bit of water.
A: Ok, I’m just setting the scene.
A: Oh and I’m sure that really helps where it comes to boats and fishing. Why did they choose there?
C: Well they were trying to follow the orders of the Virginia Company, but the orders were quite difficult to follow because they described a patch of land that doesn’t exist. It was ‘the land must be like this; it must be defensible; it must be this far from the sea but this close to the sea; there must be no people here; it must be this good for agriculture’ – so they tried to get several different things. What they’ve got is a fort that’s defensible from three sides – because there’s the river – and is close to a river.
A: Ah, so they were given impossible criteria.
A: It’s like when you try and go shopping on Christmas Eve.
C: Exactly. They tried their hardest – I think – in picking an island. But what that anecdote shows is that people are pretty depressed, but still George Percy won’t accept that. He considers that blasphemy.
A: Of course, of course.
C: We’ve also got a report from 1624, The Tragical Relation of the Virginia Assembly: they blame the English suppliers. So they wrote: “We cannot for this our scarcity blame our commanders here, in respect that our sustenance was to come from England (…) we were constrained to eat dogs, cats, rats, snakes, toadstools, horse hides and whatnot.”
C: Whatnot. So… Let’s get into the whatnot, shall we? [Laughs.] There are actually several accounts of cannibalism during the starving time, but each serving various political agendas. So we’ve got the people who want to discredit John Smith; the ones who don’t want George Percy to look good; the ones who want to discredit the Virginia Company; there’s even a Spanish report – and this is very shortly after the Spanish Armada, so there’s probably a little bit of, you know.
A: England and Spain, not the best of friends at the best of times, let alone any time there’s colonisation, money, or ships involved.
C: Which– All are involved here.
C: The only verifiable eyewitness report is George Percy himself.
A: For George Percy.
C: Mmhmm. In his report, he writes: “Nothing was spared to maintain life and to do those things which seem incredible, as to dig up dead corpses out of graves and to eat them.” So even George Percy is admitting this. John Smith – who, of course, isn’t there at the time – also adds: “So great was our famine that a savage we slew, and buried, the poorer sort took him up again and eat him, and so did diverse one another boiled and stewed with roots and herbs.” So they’re eating their own people, they’re eating the Native Americans; they’re pretty hungry.
A: John Smith, you’re not there!
C: He goes back afterwards, so perhaps he’s heard this account from someone else, but… Yeah. He clearly wants Percy to look bad.
A: Yeah. Although you’d think that he’d want– Well, I was going to say that if he wanted him to look bad he’d be telling stories about cannibalising their own people. Which does put some credence?
C: Oh, we’ll come to that, don’t you worry. Most of the reports do tend to agree on one particular case, which is definitely a case of a colonist eating another colonist. So, in the words of Percy: “One of our colony murdered his wife, ripped the child out of her womb and threw it in the river and after chopped the mother in pieces and salted her for his food.”
There’s also a report from the Ancient Planters – that’s eight men who sign their report as that, and they publish it in 1624 – they write: he “fed upon her til he had clean devoured all parts saving her head, & was for so barbarous a fact and cruelty justly executed”. Now, John Smith-
A: Oh for goodness’ sake.
C: Adds a very interesting aside: “Now whether she was better roasted, boiled or carbonadoed, I know not, but of such a dish as powdered wife I never heard of”.
A: Ok, now, there are questions about the appropriateness of a podcast like this, especially as we’re taking a slightly – in some places – lighthearted approach to history. Now, we’ve already said we are looking at this through the veil of time, and even as we’re speaking we are aware that these were real people and these tragedies really happened. John Smith–
C: What you doing?
A: What you talking about, mate? You’re not even there!
C: So what I’m getting out of this is that we don’t like John Smith.
A: Why would you s– So, sorry, I’m actually quite incredulous about that. Why would he say that?
C: Oh, he wrote it, he p-
A: But why would he write that? Sorry, I’m just having- I’m just… John Smith!
C: Just a strange guy I suppose. The question is, we’ve got this eyewitness testimony; is there any actual evidence? Because all of these serve their various agendas.
A: And some of them were written by people who weren’t even there.
C: But yes, there is evidence! In 2012, the Jamestown Rediscovery Project – which is a long-term archaeological operation at the Jamestown site – uncovered a mutilated human skull and a severed leg bone in a rubbish deposit in a cellar kitchen. And they named her Jane. Because, of course, we don’t know her actual name.
So, a little bit about Jane from what they can tell from her bones: she’s an early 17th Century Englishwoman; she was about 14 at the age of death; she lived on a European (e.g. wheat-based) diet, which means she hadn’t been living at Jamestown long. She’s probably lower-class, because most of the survivors were the upper-class people who could afford the provisions and who hoarded stuff for themselves.
A: Were protected by class dynamics as well.
C: She’s got a good varied diet, though, so maybe she was a maidservant, but definitely not upper-class because she doesn’t have a lead signature. The upper classes at the time were all drinking from pewter and slowly poisoning themselves with lead.
A: I mean at least there’s some justice in the world.
C: As for her bones, what do we know about them? We know her skull had multiple chops and cuts from three different sharp metal instruments, suggesting butchery. Four chops to the middle of the forehead were an aborted attempt to get to the brain tissue. But that didn’t work, so then they made some fine cuts to the bone below the eye sockets, removing the cheek flesh. There are more marks from removing the lower lip. And then some more chops at the back of the head to expose the brain. And the leg bone has been chopped halfway down and then snapped to expose marrow. So that’s not only butchering to eat, that’s properly, ‘We’re starving, we’re scraping out the last marrow, we’re eating the head’.
A: It’s a bit of a last resort. Quite famously in survival cannibalism cases, as much as possible people look to avoid making the connection between what they’re eating being human flesh. So you don’t tend to have the head, the hands, the feet – for example – being eaten, because those are recognisably human.
C: So the question is, why is her skull in a trash deposit without the other body parts? Historian William L. Kelso, who’s been working on the Jamestown Rediscovery Project, hypothesises that maybe she’s even the murdered wife from the accounts, because – as they say – all of her was eaten save the head. So maybe the head was then chucked in the trash afterwards? The thing is that the trash deposit is made from filling in a kitchen/cellar, and the debris found around it suggests that it was filled in at the end of the starving time. So perhaps it’s more that her skull was somewhere else around camp, and then a load of stuff was pushed in to fill in the cellar and kitchen, because if you haven’t got anything to cook, what do you need a kitchen for?
The starving time ends in May 1610 when the supply ships finally arrive from Bermuda, and the colony’s a bit more stable. So we don’t have a lot of literature surrounding the starving time, but we do have a clear picture that it seems like cannibalism did take place, and there were a lot of reasons that the colony didn’t do so well – in fact, it continued struggling for a good few years before finally becoming a permanent colony.
A: Yes, I can’t imagine that the reputation gathered from what happened at Jamestown made it an attractive prospect for new settlers.
C: Settlers kept coming. What can I say? I guess that they wanted the New World more than they cared about potentially being eaten.
A: Well I suppose also today we talk about fake news, don’t we? And while we have these sources, let’s not pretend that people in the past didn’t also have critical thinking. It’s not beyond comprehension to think, ‘Well of course, John Smith was in charge; John Smith wants to criticise so-and-so; so-and-so wants to blame the Company; how much of this is actually true?’ Because hearsay and rumour does take off incredibly quickly.
A: I don’t know. It happened – we know it happened – but how much were all of the sources believed at the time?
C: And of course you have to consider the circulation of news and information. Stories didn’t go viral in those days.
A: Sorry, I’m just imaging 17th Century Twitter.
A: #GunpowderPlot. [Laughs.] Sorry.
C: Yep, yep, sure. The people who are reading the report written by John Smith aren’t gonna be your average guys, or even necessarily your noble guys – it might just be the Virginia Company reading it and not wanting to report it further. I don’t actually know how heavily these things were circulated. In a population with lower literacy rates and no means of mass communication – it’s sensible to assume that maybe people just didn’t know.
A: And, for the most part, once people sailed to the New World, they stayed there. You do have very few relative John Smiths, who popped there, back, and back again. Most people, once they crossed the Atlantic, have crossed the Atlantic – for better or for worse.
C: Often for worse.
A: Often for worse. For everyone involved, really…
A: Carmella, would you like to hear about the siege of Leningrad?
C: I would love that more than anything in the world Alix.
A: Well, I’m afraid to tell you there is a slight problem with this.
A: The problem being a matter of scope. Because, when I sat down to research the siege of Leningrad, I came up with plenty of sources. But those sources then led to me looking at the Battle of Stalingrad, and then the Holodomor (the man-made famine in Ukraine from 1932 until ‘33) and Nazinsky Island (also in 1933), and the Russian famine of 1921 to 1922, and then earlier, beyond Soviet history at the French Invasion of Russia in 1812, where French soldiers turned to cannibalism in order to survive.
C: So what I’m hearing is a lot of cannibalism in Russian history?
A: Yes. So this was supposed to be one of the ‘minor’ stories, so, in hopefully under 40 minutes, our next true story of survival cannibalism: Russian edition. And we’re going to start in chronological order. The old saying goes ‘never attack Russia during the winter’ and in 1812 Napoleon was about to find out why.
C: Oh boy, was he about to find out why!
A: Actually, I say that; not so much Napoleon – more his troops. To put it mildly, by 1812 Napoleon was at the height of his power in Europe – yes, there had been a minor hiccup with the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.
C: Oh that little- That little one?
A: That happened.
C: That hiccup there.
A: Bit of a problem, but not too bad. Napoleon is still dominating Europe. And he sends his Grande Armee, of 450,000 men, into Russia in the summer of 1812. Six months later they have been decimated. Well, in fact, decimated is generous – because technically ‘decimate’ is one in ten. In actual fact, only one in twenty of Napoleon’s troops would survive.
A: Yeah… It doesn’t go well. Previously, Napoleon had fed his armies by letting them “live off the land” – either pillaging or buying supplies as they advanced. This isn’t the case in 1812, because the Russian population lay waste to their own lands, meaning that the French army has no supplies, and instead of falling back in the growing Russian autumn, instead – Napoleon’s army presses on. Into the Russian winter.
C: [In a sing-song voice:] Oh this is gonna go well for them!
A: The advance to Moscow, and then the retreat out of Russia, would take the lives of thousands of French soldiers. By the end of December, the temperature fell to minus 36 degrees. Delirious soldiers would throw themselves on fires in an attempt to warm themselves – “their starving companions watched them die without apparent horror. There were even some who laid hold of bodies disfigured and roasted by the flames and – incredible as it seems – ventured to carry this loathsome food to their mouths.”
Major-General Sir Robert Wilson – who was (surprisingly enough) British – a liaison officer in Russia at the time, reported that “the craving of famine at other points forming groups of cannibals” among the French soldiers. And witnesses stated that cannibalism – first of the dead, and then in more dire circumstances of the living – became commonplace. Only 20,000 French soldiers returned. Of 450,000.
C: I would say… they lost? Yeah, I think that’s fair. They were the losers.
A: I think that’s a safe assumption to make here.
C: Can I also say, I love how quickly we’ve gotten into cannibalism on this one. The others, it’s all been “here’s a disaster, here’s what-” No, this is just, yeah, straight away.
A: This is Russian Survival Cannibalism 101. We’re starting early and we’re maintaining the pace. Did you know, there are actually two different words in Russian for cannibalism?
C: Oh, I did not know that!
A: Now the fun job comes of Alix trying to pronounce these two words. I am going to come straight out and say that this is a problem for me – I apologise in advance. Of these two words, you have trupoyedstvo (which is corpse-eating) and then lyudoyedstvo (which is person eating). I’m also going to publicly apologise here to my friends who I know who speak Russian, who I could have asked – who are probably listening to this podcast and wincing. I’m very sorry. So, our two words in Russian for cannibalism: corpse-eating and person-eating. Here we see the distinction made between survival cannibalism and murder-cannibalism. Survival cannibalism is corpse-eating; murder-cannibalism is person-eating.
C: Although of course, if you’re in a survival situation and you murder someone, it’s still survival cannibalism. It’s just also survival murder.
A: That’s true. And I mean, the heart of our podcast is ‘casting lots’: the act of casting lots in order to decide who lives and dies. But… The distinction is made in Russian history.
Bad harvests in 1920 and 1921 accumulated what had already been a disaster-heading for famine in Russia. Food shortages had been caused by the Russian participation in World War I; the 1917 Revolution; and the Russian Civil War – which would eventually lead to famine that would kill millions. To begin with, the starving population ate tree bark, grass, pet cats and dogs.
C: Aww. I don’t like it when they eat their pets in these stories; it makes me really sad.
C: I know that sounds stupid, ‘cause they eat people! But… Aww it’s a dog.
A: Don’t tell Carmella, but a bit later on we’re gonna go to the zoo.
A: Soon, thoughts would turn to other sources of food. By the autumn of 1921, “thousands of cases of cannibalism were reported” with evidence implying that many more were unspoken of. The starving peasants were seen digging up recently-buried corpses to retrieve their flesh. But these stories soon became more explicit, with one Russian peasant stating that: “There has been no grain in the village since Easter, yesterday I stumbled on the body of a young boy, no more than six or seven years old. I took it home, carved off the flesh and began to eat. It was the best meal I’d had all year.” Yet, for the most part, at least ‘in the beginning’, people seem to have stuck to eating their dead relatives.
C: Gastronomic incest!
A: Gastro- Oh, I’m gonna make that so much worse now. Because what’s referenced then is that especially youngest children were valued – because of their “sweeter taste”. Now, this seems a little macabre, even for this podcast.
C: That seems like a ghoulish kind of casting of the Russian peasantry as being nightmare-people.
A: Exactly. Perhaps more realistic narratives give the example of a woman who was caught feeding her dead husband to her son, and she told the police: “We will not give him up, we need him for food, he is our family, and no one has the right to take him away from us.”
Stories of this famine-induced survival cannibalism often have an element of ‘Sweeny Todd’ about them, especially in their retelling – each story more dramatic and perverse than the next. Stories of sausages prepared with human flesh; murder for profit, selling on the bodies of victims to butchers to be resold into rissole – or, dare I say, pies?
Cannibalism became a real, active part of survival during Soviet famine, seen again in 1932 and ‘33 with the man-made famine in the Ukraine known as the Holodomor. In the June of 1933, a doctor wrote to her friend, stating that while she hasn’t yet become a cannibal, she was (quote): “not sure that I shall not be one by the time my letter reaches you.” Between 5.5 to 8 million people died in the Ukraine at this time, and over 2,500 people were convicted of cannibalism. A remarkable number of candid statements, such as “Eating human flesh is not uncommon. When there isn’t anything else, you have to eat that too,” were recorded.
C: So they were… Convicted of cannibalism in this instance?
C: I’m actually unaware of the law as regards to cannibalism in most countries. Do we know the law as regards to cannibalism in the Ukraine?
A: For the most part in Soviet history, here you have the division between corpse-eating and person-eating.
C: I see.
A: So corpse-eating is… not pleasant, and not exactly considered a moral action, but can have you arrested. Person-eating – murder-cannibalism – can have you executed.
C: I see, right.
A: Without trial.
A: If you’re caught.
C: If you’re caught eating or murdering? Because there must be a question sometimes about how a body that’s being cannibalised… became a body in the first place.
A: I mean, yes. What I will point out is, officially, even with people being convicted of cannibalism, official records have stated that this was only extreme circumstance, and often denied. However, it’s undeniable that in the Ukraine, the Soviet government was forced to intervene – although, instead of stopping the exportation of grain, which caused the man-made famine, instead posters were printed, warning: “To eat your own children is a barbarian act.”
C: So we won’t feed you, but here’s a poster telling you off.
A: That poster’s quite something. Nazino (or Nazinsky) Island has a similar fate. In May 1933, just over six thousand prisoners were deported to the uninhabited Nazino Island, just beyond the Arctic Circle. They had no tools, no shelter and were given only a handful of rye flour once every five days.
C: Yum yum.
A: On the first day, nearly 300 people die.
A: Three months later, when a party visited the island to examine the situation, it was evident that of the original six thousand, only about a third were still alive, and only because they had resorted to cannibalism. In this instance, it seems like women in particular were targeted. And I know we’ve said some pretty gruesome things on this podcast, but, just a warning of what’s coming up. Many of the women had been tied to trees so that the flesh could be stripped from their breasts, calves, and other body parts, and it was said to be like kebab meat.
A: With the meat being cut into pieces and roasted over campfires.
C: Oh I don’t like that comparison; that’s not pleasant.
A: A woman from Nazino Island was being transferred to another camp, and a witness saw that her calves had been cut off. She’s still alive.
A: This woman said that: “they did that to me on the Island of Death – cut them off, and cooked them.”
C: Oooooh. I don’t- Is that better or worse than murdering someone to eat them?
A: She was being moved to another prison camp.
C: Yeah I have nothing to say about that. Wow!
A: And, continuing that theme, you do have records of cannibalism taking place in gulags and other imprisonment situations. Most notably during escape attempts, with escapees intentionally enlisting a prisoner to be their “food supply” for after the event had been enacted.
C: Did they tell the other prisoner that that was the case?
A: So this came from an article entitled ‘Cannibalism in Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China’, but it often stated that these escape attempts were by (quote-unquote) ‘ordinary’ criminals, and it would be a political prisoner who would have been selected to be the food, and they were unaware.
C: I see. So if you’re a political prisoner in a Russian prison camp, maybe don’t trust these guys who come up with a plan to leave with you, you know.
A: To be fair, it’s not going to end well, really, for anyone. So here I’m going to partially do away with chronological order, just for the sake of narrative. I am going to end on Leningrad, meaning that now we have the Battle of Stalingrad, between the August of 1942 and the February of 1943. I will confess, I did not get out all of my old history textbooks, so – with a little help from the Imperial War Museum’s website – the background of the Battle of Stalingrad.
Stalingrad started as an assault by Axis forces to destroy the Red Army and take Stalingrad. Stalin insisted that the city be defended at all costs. And those costs would be high. The living conditions in the besieged city were devastating, cannibalism was recorded as taking place among the starving and besieged populace, but by far a larger percentage of the cannibalism covered was by prisoners of war. Rats became a staple of most people’s protein intake, and soldiers and civilians alike – those civilians who were still in the city – would go around and pick dead horses clean of meat.
C: Well, I guess it’s better than human corpses?
A: Exactly. The tides of war would start to turn. While by October most of Stalingrad was in German hands, General Zhukov of the Red Army was able to launch a counter-assault in the November of 1942, which trapped the German Army in the besieged city. Russian winter had come again, and while the citizens of Stalingrad where in desperate measures, so were the German forces. Fighting continued in the city, fought building-to-building, and survivors spoke of cannibalism and desperate fighting between comrades just for scraps of food. Eventually, the German army endured until February 1943, when its exhausted combattants finally surrendered. Here we have more evidence and stories of survival cannibalism taking place by prisoners of war.
C: I think it’s fair to say, they’re not taking care of their prisoners of war.
A: No, I think that’s a very fair statement to make. Even for this podcast and our chosen topic, it has been quite grim… Especially condensing all of Russian survival cannibalism history.
C: Yeah it’s not just one instance; this is quite a tableau of misery.
A: It has been, so we are going to wrap up Russian history with the story this was supposed to be about: The Siege of Leningrad. In 1941, Hitler declared that “Leningrad must die of starvation,” and he’d cut off three million Leningraders by siege, cutting off supply lines and having had the city’s food reserves bombed. At first, citizens of Leningrad raided zoos, then stray animals, then pets, then wallpaper paste and leather was used as a source of food.
C: Aww, poor animals. Not the wallpaper!
A: [Laughs.] The wallpaper!
C: Oh, the poor wallpaper paste! So miserable! You- I mean the animals.
A: Yeah I left the pause for that, but I quite enjoyed that after the wallpaper.
C: [Laughs.] Oh it’s just so tragic, the wallpaper.
A: The William Morris – it was original!
A: Oh, we have to laugh where we can – it’s gonna get grimmer. By the October of 1941, mass starvation was in full effect. Ration cards were issued allowing workers 250 grams of bread per day, all others received 125 grams. Here, as with the other scenarios, the threat, rumour and fear of cannibalism grew. This became especially prevalent whenever meat became available at market. It was considered highly suspicious, and evidence was found among cemeteries that bodies had been butchered.
However, the official line remained – until the 21st Century – that this had never happened. Except, a growing number of sources – starting with the official NKVD (the Soviet Secret Police) records, which were released between 2002 and 2004 – revealed that during the Siege of Leningrad, over 1,400 people had been imprisoned for cannibalism. In one militia office in 1942, twelve women were held on that charge, and all (quote) “openly admitted what they had done”, with at least 300 people in addition being executed for the crime. The crime here being person-eating.
More sources have come to light, through diaries and accounts – I highly recommend the book Leningrad: State of Siege by Michael Jones – although the cases of people going missing, and the police having bereaved families looking through clothing found on cannibalised corpses and being told to “remember the number of the crate. Then we can tell you where they killed her – and ate her,” is very difficult reading.
The Siege of Leningrad, as with the other Russian stories of survival cannibalism, ultimately comes down to just that – the act of survival, and the lengths that people can, and will go to in order to survive the most devastating of times… And that was the history of Russian survival cannibalism. Not fun… But at least it’s over.
C: Condensed neatly.
A: Especially compared to some of the other stories that we’ve covered – stories of individual moments in time where survival cannibalism has been a matter of direct survival, a one-off occasion of ‘we do this or we perish’ – this timeline of again and again. It’s… Yeah, it’s quite heavy.
C: Unlike all the fun stories of cannibalism we’ve been telling you. But no, yes I agree with you.
[Outro Music – Daniel Wackett]
C: Thank you for listening to this episode on what Disney won’t tell you about Pocahontas, and the entirety of Russian History.
A: Join us next episode, when we’re setting sail to learn all about the ‘custom of the sea’.
[Outro music continues]
A: Casting Lots Podcast can be found on Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr as @CastingLotsPod, and on Facebook as Casting Lots Podcast.
C: If you enjoyed this episode and want to hear more, don’t forget to subscribe to us on iTunes, Google Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts, and please rate, review and share to bring more people to the table.
A: Casting Lots: A Survival Cannibalism Podcast, is researched, written and recorded by Alix and Carmella, with post-production and editing also by Carmella and Alix. Art and logo design by Riley – @Tallestfriend on Twitter and Instagram – with audio and music by Daniel Wackett – Daniel Wackett on SoundCloud and @ds_wack on Twitter. Casting Lots is part of the Morbid Audio Podcast Network – search #MorbidAudio on Twitter – and the network’s music is provided by Mikaela Moody – mikaelamoody1 on Bandcamp.
[Morbid Audio Sting – Mikaela Moody]