Rescue: The New Captivity of Hans Staden

Peter Wood

In 1550 Hans Staden, a German wanderer who had ended up working for the Portuguese on the coast of Brazil, was captured by the Tupinambá, an Indian tribe known for eating their enemies. Staden had lived in Brazil for two years and picked up enough of the Tupi language that he could make himself understood.   The Tupi promptly told him they intended to kill and eat him, but he disconcerted them by asserting he was not Portuguese but French. The French and were friendly with the Tupi and not on their menu, which led them to spare Staden until they could get to get to the bottom of his story.   A week later a French trader visited the Tupi village where he was being held, and after discerning that Staden was not French, told them, “Kill and eat him, the good-for-nothing.” But Staden at that point was suffering a toothache and had stopped eating. They deferred killing him until he regained weight, and in the mean time presented him to a high chief, Konyan Bebe, whom Staden was able to engage in conversation.

Bit by bit, Staden was able to buy time—although he had to witness other European and native captives being killed, dismembered, and eaten. He made several predictions which, as they happened to come true, earned him recognition as something of a prophet. After nine months, he was rescued by a French ship and eventually made his way back to Germany. In 1557 Staden published an account of his ordeal, his True History complete with over fifty woodcuts that closely match the text.

A new English translation of the True History was brought out this year by Duke University Press, the first since 1929, although the book is well known in Germany and Brazil and was celebrated in times past by figures such as the English poet laureate Robert Southey and by the indefatigable explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton.   The True History was a sixteenth century best seller and it is easy to see why. Staden is a compelling narrator. He has a terrific story, but knowing that it will strain credulity, he keeps tightly to the facts and lets them speak for themselves. His tone is something like Cormac McCarthy relating the atrocities against the Indians in Blood Meridian, or the post-apocalyptic world of The Road. Exaggeration and even comment seem to have been seared out of him by experience. At the same time, he remained a precise and conscientious observer. Here he is offering one of the first European descriptions of vampire bats:

There is a species of bats in the country, which is bigger than the ones here in Germany. At night, they fly around hammocks in the huts where the people are sleeping. And when they sense that someone is asleep and will let them do what they want, they fly to the feet and bite, or they bite them in the forehead; then they fly away again,

When I was among the savages, they often bit me on my toes, and when I woke up, I found my toes bloody. But they normally bite savages on the forehead.

Vampire bats are not the only object of his curiosity. Wherever he looks, he sees. Thus he gives accounts of how the Tupi grow their stable crop (manioc), build their houses, and fish; their adornments and possessions; their government; their weaponry; and a fair amount their cultural beliefs. His tone is unvarying. He describes in the same level voice the ritual club used to brain captives before they are eaten and the varieties of bees to be found in Tupi country. 

I welcome the republication of the True History partly because of my long held fascination with ethnography written before the rise of academic anthropology. I used to take my graduate students in anthropology on long swooping detours back to the writings of Herodotus, Marco Polo, and Columbus, among others. And in my book, Diversity: The Invention of a Concept, my favorite chapter, “Diversity Before Diversity,” savors the richness of Western observations of non-Western peoples before we learned that this was to be left to the experts. 

But I also welcome the reappearance of the True History because the book is an almost ideal barometer of political correctness. Or what we have grown tired of calling political correctness. I venture the term here as a shortcut, but it really isn’t that useful any more. The problem is that there is too much of the stuff in too many varieties to call it all one thing. It would be as though Hans Staden had reported to the captain of his ship crossing the mid-Atlantic that they were surrounded by water. Higher education is indeed surrounded by water, but it is more useful if we distinguish the dead calms, steady breezes, northerly gales, and hurricanes.   

Political correctness is sometimes a stifling orthodoxy that prevents people from expressing seemingly obvious points. This can create an appearance of normality where matters are deeply abnormal. This is the kind of political correctness that did in Larry Summers’ presidency at Harvard. He mentioned a long-known and well-established fact: that at the extreme end of the distribution of mathematical ability, men greatly outnumber women.   A significant portion of the Harvard faculty, however, found it offensive that the university president would mention this fact or tentatively suggest that it might bear on why there are more male mathematicians and scientists in quantitative fields at the most advanced levels than there are women. The story has been told too often to bear another retelling. I cite it merely as the perfected example of political correctness in the form of prohibiting expression of ideas that are not intrinsically controversial. 

A second kind of political correctness comes from twisting reality to fit an established script. An example is the now rather common attempt on campus to label the social recognition of attraction between the sexes as “heteronormativity.”   The script in this case is the story that sexuality is inherently “socially constructed” and that therefore such institutions as traditional marriage that support male-female attraction are artificial. Because they are artificial, they can be challenged. And because they exert social pressure in favor of one form of sexuality over others, they are oppressive and should be challenged.    When it is mentioned the word “heteronormativity” serves as a warning to people that they must treat what is natural as unnatural lest they be accused of siding with the oppressors.

The first of kind of PC censorship sometimes breaks into the open, when someone like Summers attempts to defy it. The second kind tends to be much less visible to the general public, since its usual form is quiet conformity. The now widespread use of plural pronouns for singular subjects—“Can somebody loan me their pen?”—is an instance of how this conformity bleeds into the larger society. “Their” is a substitution for “his,” which many people won’t say for fear of sounding “sexist.” “Heteronormativity” is the new “sexist”—a scare word for enforcing obedience to a theory. Contemporary campus life is full of these little PC policemen. 

The first type of political correctness regulates what you can’t say; it is a system of taboos. The second type regulates what you must say and do; it is a system of ritual observances. Yet another form of political correctness aims at translating scholarship into the ideological categories of the left. This is probably the most important mode of PC and the one least visible to the general public. When an English professor teaches Shakespeare’s The Tempest as a ‘discourse on Western colonialism,’ or a course on American history is presented in the patented Howard Zinn mode as a pageant of rich white males killing, impoverishing, and oppressing generation upon generation, we are in the midst of this third type. It has consequences, in that it makes students feel sophisticated while leaving them ignorant, and it slowly crowds out both real intellectual inquiry and broader understanding. Why, as a recent ISI-sponsored survey demonstrated, do Yale students know less American history after studying at Yale for four years than they knew when they began?   Because they have been flattered by teachers into accepting glittering vacuities of political correctness as a superior form of “knowledge” to merely knowing the facts.

Hans Staden’s True History poses an enormous awkwardness to the PC academy. It offers a plain and entirely credible account of a group of Native Americans as happy and sadistic cannibals, not just indifferent to the suffering they inflict, but proud of it. The Tupi, in Staden’s account, are not the least bit inhuman. They speak and reason as other people do; they act rationally in the sense of connecting means and ends; they plan and execute complicated plots.   But they are, by ordinary western standards, profoundly evil.   We cannot read about the Tupi of 1550 without a sense of relief that they are gone. For good. 

That’s not to say they aren’t interesting. They are, rather, fascinating—since we are confronted head-on with the question: how can people be this way? 

But contemporary scholarship comes to the rescue, and here is why Staden’s True History is such a good barometer of political correctness. The options that today’s right-thinking academic has when faced with Staden’s book are:

1.       Cast doubt on its truthfulness. Make Staden out as an unreliable narrator. Why does he never mention having sex with Tupi women? He reports that the Tupi women have sex with other captives before they are killed. Is he hiding something? If so, can we believe what he says on other matters? Where is the proof anyway that he spent all that time among the Tupi? Maybe he made it up to help justify the appalling treatment of peaceful Native Americans by the colonists.

2.       Grant the facts of the case but reinterpret them in light of our deeper insight into Native American culture. The Tupi were, in their way, paying respect to their enemies by bodily incorporating their substance.   Staden survives among them because he becomes culturally hybridized and is able to think like a Tupi and win status as a Tupi prophet.

3.       Recast the whole book as a document in the history of Western colonial thought. Staden is one of the original and deep sources of Western stereotypes of Native Americans, whose caricatures of these people helped to establish colonial policy, public attitudes, artistic conventions, and the whole genre of captivity narratives. In this case the truthfulness or lack thereof ceases to be an issue since what matters is the way the True History affected its European audience.

I wouldn’t insist too strongly on this, but these three responses match up fairly well with the three types of political correctness. Staden can be given the Summers’ treatment and ushered off the stage; or he can be twisted around to fit contemporary ideas of what a Native American tribe should have been like in 1550; or his whole book can be appropriated into a contemporary “discourse” on “power relations” and made to vanish into the academic whirl.

The Duke University Press edition sports a 90-page introduction by an American anthropologist, Neil Whitehead, and a Danish historian, Michael Harbsmeier, that is devoted mostly to this third project. They profess admiration for Staden’s work but proceed to crush it to death under a mountain of trendy reinterpretation.   It is well done for what it is and I recommend it as an exemplary instance of how this kind of thing is done. Here are Whitehead and Harbsmeier explaining that Western readers of Staden’s book were (and are) morally equivalent to Tupi cannibals. Of course they don’t quite put it that way:

Hans Staden’s Warhaftige Historia produces and reflects a spectacle of anthropophagy in both textual and graphic forms and was thereby made redolent with significance for his immediate audience, in a way analogous to how the drama of ritual sacrifice for the Tupi was connected to its qualities as public spectacle.

Clever, no?   (“Anthropophagy” is people eating.)

As for the Summers approach of simply denying the possibility of Staden’s account, here is an instance from an online encyclopedia (

Hans Staden (b. around 1525 – Wolfhagen, 1579) was a German soldier and mariner, who supposedly was held captive by Brazil's Tupinamba indigenous tribe. The account of his voyages and adventures in the New World (Hans Staden: The True History of his Captivity, 1557) was among the first descriptions of America's native customs, and also one of the first ethnologues writing. It is likely his claims were not backed by evidence and were ethnocentric. These false beliefs that natives were "savage" were a large problem with the colonialization of the Americas.

According to Whitehead and Harbsmeier there is quite bit of this sort of thing, especially in Germany, where Staden’s work is often treated as a fake. They, however, remain firmly convinced of its historical and ethnographic authenticity.

In 1999, A Brazilian director, Luiz Alberto Pereira, made a prize-winning movie about Staden’s captivity, a trailer for which can be found on the Web.   In this version, Staden does develop a romance with a Tupi woman. I’m glad we’ve got that cleared up.   Heteronormativity is everywhere. There is also an 8-minute montage of Staden’s woodcuts set to some strange vocalizing.

Staden’s story deserves to be read and pondered. Surely it is telling us something about our common humanity, about our particular civilization, and about a man whose ordeal is worth knowing across the centuries. At the same time, there is something to ponder here about the impoverishment of the modern university and of our cultural sensibilities. A book that speaks so plainly about suffering and inhumanity has been—to borrow a favorite term of literary deconstructionists—nearly erased by academic experts.  Staden is once again in need of rescue from the savages.

Image: Wikipedia, Public Domain

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