Monday, September 6, 2010

Regnum Congo and the Horror of Theodor de Bry's Engravings

Exhibit EXH002: Pigafetta's A Report of the Kingdom of Congo (1881 [1591]).
In collaboration with Miskatonic University's Orne Library, Special Collections

One of the most infamous books referenced in the works of H. P. Lovecraft is Regnum Congo, the centerpiece of "The Picture in the House." Lovecraft did not read this book, written in 1591 by Filippo Pigafetta, titled in English, A Report of the Kingdom of Congo, and the Surrounding Countries, Drawn Out of the Writings and Discourses of the Portuguese, Duarte Lopez. Instead, he read Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature, a page from which is reproduced above. But we can read a copy of Pigafetta's work. In it he does describe the Anziques as being cannibals. He does not find this that unusual in a global scale, but Pigafetta holds the Anziques to be unique in that they willingly cannibalize members of their own community. From Chapter 5
They have shambles for human flesh, as we have of animals, even eating the enemies they have killed in battle, and selling their slaves if they can get a good price for them; if not, they give them to the butcher, who cuts them in pieces, and then sells them to be roasted or boiled. It is a remarkable fact in the history of this people, that any who are tired of life, or wish to prove themselves brave and courageous, esteem it great honour to expose themselves to death by an act which shall show their contempt for life. Thus they offer themselves for slaughter, and as the faithful vassals of princes, wishing to do them service, not only give themselves to be eaten, but their slaves also, when fattened, are killed and eaten. It is true many nations eat human flesh, as in the East Indies, Brazil, and elsewhere, but to devour the flesh of their own enemies, friends, subjects, and even relations, is a thing without example, except amongst the Anzichi tribes.
Today, the people referred to as Anziques are the BaTeke, living in the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Gabon. They are part of the Bantu language family. And as is usually the case with cannibalism stories, they came to European chroniclers from unfriendly neighbors, making the veracity of such claims doubtful without additional evidence.

But this did not stop the reproduction of the stories, and especially the image for centuries. Engraver Theodor de Bry created the image which so impressed Huxley, and in turn inspired Lovecraft's tale of backwoods New England cannibalism. Illustrations by de Bry have become some of the most reproduced in portrayals of European exploration in the 16th century. He worked with reports from various travelers and chroniclers, such as John White (check out this section of Virtual Jamestown for comparisons, commentary, and more) but did not actually journey to Africa or the Americas himself. Nonetheless, his fascinating and at times disturbing imagery shows up again and again in both popular and scholarly presentations. His studies of the native of Virginia are very commonly used, and can be viewed at several online galleries, such as this one from the University of North Carolina Libraries.

Theodor de Bry also illustrated an edition of Bartolome de las Casas' A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies, an influential polemic against Spanish cruelties in the American colonies. These images are amongst the most horrifying de Bry ever produced, which is saying something, putting the centerpiece of "The Picture in the House" to shame. The book and the engravings were instrumental in establishing The Black Legend against the Spaniards, which portrayed them as monsters sacking the New World through mass torture and murder. There was indeed plenty of cruelty and destruction, but it is worth noting that the propagandistic emphasis on horrible Spanish excesses served political purposes in the national and religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, and even up through the Spanish Civil War to the present. The nations pointing out Spanish atrocities would have their own massacres and ethnic cleansing in colonies in North America.

I myself had an experience which calls to mind "The Picture in the House." Prior to my work with the archaeology of the Spanish Conquest, I was conducting prehistoric archaeological excavation in El Salvador. I had brought with me, amongst a handful of other books, a copy of Charles Hudson's Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun: Hernando de Soto and the South's Ancient Chiefdoms, which featured some of the de Bry illustrations from las Casas. This engraving in particular horrified me.

Cannibalism was also depicted, but for some reason the bits of people, and especially the anguished flailing of the maimed, bothered me at a core level. I knew that the taking of noses and ears was a common punishment for rebellion in feudal Europe, and that added to the reality of the horror depicted. For the remainder of my stay during that project, a period of several months, this image gnawed at me. I tried to avoid it while finishing the book, yet every so often felt compelled to seek it out, as if confronting the image would take away some of the fear that had gripped me. Only once out of El Salvador, and the claustrophobic apartment I lived in, and with many other books and other media, did the image's effect dissipate. Today it does not bother me in any undue fashion. But at the time, during a time period when there was great uncertainty in my life, and I felt somewhat trapped in situations not of my making both in a foreign land and in my larger life, de Bry's imagery chilled me to the core.


  1. The 1598 Latin version of REGNUM CONGO can also be read online, via google books. By comparing it to Lovecraft's description, one can readily see that HPL's description is 100% accurate. Hence, I am wondering how one can tell that HPL never read the book, or why it would matter, since he got his facts straight in any event.

  2. The original source I have for whether Lovecraft read Huxley or not comes from this source

    Cannon, Peter and S. T. Joshi (eds.)
    1999 More Annotated H. P. Lovecraft. Annotations by Peter Cannon and S. T. Joshi. Dell, New York. Copyright Swordsmith Productions and the Wildside Press.

    specifically, page 16, note 9.

    Further, as we can see, Huxley's description contains every single bit of information that is in Lovecraft's story

    Elsewhere, Joshi specifically notes that Lovecraft reproduces some of the errors from Huxley's book, as Lin Carter describes here

    As to why it matters, it speaks to the influences on Lovecraft. Knowing where he got his inspirations, and therefore what he then did with them to create new works, can be quite valuable for historical reasons, in addition to adding value to the enjoyment of reading the material by embedding it more in the world. Something that is particularly at issue with Lovecraft who enjoyed blending the real world with almost-real world things, places, etc.

  3. Thank you for the links. If you feel there is evidence that HPL consulted Huxley's essay, and you find this interesting for its own sake, I have no argument with that. (BTW, if you look closely, I think you will find that your second link is not Carter citing Joshi, but Joshi citing Joshi).

    I do, however, disagree that HPL describes the book inaccurately. As far as I can tell, his description is indeed accurate. And since it is accurate, I see no reason to conclude that he did not verify his facts against the original text (whether or not he also used Huxley).

    It is not true that all HPL's information comes from Huxley. Huxley never describes the book as "medium size"; never describes men (plural) looking like "Injuns", never indicates that multiple Africans are depicted on Plate XII, never indicates that the passage about Anzique cannibals can be found at about the mid-point of the volume, never discusses Caucasian features on Africans, nor do his illustrations depict Africans with Roman noses nearly as obviously as do the full set of De Bry illustrations.

    I have heard it claimed that the original De Bry illustrations do not look Caucasian, and that is true only of Huxley's illustrations. This claim is completely false!

    I have heard it claimed that HPL should not have described the book as "medium size" since it is only 60 pages long. Such people merely show their ignorance of the physical dimensions of the book (over a foot long), as well as ignoring the fact that only half the leaves of this book are devoted to the 60-page main text.

    But I do not have access to Joshi's essay. Are there other "errors" by Huxley and/or HPL that I should know about?

  4. I don't think I've read Joshi's essay either (I've seen him refer to it in his other works, and yes, you are correct about the Carter thing, which I got confused about myself last night. It seemed awfully strange for Carter to refer to himself in such the third person!). My interest in Lovecraft's influences has been primarily on the archaeological side, something Joshi has not shown much interest in but I think is important. So I never sought out the Regnum essay, especially since it makes perfect sense with young HPL reading so many of his grandfather's mid-19th century books on science and history. However, I myself think there were some inspirations Lovecraft was using that have not yet been addressed (again, more on the side of archaeology, something I hope to have published within a year) so I'm more than open to HPL drawing a bit further afield than has been previously been believed.

    For example, Joshi has made a significant criticism of HPL in that while he kept up to speed with new events in physics or astronomy, he let his racism cloud his views of anthropology by ignoring the anti-racist work of Frans Boas. However, I'm not so sure that is a fair point, as there were well-known and influential anthropologists that continued to oppose Boas up to the time of HPL's death, so as a layman, he could have easily seen this as a "two-sides" story and chosen the one he liked without ignoring developments in the field. However, I think Joshi's point stands if you apply it to Great Zimbabwe. HPL continued to write in poems and letters about the timeless horrors of Great Zimbabwe, and alluding to it not as an African settlement but something else. However, not only did Caton-Thompson's work in the late 1920s showing Zimbabwe to be indigenous and and relatively recent in date make the presses, but the archaeology overview books that HPL himself suggested in the 1930s in his recommended reading lists discussed and approved of Caton-Thompson's discoveries (IIRC her work is in at least one, and I think two, of the three archaeology volumes he recommended). I doubt Caton-Thompson's gender helped matters.

    It sounds like you know a lot more on this topic than I and have probably already noted this, but just perusing my library, in addition to where I've noted above, Joshi re-iterates this stuff in summary form (I assume a summary of his essay's main points) in the "A Life" biography on page 244-245, including noting that Lovecraft elsewhere drew on the Huxley source. I don't know if the essay addresses your points other than the de Bry illos, but the summary in "A Life" does not.