Polynesian Tourist Cannibal Death Claim: Racist or Real?

Image from Survival International.

Forty-year-old German yachtsman Stefan Ramin disappeared in September while on Nuka Hiva, a remote tropical island in French Polynesia. After charred bones and teeth were found on the island, the press is awash with reports that Ramin was eaten by cannibals. Survival International, the chief global advocacy group for tribal peoples, says the accusation is fueled by racism.

The Telegraph, Daily Mail, Fox News, The Sun,  and Australia’s The Independent are all on the cannibal holocaust bandwagon, with another Sun story quoting multiple German professors with Lovecraftian relish:

Stefan Ramin, 40, may have been killed in a ritual common on the island of Nuku Hima 250 years ago. His remains were found around the ashes of a cooking fire.

Prof Annerose Menninger, of Munich University, said he was perhaps first slaughtered to “honour” the offering to a god.

Cannibal expert Dr Gundolf Krüger admitted: “Polynesians are now Christian and literate, therefore pious and educated. But it is entirely possible that the criminal was led by old rituals into this crime.”

Yes, that’s really what the UK press is quoting. “Christian and literate, therefore pious and educated.” (emphasis mine). Whatever happened to Herr Ramin, Herr Professor Krüger sounds like he needs a less in cause and effect at the very least, and maybe a slap in the face or two. Here’s more:

Meanwhile, reporters from Germany who reached the island said authorities were “certain he was killed and eaten”.

Guide Henri Haiti, 31, is being hunted in connection with round-the-world sailor Stefan’s death.

Helicopters with heat-seeking radar and sniffer dogs yesterday joined the search for Haiti.

But Polynesian public prosecutor Jose Thorel, under pressure to protect tourism, said: “There’s no evidence of cannibalism.”


Incidentally, from what I see the connection between Haiti and the “ritual,” if one existed (which seems at best meagerly supported at this point) is so far highly questionable. As in most cases of Western tourists disappearing, “authorities” — agencies that are not specifically named — are enlisted as experts to blame someone well before any charges have even been filed, let alone the case remanded to a court of law. Right now Haiti is a person of interest, and that may be all he ever ends up being — especially if the cannibalism claims turn out to be as thin as the UK press is making them sound, since hysteria is more likely to occur in cases where the documented wrongdoing is murky. If it turns out Haiti didn’t do a damn thing — and even if it turns out that there was no cannibalism — Haiti’s career as a guide is over.

I can already hear the resounding “Who cares!” coming from white people worldwide — white people who think it’s the right of any off-pink “citizen of the world” to go traipsing around island paradises taking shits in the underbrush, as long as he or she has the muh-muh-muh-money.

Oh, I’m sorry, am I jumping the gun here? For what it’s worth, I would never blame Ramin for what might have happened to him; not when there’s next to no information whatsoever establishing what really happened, why it happened, and what or who was or was not eaten. But as for Haiti, he doesn’t get the chance to kick back in California and snark at the unnamed “authorities” who have dogs out sniffing for him. His career is over, whether he did or didn’t do a damn thing. It’s not clear whether Haiti might have been careless, stupid, incompetent, or corrupt — or if he’s just been damned unlucky. But having hired guides in developing countries, I can tell you firsthand: it’s possible that the man he was guiding (Ramin) was any or all of those things. But we don’t know that yet. The facts are far too unclear to say what happened — but whatever the outcome of the investigation, Mr. Haiti is fucked. It almost makes me hope he really is a cannibal, because otherwise this’ll be another case of repulsive colonial malfeasance. Yet another of the global poor singled out so The Daily Mail can have a garish headline.

Anyway, the aforementioned Survival International is dedicated to the rights of tribal peoples, including the dangerous and difficult task of advocating for the world’s uncontacted tribes, isolated peoples and ethnicities and lifestyles threatened with extinction. Here’s what Survival International had to say about it yesterday (after almost a week or so of Western-press feeding frenzy over the reports):

Survival International has lodged a formal complaint with authorities in the UK over the ‘highly offensive and ludicrous’ claims in the world’s press that a German tourist missing in the South Pacific has been ‘eaten by cannibals.’

In a letter to British regulator the Press Complaints Commission, Survival suggested that those newspapers that have described the indigenous people of the Pacific as ‘cannibals’ are promoting ‘a false and offensive notion that tribal people are primitive savages.’

At the same time, tribal people around the world have reacted with dismay to the reports. Benny Wenda, a Papuan man from the Lani tribe, said, ‘’We’re sick and tired of these stories. The reason they keep using the word ‘cannibal’ about us is because they think we’re savages. It’s like calling Germans today Nazis because of their past, or Britain a land where witches are burned at the stake, of child slavery and public executions. It’s just lazy, racist journalism.’

Deborah Kimitete, deputy mayor of Nuku Hiva island where the alleged murder took place, told the BBC , ‘We are very hurt by these accusations of cannibalism, which are completely false…. I don’t know why they talk about cannibalism, it’s like saying we found the same thing in England and we talk about cannibalism. It’s terrible to say that. Here, nobody talk about that – it’s not true. It’s not the case at all, and we’re very hurt.’

Survival International’s Director Stephen Corry said today, ‘Pretending that Stefan Ramin’s reported murder has anything to do with tribal cannibalism is absolute hogwash. It may sell newspapers, but is a highly irresponsible slur on the peoples of the Marquesas Islands. It worked to prop up nineteenth century land theft from tribal peoples, but has no place at all in modern journalism. The ‘cannibals’ here may include a sole deviant murderer, but in a way include the journalists, unthinkingly shoring up racist stereotypes with no thought for the harm they do to how tribal peoples are viewed and treated.’


Image from Survival International.

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