Samuel de Champlain on Torture and Cannibalism
- Torture and cannibalism of captives was an ancient custom among these nations. Not all Indians in the northeast practiced it. Acadian nations did not usually treat warrior-captives that way. But the evidence of archaeology indicates that the Iroquois and their northern neighbors had used torture for centuries. Scholars have explained this ancient custom as a ceremony or ritual, rooted in cultural practice and religious belief. Everyone was required to play a role: the audience, the torturers, and most of all the victim, who was expected to endure his torment with courage, dignity, and stoic calm. Many did so with amazing strength and resolve.
Champlain understood this ritual atrocity better than some ethnographers have done, and he refused to accept any part of it. He hated Indian torture. It offended his deepest ideals and created a major obstacle to his grand design. He observed that the explicit purpose of torture was to commit an act of vengeance and retribution, designed to exceed the horror of tortures past. This was the foundation of Champlain’s judgment that the Indians had no law. He meant that their conception of justice was to punish a wrong by a greater wrong. That way of thinking was very different from an idea of law and justice as the rule of right.
He also recognized that Indian torture was also rational and functional in a very dark way. In the warrior cultures of North America, the continuing practice of torture was a way of guaranteeing a state of perpetual war. It meant that the work of retribution would always need to be done, and warriors would be needed to do it. For Champlain it was utterly destructive of peace and universal justice.