Of Cannibals and Witches: Monstrosity and Capitalism at the Onset of Colonial Visual Culture


This article provides preliminary insight into the creation of colonial visual culture. Using visual examples, the author shows how the encounter between European and Amerindian was, at first, apparently deprived of moral judgement, later being increasingly signified through moral and physical monstrosity, especially the female body, which served as an apparatus to assure colonial dominion. Looking mostly at the works of Liègeois artist Theodor de Bry, the author shows how increasing female protagonism may have helped to coin a proper visual culture that mirrored the development of productive force in early capitalism. Assuming that the European colonizer in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was still highly informed by Medieval culture, the author quickly retraces how the New World was imagined through cartography, following to the first depictions of the Amerindian and, finally, focusing on de Bry’s work and an argument on capitalism and how visual culture may help us understand its process.


cannibalism; hexes; monstrosity; capitalism; Theodor de Bry; Brazilian visual culture

Angelico, Fra. Last Judgement. Gemäaldige Galerie Staatliche Mussen zu Berlin, 1395.

Anonymous. “Columbus disembarks at Hispaniola.” Letter from Columbus (Basel edition). Wikicommons. 1493.

Anonymous. “Couple of Indians from the New World.” Mundus Novus (Rostock edition), 1505.

Baldung, Hans. The Ages and Death. Oil on wood, 151 x 61 cm. Museo Nacional del Prado, 1541–1544.

Baumann, Thereza. B. “Imagens Do ‘Outro Mundo’: O Problema Da Alteridade Na Iconografia Cristã Ocidental.” América Em Tempo de Conquista, 1992, pp. 58–76.

Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. The Belknap Press, 1999.

Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. Kindle edition. Penguin, 2008.

Boudichon, Jean. Les Quatre Etats de la Société. Painting with gold leaves, 16 x 12 cm. Beaux-Arts de Paris. Wikicommons, 16th century.

Braham, Persephone. “The Monstrous Caribbean.” The Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous, Routledge, 2016, pp. 62–99.

Chicangana-Bayona, Yobenj. A. Imagens de Canibais e Selvagens do Novo Mundo. Do maravilhoso Medieval ao exótico colonial (Séculox XV-XVII). UNICAMP, 2017.

de Andrade, Oswald. Poesias Reunidas. Companhia das Letras, 2017.

de Bry, Theodor. Americae Tertia Pars. Iohannem Wechelum, Frankfurt, 1592a.

de Bry, Theodor. “Hans Staden watches the preparation of a victim’s corpse.” Americae Tertia Pars. Iohannem Wechelum, Frankfurt, 1592b.

de Bry, Theodor. “Porridge Preparation.” Americae Tertia Pars. Iohannem Wechelum, Frankfurt, 1592c.

de Bry, Theodor. Americae Pars Quarta. Ioannis Feyerabend, 1594a.

de Bry, Theodor. “Cumana Amerindian bringing gifts to the prefect.” Ioannis Feyerabend, 1594b.

Dürer, Albrecht. The Hex. Woodcut, 11,4 x 7,1 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, c.1500.

Federici, Silvia. Calibano e la Strega. Le donne, il corpo e l’accumulazione originaria. Mimesis, 2004.

Horkheimer, Max. Les Débuts de la Philosophie Bourgeoise de l’Histoire. Translated by D. Authier. Petite Bibliothèque Payot, 2010.

Lemire, Laurent. Monstres et Monstruosités. Éditions Perrin.

Marx, Kark. Capital. A Critique of Political Economy. Digireads, 2011.

Published : 2022-12-31

RacyG. (2022). Of Cannibals and Witches: Monstrosity and Capitalism at the Onset of Colonial Visual Culture. Review of International American Studies, 15(2), 71-94. https://doi.org/10.31261/rias.14720

Gustavo Racy  gustavo.racy@uantwerpen.be
University of Antwerp  Netherlands

Born in São Paulo, Brazil, in 1988, Dr. Racy holds a B.A. in Social Sciences and in Philosophy. He was awarded his Ph.D. in Social Sciences in 2018 by the University of Antwerp, funded by the Ministry of Education of Brazil. His research interest is the intersection of historical materialism, visual culture, social anthropology, and the philosophy of social sciences. He is currently preparing a post-doc proposal on the role of images in contemporary culture, aiming to explore several cases, from analog to digital culture, from photography to ethnographic cinema, and from literature to cinematic adaptation. His latest research focused on the relation between the city, photography, and modernity, approached in two distinct 19th century cases: the works of Edmond Fierlants in Antwerp and of Militão Augusto de Azevedo in São Paulo. The study invites important considerations on the role of visual technology in the building of meaning for the social world, specifically in a materialist perspective. The study articulates the relation between economy and culture, knowledge, and power.

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

The Copyright Holder of the submitted text is the Author. The Reader is granted the rights to use the material available in the RIAS websites and pdf documents under the provisions of the Creative CommonsAttribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License (CC BY-SA 4.0). Any commercial use requires separate written agreement with the Author and a proper credit line indicating the source of the original publication in RIAS.

  1. License

The University of Silesia Press provides immediate open access to journal’s content under the Creative Commons BY 4.0 license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/). Authors who publish with this journal retain all copyrights and agree to the terms of the above-mentioned CC BY 4.0 license.

  1. Author’s Warranties

The author warrants that the article is original, written by stated author/s, has not been published before, contains no unlawful statements, does not infringe the rights of others, is subject to copyright that is vested exclusively in the author and free of any third party rights, and that any necessary written permissions to quote from other sources have been obtained by the author/s.

If the article contains illustrative material (drawings, photos, graphs, maps), the author declares that the said works are of his authorship, they do not infringe the rights of the third party (including personal rights, i.a. the authorization to reproduce physical likeness) and the author holds exclusive proprietary copyrights. The author publishes the above works as part of the article under the licence "Creative Commons Attribution - By the same conditions 4.0 International".

ATTENTION! When the legal situation of the illustrative material has not been determined and the necessary consent has not been granted by the proprietary copyrights holders, the submitted material will not be accepted for editorial process. At the same time the author takes full responsibility for providing false data (this also regards covering the costs incurred by the University of Silesia Press and financial claims of the third party).

  1. User Rights

Under the Creative Commons Attribution license, the users are free to share (copy, distribute and transmit the contribution) and adapt (remix, transform, and build upon the material) the article for any purpose, provided they attribute the contribution in the manner specified by the author or licensor.

  1. Co-Authorship

If the article was prepared jointly with other authors, the signatory of this form warrants that he/she has been authorized by all co-authors to sign this agreement on their behalf, and agrees to inform his/her co-authors of the terms of this agreement.

I hereby declare that in the event of withdrawal of the text from the publishing process or submitting it to another publisher without agreement from the editorial office, I agree to cover all costs incurred by the University of Silesia in connection with my application.