The Sex Lives of Cannibals

Friday, 1 December 2017

While I was travelling the islands of Kiribati – South Tarawa, North Tarawa and brief visits to a couple of outer islands – during November I read J Maarten Troost’s The Sex Lives of Cannibals, the perfect Kiribati (well mainly South Tarawa) book. You have to go a long way back to find anything else written about those remote islands, perhaps to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Victorian-era Pacific travels or to Arthur Grimble’s Pattern of Islands, written by a colonial administrator to the Gilbert & Ellice Islands and published in 1952.

J Maarten Troost’s visit is much more recent. It’s an account of two years on South Tarawa early this century (the book was published in 2004), while his partner Sylvia worked for FSP – the Foundation of the Peoples of the South Pacific, so it should be FPSP.

Reportedly the book has been very unpopular in Kiribati, but he’s an equal opportunity offender, everybody – locals, expats, aid workers, government officials, Mormon elders – all get a going over.

Apart from being very funny I suspect it’s also very accurate although there’s not much sex or cannibalism involved. The sex lives of South Tarawa’s rough and ready mongrel dogs does get some coverage and it’s certainly dog-eat-dog when one of Troost’s resident canines kills a foolish dog which strays into its territory and feeds it to her pups. Of course dogs can end up in the Kiribati cooking pot as well, as a change from all that fish.

Once upon a time cannibalism certainly did exist in the Pacific, the Fiji Museum in Suva, Fiji displays the leather soles of missionary Thomas Baker’s shoes. In 1867 Baker was killed and eaten, but despite thorough boiling his shoes proved inedible.


A few years ago I read Lost on Planet China, a later Troost title, which unlike his Kiribati account I did not like at all. I kept saying, to myself, ‘get over it.’ China, from my experience, simply did not deserve all his whinging and complaining. He’s funnier in Kiribati. Curiously one of the parts of his China account I took issue with was a comment that ‘there wasn’t a woman alive in China whose feet had been bound.’ Only a few years earlier I’d encountered a woman with bound feet at an airport in China. She was very elderly and I’d be surprised if she was still alive, but in Mandalay in Myanmar, just a few weeks ago, I spoke with a British film crew who had filmed women in China with bound feet earlier this year.