“Man’s flesh is delicious” THE LAST CONFESSION OF ALEXANDER PEARCE (Rowland, 2008)

Alexander Pearce was, as far as we know, Australia’s first cannibal. Although the Indigenous people of Australia were regularly accused of cannibalism, the evidence is suspiciously absent, and clearly such accusations were extremely useful in the British colonial campaigns of subjugation and genocide.

But Alexander Pearce was the real thing.

The film is mostly set in Hobart Jail, where Pearce (Irish actor Ciarán McMenamin) is waiting to be hanged, and has requested a priest to hear his confession. Somewhat unwillingly, an Irish priest named Father Philip Connolly (Adrian Dunbar) listens to Pearce’s story.

In 1824, the British penal colony of Van Diemen’s Land was a living hell, where vicious floggings were regular punishments.

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Pearce had been transported to Australia for stealing a pair of shoes, and continuing law-breaking saw him eventually transferred to Sarah Island, which was surrounded by sea on one side and wilderness on the other.

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Eight convicts made their escape, and headed off into the bush with enough food for four days. After eight days, weak with hunger, they start discussing cases where sailors lost at sea have engaged in cannibalism to survive, and realise they will have to do the same. They nominate Dalton the one member of their gang they all hate, a man who volunteered to be the “flogger” and who has whipped all of them. He probably should have kept his day job at Sarah Island.

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Three of the others turned back, but “took their share of Dalton”. Every time they run out of food, another man is killed. They see new potential meat – kangaroos and emus – and vow brotherly love – never to kill another of their own, but then discover how fast kangaroos and emus can run. Soon there are four, then just three, and Pearce realises that he is next, because the other two are friends. Luckily for Pearce, one of them gets bitten by a snake, develops gangrene and well… once more they have brotherly love. The priest is dismissive of such protestations of virtue, and Pearce answers:

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“A Full Belly is prerequisite to all manner of good! Without that, no man will ever know what hunger will make you do.”

Soon there are only two, and neither dares sleep. Pearce wins the game, and the last meal, but is interrupted by a local.

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After three months, Pearce made it, alone, to Jericho, in the centre of Tasmania, over 150km away from Sarah Island. The magistrate sent him back to Sarah Island, because he did not believe the story of cannibalism. He thought it was a cover for his friends, to disguise the fact that they were still at large, bushranging.

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“He’s a thief. He’s a forger. A recalcitrant Irish… but I didn’t credit him with being a savage”.

It was also impossible to hang him for murder, since there were no bodies – a legal benefit of cannibalism.

At Sarah Island, Pearce was viciously flogged and chained to a rock.

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He escaped again, perhaps at the urging of another young convict, whom he killed eight days later, while they still had provisions. He was apparently enraged when he discovered the boy couldn’t swim, a real disadvantage when escaping from an island. Pearce signalled the first passing ship, confessed his actions and showed the authorities the body. So this time, they could hang him.

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“The man’s a monster. He cut that young man in half, and devoured him for meat, and this while he himself still had bread and cheese lining his pockets”.

At the governor’s table, all merrily chewing on some other unfortunate animal, they discuss Pearce’s fate: to be hanged, and his body dissected.

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“Quite an irony, I imagine, a cannibal being dissected… see what breeds such savagery”.

Asked by the governor’s wife why he is giving comfort to Pearce, the priest replies “I do it for fear… Fear of what we all might become, here at the end of the world.”

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Pearce was hanged at the Hobart Jail at 9am on the 19th July 1824.

“whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall that man’s blood be shed, for in his own image, God made human kind.”

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“The world is always easier understood held at a distance with tales of monsters and the like. This is how Alexander is remembered. Not as a man. Yet few truer words have ever been spoken: A full belly is prerequisite to all manner of good. Without that, no man will ever know what hunger will make him do.”

The film was nominated for the 2010 Rose d’Or, Best Drama at the 6th Annual Irish Film and Television Awards, Best Drama at the 2009 Australian Film Institute Awards, won Best Documentary at the 2009 Inside Film Awards and the director Michael James Rowland was nominated in the Best Director (Telemovie) category in the 2009 Australian Directors Guild Awards.

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Pearce is supposed to have said just before his execution:

“Man’s Flesh is Delicious. It Tastes Far Better Than Fish or Pork.”

This line does not appear in the film, and is probably apocryphal.

Merely the ink from which flows my poem: HANNIBAL Season 2 Episode 3 “Hassun” (Fuller, 2014)

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Will is awaiting trial, and the FBI has offered a plea deal – but if he fights the case and loses, he’ll face the death penalty. The electric chair. We see him in that chair, smoke rising from his corpse, as the clock ticks – backwards. Like Vertov’s bull in Kino-Eye, he comes back to life. Then we see the executioner – it is Will himself, looking serious, and quite spiffy, in a suit.

He’s clearly anxious about the trial.

He buttons himself into a suit; so does Hannibal. They dress to the dalla sua pace aria from Don Giovanni. It is a song of anxiety – Donna Anna has asked her fiancé, Don Ottavio, to kill Don Giovanni in revenge. But all Ottavio can do is worry about her state of mind. Hannibal is feeling a bit guilty too perhaps, or is this his design? Anyway, he is creating a protégé from young Will, and doesn’t want electric chairs getting in his way.

Hannibal puts on cuff-links, while Will has hand-cuffs. Easy to confuse the two words.

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The Prosecution argues that Will killed and ate Abigail as her father had planned to do. Her father killed girls and ate them, so then did Will. The crime, although it’s a murder trial, is clearly cannibalism.

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Jack is called as a witness and dumps on the FBI case, taking the blame for pushing Will too hard, and pleading the Hannah Arendt defence: Will had objected to the name “museum of evil minds” because

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Will’s Defence lawyer opens an envelope and another ear falls out.

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Hannibal’s diagnosis: there may be another killer. He has sent this ear to help you prove you are not guilty. He is an admirer. Will is incredulous – an admirer?

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Hannibal speculates that the killer wants to be seen. Why?

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In court, it’s not getting better though. Freddie tells how Abigail believed that, like her father

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Chilton gives damning evidence, and uses Clarice’s line about Hannibal from Silence of the Lambs:

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Hannibal takes Will a folder of crime scene photos from the latest murder – the court bailiff who was killed: found burned, mounted on stag’s head, Glasgow smile and ear lopped off. The team are calling it “Will Graham’s greatest hits”. Will does his pendulum thing (obviously feeling much better) and sees himself kill the dude, but without it being, you know, personal:

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But Will sees that this is a different killer:

“Cassie’s lungs were removed while she was still breathing. Georgia was burned alive. What I found of Abigail was cut off while her heart was beating.”

Hannibal admits he knew that, but wants Will to use this as a defence, even though it’s a lie.

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Hannibal gets on the stand, and takes the oath, but Will sees through him.

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Hannibal lies for Will, saying it’s the same killer. It’s love, or as the prosecutor says, “his personal beliefs and biases are driving his conclusions.”

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The judge tosses out the defence. Hannibal is pissed. Not in control.

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Bad idea, judge. He is found holding the scales of justice. His brain on one side of the scales, his heart on the other.

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But there will be a mistrial. Will has a reprieve. For now.

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