Conrad has already planted in the reader’s mind the idea of European cannibalism with an earlier allusion to the Franklin Expedition, but there is an additional irony of which he may not have been aware. Adam Hochschild describes a widespread belief which developed during the time of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, as the people of West Africa tried to account for the inexplicable disappearance of thousand-upon-thousand of their fellow countrymen:
Just as Europeans would be long obsessed with African cannibalism, so Africans imagined Europeans practicing the same thing. The whites were thought to turn their captives’ flesh into salt meat, their brains into cheese, and their blood into the red wine Europeans drank... The death tolls on the packed slave ships that sailed west from the Congo coast rose higher still when some slaves refused to eat the food they were given, believing that they would be eating those who had sailed before them.
Centuries later a similar myth would emerge among the natives of the Congo Free State, after the regime began to sever hands as punishment for unfulfilled rubber quotas (See bookmark ‘There was nothing exactly profitable ...’): the cans of corned beef seen in the homes of the white men, it was rumoured, did not contain meat from animals; they contained chopped-up hands.