The Man-Eating Tree of Madagascar: Myth or Fact?

Olubayo Stephen
May 8, 2023

African communities and peoples are no strangers to myths and legends. The myths we rally around as Africans have historically been our saving grace and sanctuary. However, some myths are so piercingly terrifying that they would pass as horror stories told to scare kids during moonlight tales. One such myth began to make rounds in 1874 when a German traveler, Karl Leche, sent a letter to newspapers across the United States and Europe. His letter gave vivid details of a tree he came across in Madagascar, an island on the east coast of Africa, and how that tree consumes humans, so much that the Mkodo tribe people made human sacrifices to said tree.

The New York World published a story on April 28, 1874, claiming the discovery of a "remarkable new species of plant" known as a "man-eating tree." In Karl Leche's extravagant description of his experience, he explains thus:

From the top of the tree sprout long hairy green tendrils and a set of tentacles, constantly and vigorously in motion, with ... a subtle, sinuous, silent throbbing against the air. [Presented a woman as an offering], the slender delicate palpi, with the fury of starved serpents, quivered a moment over her head, then as if instinct with demoniac intelligence fastened upon her in sudden coils round and round her neck and arms; then while her awful screams and yet more awful laughter rose wildly to be instantly strangled down again into a gurgling moan, the tendrils one after another, like great green serpents, with brutal energy and infernal rapidity, rose, retracted themselves, and wrapped her aboutin fold after fold, ever-tightening with cruel swiftness and savage tenacity of anacondas fastening upon their prey.

The article described the "inhospitable tribesmen" of the Mkoda Tribe as feeding a lady to this plant. The report included extracts from a letter purportedly sent by Karl Leche in which he claimed to have observed the Mkoda tribe sacrificing a lady to a tree. His letter described the reportedly eight-foot-tall "heavy in proportion" pineapple tree with "eight leaves... like doors swinging back on their hinges." Leche claimed to have studied the "carnivorous tree." In addition, he claimed to have seen "many additional, smaller instances of it in the jungle" and observed one of them consuming a lemur. Several other newspapers, journals, and magazines repeated this article in the following days and weeks.

Chase Osborn, a former governor of Michigan turned explorer, confirmed Liche's statementsforty years later in his book Madagascar, Land of the Man-Eating Tree, adding that othertribes and missionaries also knew about the tree.

Where, then, are these magnificent and awful trees? Are they that uncommon? Or have they fallen prey to deforestation like a large portion of the once-luxuriant, verdant canopy that enveloped Madagascar? Fortunately, the solution to the question is none of the options listed. The whole narrative was fabricated. One could consequently question why this myth has been widely believed for over seventy years.

Although absurd, the belief in a man-eating tree in Madagascar was not extremely destructive. However, it was significant because it represented bigger tendencies. However, the most damaging aspect of this narrative was its portrayal of the fictional Mkoda tribe. By implying that they sacrificed people to the tree, the narrative established an image of the inhabitants of Africa as "inhospitable savages," which contributed to the portrayal of Africa as a location in need of colonial intervention, given that the story started to trend in 1874, a pivotal year for colonialism. This was an additional reason why many believed this piece of faux news. It perpetuated deeply rooted racial beliefs in American society.

In addition, this hypothetical narrative resonated with many because it terrified them that something so well-known and universally regarded as beautiful could be so dreadfully terrifying. The dread it induced in the audience rendered them irrational. It is obvious why somany people adopted this misconception in the nineteenth century since there was no reason to mistrust the account and several arguments in its favor. This narrative is only one example of spreading false information about Africa in nineteenth-century America.

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