On cannibalism and Jameson

A recent twitter conversation prompted me to dig up some old posts on cannibalism, and maybe a few memories of my time in Central Africa.

The twitter conversation concerned a story in which it is claimed that James Jameson, heir to the Jameson Irish whiskey empire, bought a slave girl (for the price of six handkerchiefs) in order to watch her be eviscerated and eaten by cannibals, and in particular, so that he could make some nice watercolor painting of the event. Apparently this is going around the internet.

If this is true, which as I will argue in a moment is not actually the case, then there are two things we would draw from the story. First, there were, in the late 18th century, villages of cannibals in Africa. Second, Jameson was a total jerk.

There are a few things you need to know before evaluating this story. First, it is true that almost all Americans and Europeans in the 18th and 19th century who had an interest in Africa knew with a high degree of certainty that African were, generally, cannibalistic, even if not all of them were fully fledged cannibals. This presumption, however, is untrue. It is simply something that people believed as part of the prevailing very racist attitude about Africa. This applied to other places as well. It was assumed that the natives around the world were cannibals, and we even see the use of the term “cannibal” being used here and there interchangeably with “native.”

The second thing you need to know is that nineteenth century traveler’s accounts and other documents are notoriously inaccurate, and often designed for a purpose other than to convey the truth, such as self aggrandizement or to disparage rivals, or, of course, to further the racist trope or support colonialism.

The third thing you need to know is that by the time Jameson got to the village in question, the mainly middle to later 19th century practice of slave trading was in full swing in the interior of Central Africa, mainly as part of a larger slave and ivory trade focuses on the Indian Ocean and probably North Africa. So, there were villages of slave traders, some of whom were really shady characters, and the village Jameson visited was almost certainly one of them. This was during the period of colonialism in the Congo when there was a full scale genocide starting out, orchestrated bv the King of Belgium and utilizing such notable players as the famous Henry Morton Stanley. So, if there were gruesome murders and even cannibalism, this would not have been normal for the local cultures.

Here’s the third thing you need to know. Even though it is very hard to find confirmed cases of cannibalism in the historic record for Central Africa, the idea of cannibalism is widespread. But you have to understand this in a cultural context. To help you understand this, I’m going to switch for a moment to the United States.

In the US, we have serial killers. For every actual serial killer, there are probably a dozen stories about serial killers, some based on actual serial killers, some just made up books and movies. We seem to be very interested in serial killers. We teach our children to avoid strangers because some of them might be bad people, and the idea of a stranger being a serial killer (as opposed to, say, a rapist or something) is absolutely part of that concern. So, in the US we fear serial killers, amuse ourselves with stories of serial killers, and even teach our children to avoid them.

So, does this mean that Americans are serial killers? In Africa, there are many many stories of cannibals, many traditional Africans fear cannibalism and think it is fairly common and consider this to be something to avoid and instruct children about. There are probably many more actual serial killers in the US than there are cannibals in Africa. Of course, some of the American serial killers have been cannibals, and that may be the case in Africa too. But the point is, these two things — serial killing and cannibalism — are sort of real but in fact very very rare, and are blown way out of proportion by the cultures in the two regions.

Now, the fourth thing you need to know is this. The Jameson story is known from two places. One is an account written by someone who probably wanted to damage Jameson (they had a thing), later promoted by a major rival (HM Stanley himself). The other comes from Jameson’s documents assembled and conveyed by his widow after his death.

In the first story, the one written by the Jameson haters, Jameson asks to have a demonstration of cannibalism and offers six handkerchiefs, which sounds like a cheap price but that’s only because you don’t know the value of cloth in late 19th century Central Africa (they would have actually been fairly valuable) to buy a young girl, a slave, so she could be eviscerated, butchered, and eaten while he painted the process.

In the second version of the story, from Jameson (indirectly), something like this did happen, but he did not knowingly pay for a slave (but there were handkerchiefs involved), a girl was killed and butchered (but there is no clear evidence she was eaten, I believe). It was not done at his request, he was aghast and horrified, and also, it all happened very quickly and given the situation he was powerless to stop it.

More recent write-ups of this event seem to make the assumption that the more gruesome version of the story is real, and in those write-ups we see lame excuses for things like there has never been any evidence that any paintings were every produced or existed in any form.

I know a guy who told me he was with the Zaire police when they were called to a village run by a cannibalistic chief. They found body parts everywhere and arrested the chief. He also told me that this people come from a location to the northeast of where he lived and were scattered to the four winds by a nuclear explosion. And he told me a lot of other things.

When I was living near the Rwenzori, this happened. There were rebels up on the mountain at that time. They had been there for years. (Now, they are the government, but that is another story). One day the army went up there to harass them, as they did now and then. A villager, it is said, told the army where to find the rebels. Eventually the army left, and the rebels captured the villagers and …

… well, that part of the story almost certainly happened but the rest is in question ….

… and then killed him and ate him in front of the other villagers, to teach them a lesson. The problem is, isn’t any really good evidence that they killed anybody and even less evidence that anybody ate anybody. But throughout the region, people’s fear of the rebels grew. The cannibalism story works.

I could tell you many more stories like this. I, myself, am a cannibal according to some. (But, honest, I’m not.) People have searched for confirmed cases of cannibalism and found very few. The Jameson story is unbelievable for a number of reasons, but partly plausible given the context of a village of bad guy slave traders. But to assume that it was routine to have “cannibal villages” is incorrect.

Cannibal is real. We see it here and there in the archaeology. But usually it involves eating your ancestors, maybe their ground up bones processed in a respectfully funerary rite. Most cases of “normal” (culturally accepted) cannibalism is probably of those who died on their own or were killed as part of warfare. Other cases are symbolic (like the Christian ritual of eating Jesus Christ and drinking his blood). And, as in discussed in one of the items linked to below, sometimes eating other people is done as a separate event form their death, like when human blood is consumed from an injured person. For medicinal purposes, of course.

As noted, I’ve written about cannibalism and expanded on these themes in a few places. In You come from Cannibals I talk about cannibalism in Classic and European history. In Among Cannibals I talk about the Rwenzori incident in more detail, and talk about cannibalism in other contexts. In Cannibal, Native, Indigenous, I have a little fun with Google N-Gram Viewer.

Enjoy. If that’s what you want to call it!


Other posts of interest:

Also of interest: In Search of Sungudogo: A novel of adventure and mystery, set in the Congo.

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32 thoughts on “On cannibalism and Jameson

  1. To my understanding, no one has ever found people who proudly admit to non-ritualistic cannibalism. It’s always a disparagement made about “those others”.

  2. It seems like the normal course of things. Some people will run with stories like cannibalism and write them absurdly large, like the claims in this article. Others then come along (like this article) and try to deny, to the greatest extent possible, that any of this is true – with plenty of snide remarks about racist attitudes etc.

    There is no real question that, e.g. amongst the Pacific island cultures there was a widespread (not ubiquitous) practice of eating one’s enemies. Heck, even in our lifetime (some of us), Micheal Rockefeller was almost certainly a victim of cannibalism, in PNG.

    That the cannibals may have done some “ritualistic” mumbo-jumbo as part of the process does not elevate the practice or mean the it somehow does not count.

  3. The exception is those bad guys who make the claim to scare people. But that is not “a people” or a culture, as you point out.

  4. I’m with you Joe, there certainly seems to be a fashion to dismiss cannibalism as a fantasy, despite evidence of its widespread practice in New Zealand, New Guinea, Northern Queensland and on islands all over the Pacific.
    (I don’t know anything about Afirca, but it seems unlikely that cannibalism was as unusual as current fashion dictates).

    Here is something from Wikipedia:
    “Indian POW, Lance Naik Hatam Ali (later a citizen of Pakistan), testified in New Guinea and stated:

    “… the Japanese started selecting prisoners and every day one prisoner was taken out and killed and eaten by the soldiers. I personally saw this happen and about 100 prisoners were eaten at this place by the Japanese. The remainder of us were taken to another spot 50 miles [80 km] away where 10 prisoners died of sickness. At this place, the Japanese again started selecting prisoners to eat. Those selected were taken to a hut where their flesh was cut from their bodies while they were alive and they were thrown into a ditch where they later died.”[112]”

  5. Joe and Craig; yes, eating enemies, as indicated in the post, has been done. Not at all widespread, virtually unknown in Africa, which is the context here. And yes, there is a certain amount of denialism of cannibalism. But then there is the counter reaction like yooz guys.

    Stories like Craig’s Japan story are often found to have no basis. In this case, the individual given the account saw a perisoner taken away. Are we sure he saw them eaten? That is usually the pattern.

    Having said that, crazy Japanese soldiers fall into the category of socio/psychopathic behavior, again, as indicated above. Having said that, I’ll have to look up that particular story because it sounds interesting.

  6. One aspect of cannibalism not mentioned is the necessity of it in many of these circumstances. Jungle cultures in this region have depleted the larger animals which would supply the meat they need for their tribe’s diet, and they are not bound by the taboos of the more “civilized” world. Hunting wild boar, or jungle birds can be arduous and frustrating. The amount of flesh on a human enemy can satisfy their need for meat, and is wasteful if the enemy is just buried. As recently as 2000, (the most recent I have first-hand knowledge) the Dayak tribes of Borneo still practiced cannibalism whenever there was a dispute between them. It is also possible that the Japanese cannibals were in need of cheap meat, and hadn’t the “scruples” of their enemies, so killing and eating them was no big ethical deal, and easily satisfied their hunger.

  7. Yes, the Anasazi is one of the now classic archaeological cases of cannibalism.

    Jonny, the problem with starting to eat your neighbors, though, is that you usually need them alive and not mad at you!

  8. The most widespread form of *actual*, socially acceptable cannibalism is probably consumption of the placenta. But of course in our culture that’s considered so impossibly gross we scarcely even think of it, let alone realize that it’s technically cannibalism.

  9. It was a thing it the US for a while.

    Yes, the placenta is a part of the baby. It is the first body part you lose as a human.

  10. I am disposed to view the six handkerchief story as apocryphal — any Jameson worth his salt would have provided tasting notes on the irish whiskey’s paired to the courses of the cannibal feast.

  11. On a purely fictional note – Greg, do you remember the song “Timothy” by the Buoys (I believe written by Rupert Holmes) – around 1970. How often is the implication of cannibalism the main point of a song?

  12. The placenta is FAR from being “like a scab”…

    The placenta is a cross between lung tissue (the gas exchange being with the mother’s bloodstream, not the air) and small intestine lining (again, absorbing nutrients from the mother’s bloodstream, not the chyme in the intestinal media) — both functions are quite vital, obviously.

    A scab is excess connective tissue formed to close & protect a wound, and is pretty much disorganized overgrowth — which may or may not drop off later. That the placenta is also jettisoned doesn’t make it like a scab, however. It’s more like a body part, since it *is* a body part — albeit one that is only sustained and provides its function during gestation.

    Another way to put it: I’ve yet to hear anyone describe baby teeth as “like a scab”.

  13. Okay, will someone please insert the de rigueur reference to the Donner Party (or the Uruguayan Rugby team, if you’re in the Southern Hemisphere)…? We’re already at comment #15, after all…

  14. ” will someone please insert the de rigueur reference to the Donner Party ”

    Years ago (and possibly still) one of the cycling teams that rode Ragbrai (and the Rockies) every year was “Team Donner Party”.
    The backs of their jerseys read “We eat the slow ones.”

  15. I would have mentioned Donner and the Andes here but I think I covered them in my other posts, references here. I did know a very good friend of a survivor of the Andes crash, and I knew two people with ancestors in the Donner party. One of whom seems to have eaten the other.

  16. Julian, the placenta is an organ. It has its own developmental pathway, its own morphology, just like any other organ. It really really is an organ. One of the major differences between large groups of mammals is the part about the placenta (though not all have what is called a placenta). The biology of the placenta is well understood. I’ve studied placenta related theory, and taught placenta anatomy. I once had a placenta but I lost it. Trust me, it is an organ.

  17. Eating other people’s flesh is inhumane.Think twice people before turning to cannibalism,you may contract Kuru.
    14242177

  18. I read a few articles talking about how Kuru is transmitted via funerary cannibalism.Is it transmitted only by that or is there another way a person may get it?

  19. Prudence, if Kuru is in a population it is passed on by eating nervous tissue (brain or nerves) that are not very thoroughly cooked. Kuru is a human version of this, a well known version in cattle is “Mad cow disease.”

  20. When ‘haters’ conjure up certain things about their ‘victim’ there could be some truth to it or they just have such a creative mind to come up with such. In the DRC a man who had been accused of being part of a Ugandan-established group as stoned scorched and devoured. i still don’t understand why he was eaten.

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