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.