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James Jameson was a young heir to the Jameson Irish Whiskey fortune in the late 19th century, well before the United States prohibition movement nearly toppled the family empire. Things were still good for the Jamesons, and James enjoyed your stereotypical privileged upbringing — drinking fancy teas, travelling..

The Horrible Jameson Affair

While on an expedition into Africa during the late 19th century, James Jameson, heir to the Jameson Irish whiskey empire, reportedly asked to witness cannibalism in action. To this end, he purchased a slave girl and handed her over to men who murdered her and feasted on her flesh. While the grisly scene unfolded, Jameson is said to have sketched it out, later turning his rough illustrations into a series of watercolours.

James Jameson, heir to the Jameson Irish Whiskey fortune, was a wanna-be adventurer who tagged along on one of the last European exploration trips into the “Dark Heart of Africa,” in the late 1800s. The crew of the expedition, whose intention was to rescue a colonial Governor who they assumed was in danger, was led by famed explorer Henry M. Stanley.

However, having a famous leader didn’t save the group from endless problems. They faced danger from the local people and animals, diseases, and isolation from the outside world. They also had many reports of abuse on the trip, and it became an infamous expedition for the number of deaths that happened along the way.

One of the most unsettling accounts from that fateful trip is the story of the day James Jameson decided to buy a slave girl and watch her be killed and eaten – because he was curious about cannibalism. It may sound like an unbelievably gruesome thing for someone to do, but – amazingly – Jameson’s journal and multiple accounts of that day from other members of the crew confirm that it is true.

James S. Jameson, was the descendent of John Jameson, the founder of Jameson Whiskey, and heir to the huge whiskey empire. In 1888, Jameson was a member of one of the last major European exploration trips through the center of Africa, the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition. Not much is know about his life besides his family lineage and his brief and ill-fated trip to the heart of the Congo.

Jameson is far and away the best selling Irish whiskey in the world, trumping other such brands as Bushmills and Tullamore Dew. The Scottish lawyer John Jameson founded the company in 1780 in Dublin, Ireland. Jameson whiskeys have been very highly regarded over the years, but there is a horrifying legacy at the bottom of the bottle.

The end of the 19th century was a time of unimaginable cruelty in Africa as the nations of Europe sought to divide it into imperialist states. Millions of Africans were killed by the conquering forces from the north as white men pillaged the land for its vast natural resources, gold, and diamonds. Expeditions were sent to the heart of the “dark continent” hoping to uncover treasures.

The Horrible Jameson Affair, refers to the allegations that the fast living colonialist-for-hire and heir to a whiskey distilling empire, James S Jameson, procured a girl solely to watch her being eaten. The accusations were made in 1890, two years after the alleged incident.

James S Jameson was an heir to Jameson Irish Whiskey. His account of his time in the Rear Column was published posthumously by his wife and brother in an attempt to combat charges of disobedience, disloyalty, forgetfulness of promises, desertion, cruelty, cowardice, and even murder levelled against him by Sir Henry Morton Stanley.

Assad Farran was a Syrian translator, who accompanied Jameson on his journey with Tippu Tip. It was Farran who made the contentious and inflammatory deposition against Jameson.

One of the few details of the episode that would be uncontested was the start of the affair. Jameson found himself with Tippu Tip and his translator Assad Farran at Ribakiba (or Ribaruba or Riba Riba, depending on the source; placenames were a flexible phoneticisation of the vernacular) Now known as Lokandu, it is a township in the Democratic Republic of Congo and sits at the virtual centre of Africa. At the time Ribakiba was a trading stop on the Lualaba River, a headstream of the Congo. The town was a major stop in slave and ivory trade routes, a lawless frontier town. The men were there looking for porters, of which they would eventually get 400.

Henry Morton Stanley with the officers of the Advance Column of the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition, taken in Cairo 1890 after the expedition. From the left : Dr. Thomas Heazle Parke, Robert H. Nelson, Henry M. Stanley, William G. Stairs, and Arthur J. M. Jephson.

The men were part of the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition. The expedition’s stated aim was to relieve the besieged Emin Pasha. It was really an expansionist foray, masterminded by Belgian royalty and employing cooperative europeans in an exploratory journey to the heart of “darkest africa”. King Leopold was suffering regal anxiety, and had decided he needed vast swathes of sub-Saharan real estate to allow him compete with other European monarchs. The men were to evaluate the lands.

Jameson and Barttelot had been left in command of the expedition’s Rear Column, something they failed to do in spectacular fashion. When Sir Henry Morton Stanley returned to review their joint command, he found only 60 of the 271 men still fit to serve. The camp’s conditions were described in all their depressing detail by Farran in his later affidavit.

Barttelot and Jameson claimed they were hampered in their duties by the lack of Belgian steamers on the Congo. They said their station was remote and isolated. King Leopold had promised steamers for the expedition which had not materialised, and the expedition were forced to use boats that could be dismantled and carried.

The expedition left Zanzibar for the heart of Africa on 25 February 1886.

Farran set the scene by describing cruelty and severity at Yambuya camp. He described the camp as having split into factions, in an indictment of the laissez-faire attitude adopted by the camp’s commanders.

Farran recounted how, at Ribakiba, Jameson had said to him that he was curious about the practice of cannibalism, which he believed was common among the natives. Apparently he was correct, it was relatively common. Jameson wanted to see it being performed and decided to buy a slave for the purpose. He paid six handkerchiefs for 10 year old girl. This detail would later stand out as essentially correct and uncontested.

Along with a group of men he brought her to the cannibals’ hut. Through the interpreter the men were told, “This is a present from a white man, who wishes to see her eaten”.

The girl was tied to a tree, and had her belly gouged twice with a knife. She looked around for assistance from the hostile group surrounding her. The girl remained silent as blood gushed from her abdomen. She was resigned to her fate. When dead from the blood loss, she was cut into pieces by the men who had sharpened their knives nearby.

Farran told how Jameson drew and sketched throughout the entire ordeal. Jameson, he said, later rendered these sketches in 6 delicate watercolours – the girl being led away, the stabbing and gushing blood, the dissection, and the final butchery. Jameson displayed his works to the chiefs for their approval.

Supporting Cast

  • Barttelot was an officer colleague of Jameson’s, left in command of Rear Column at Yambuya in the modern day Democratic Republic of the Congo. Barttelot would eventually be shot as he attempted to strike a woman, at the same time as Jameson died of fever elsewhere.
  • Tippu Tip (variously spelled Tippoo Tip, Tippu Tib etc) was a notorious, blind slave trader, plantation owner and governor, who worked for a succession of sultans of Zanzibar. He rose to prominence through his ruthlessness and would eventually become very wealthy and powerful. By all accounts he was a man to be feared.
  • Emin Pasha was a true nineteenth century gentleman; virtually the paradigm of a Jules Verne character. A German doctor and naturalist he was appointed Governor of Equatoria, but had become besieged after the fall of Sudan.
  • Sir Henry Morton Stanley (of Dr livingstone fame), was in the employment of King Leopold of Belgium to install a Belgian colony, Congo’s Free State. Stanley was one of the leaders of the expedition to “rescue” Emin Pasha.

According to some sources, he was even present as they cooked and feasted on her remains. Then, he retired to his tent and finished his work with watercolours.

Later, he would provide his series of illustrations and display them to others in the group.

In describing them, Farran said “There were six of them, all neatly done. The first sketch was of the girl as she was led to the tree. The second showed her stabbed, with the blood gushing from the wounds. The third showed her dissected. The fourth, fifth, and sixth showed men carrying off various parts of her body.”

Jameson died shortly thereafter, but not before writing a rebuttal of the incident. Although he claimed that he was present for an incident of cannibalism, he claimed he was averse to it. He even corroborated the point about the handkerchiefs, although instead of payment, he claimed that they were given to prove the cannibals would actually go through with it. The rebuttal seems rather flimsy in retrospect, and as other members of the group would testify to Jameson’s rather execrable character, he likely operated with sinister intent.

A letter from Jameson appeared in the New York Times on November 15, 1890. His defence was made posthumously through his wife’s correspondence with the newspaper, and consisted of a letter Jameson had written to Sir William McMackinnon. The letter had been composed, as Jameson was dying, at Stanley Falls, August 3, 1888. Strangely, it deals with minor details and accusations which would only come to light two years later in Farran’s affidavit, which lends some credibility to the accusations.

Jameson described how he was brought to the local chief’s house where a cannibalistic ceremony was already in progress. Jameson was told by Tippu that he would witness cannibalism. Jameson replied in the negative, said it was impossible and he did not wish to believe it might happen. Tippu, he said, pushed the point and asked for 6 handkerchiefs so that he might prove him wrong. At this point Jameson concedes he did provide the handkerchiefs. This would lead anyone to wonder why he had such items, or why he went to lengths to procure and provide the payment that would secure a girl’s death, a death he claims he was averse to. At any rate all tellings of the story corroborate that a girl’s life was worth a mere 6 handkerchiefs.

Jameson said it all happened too quick to sketch, had he wanted to, which he goes on to re-state he didn’t do because he was shocked. Jameson then went on to accuse Assad of fraud in camel dealings, in a thinly veiled and feeble attempt at character assassination.

The story that Jameson tells in his written account of the incident has a different spin than that of the affidavit his translator produced. Rather than stating his curiosity, he writes that the whole affair began as a joke. According to him, he never believed that they would actually kill the girl; he allegedly thought that they were just playing a joke on him for money. He claims that he believed that right up until the moment the men stabbed her. He also wrote that he drew the sketches later on from memory, and not while she was being killed and cut apart.

In most aspects, though, Jameson’s account is in accordance with Farran, his translator.

Jameson died of a fever at Stanley Falls on August 3, 1888. Although he never made it back home, he wrote a letter to his wife while he was dying in an attempt to save face. She published the letter in the newspaper after his death to try and posthumously save his reputation, which had been ruined by the other accounts of the mission.

The three main accounts that exist of this morbid event come from Jameson himself, Henry M. Stanley (the leader of the expedition), and Assad Farran (a Syrian translator). Jameson’s journal corroborates the story itself, that he did indeed purchase a slave girl to be killed and eaten. The others merely add a spin to what happened – Farran’s version is the story told through a seemingly neutral translator’s eyes, while Stanley’s version seems to be more self-serving in nature. It was said that he told the story of the event to others to take a bit of heat off of himself, since the expedition had had so many mishaps.

All sides had much to gain and lose. On balance of probability, there may have been some truth in the accusations, particularly in the light of Stanley’s portrayal of Jameson’s disdainful character.

Congo of the time was a dangerous and unstable place. The Luba Kingdom arose in the sixteenth century to eventually fall victim to European expansionism in the late nineteenth century. This was “Darkest Africa” a continent of myth, legend and heroism full of danger both animal and human, a land that might swallow up the unprepared. It was seen as a dangerous land, beyond the reach of law. Sadly, these tales appear to have more than a grain of truth, but much of this barbarism and intrigue was of european origin, or at least in support of colonial aims. Jameson certainly seems to have acted in this cavalier manner, according to many witnesses.

Assad was later ordered by Sir Francis de Winton to sign a declaration that the story was untrue. De Winton was the administrator General of the Belgian Congo and secretary of the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition, a man who had much to lose if it was believed that men were supporting cannibalism under his watch.

Despite the stories that corroborate it, there are still reasons to doubt the idea that James Jameson purchased a slave girl to be bought and eaten in The Congo in 1888. The story is built on the idea that cannibalism was widespread in Africa at the time; it wasn’t. In reality, Europeans maintained this stereotype about the “dark continent” regardless of evidence to the contrary. Secondly, travellers’ accounts from the period have lots of subterranean agendas. A major one was to support the project of colonialism, and painting Africans with this kind of cannibalistic brush would have contributed to this agenda.

So did James Jameson really pay six handkerchiefs to see a child cannibalized in The Congo? Reports from the period point to yes, but there are reasons to doubt the veracity of those reports.

Any story was possibly true.

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