The Irish whiskey barons, the Jamesons, were one of the premier families of the British Empire in the 19th century but they were shaken to the core by a scandal involving cannibalism in deepest Africa.
James Jameson was one of the heirs to his family’s vast fortune, but he had little interest in distilling whiskey. Since childhood he had been fascinated by nature and spent most of his spare time sketching birds and butterflies in the countryside of his native Co Sligo.
By his early 20s, he had become one of Ireland’s greatest naturalists and wildlife painters. He was similar to many Victorian gentlemen of the day; so wealthy that he didn’t have to work but too intelligent and dynamic to sit around doing nothing.
He filled the void and his desire to discover new plants and creatures by taking part in expeditions to unexplored areas in America, the Far East and the place that inspired him the most and was to be his downfall, Africa. His love of nature and painting became entwined with a macabre fascination with cannibalism. The combination led to a bizarre series of events ending in murder and scandal that made front page headlines across the world.
The background to the story began on 26 January 1885. The British Empire suffered a humiliating defeat when Khartoum in the Sudan fell to the forces of the Islamic war lord, Mahdi Muhammed Ahmad. Khartoum at that time was under the control of Egypt, which in turn was part of the British protectorate.
The legendary soldier and adventurer General Charles George Gordon was killed while trying to defend the city. The defeat meant British lost control of the area and so their administrators and businessmen had to flee.
Among them was Emin Pasha, the governor of Equatoria in southern Sudan. He escaped into the jungle with his troops and was effectively cut off from British help and surrounded by hostile forces.
The area was too important for the British to abandon so a rescue mission was planned to find Pasha and reinstate him. The man chosen to lead it was Henry Morton Stanley, Stanley was the explorer and adventurer who gained celebrity by trekking across Africa to Lake Tanganyika in 1871 to find Dr David Livingstone. As they met he uttered the famous line that we still associate with him today: “Dr Livingstone, I presume.”
James Jameson joined the expedition thinking it would be a good opportunity to paint water colours of undiscovered African plants and wildlife. He soon realised he had made a mistake.
The expedition set sail on 20 January 1887 but it was to be no pleasure cruise. Stanley was a ruthless and pragmatic explorer. He set a merciless pace through the jungles of the Belgian Congo. Even his 500 African guides and carriers were struggling to keep up. Food rations ran low, malaria was rife and hundreds died or were lost along the way.
On 15 June 1887, Stanley decided to split the group and leave most of the expedition behind at Yambuya in Zanzibar while he went on with a few hundred of his strongest men to find Pasha.
Jameson was left behind. While waiting for Stanley to return, he filled his days painting and exploring African culture. He became fascinated by the practice of cannibalism and said he could hardly believe that it was real.
Jameson died from malaria in August 1888 before Stanley could return to complete the expedition. After his death, horror stories emerged of how Jameson’s fascination had got out of hand.
One of the interpreters on the expedition, Assad Farad, said Jameson had wanted to sketch scenes of cannibalism as they took place, so he bought a 10-year-old girl from the slave trader Tippu Tib for the price of six handkerchiefs. The girl was then handed over to a tribe of cannibals, so he could observe them slaughtering her and preparing her body.
The story was dismissed by most people back in Ireland and Britain, who couldn’t believe a Victorian gentleman would do such a thing. Stanley was also dismissive, and Farad later withdrew the allegations, under pressure from the Emin Pasha Relief Committee.
However, sadly for the Jameson family, that was not the end of the matter.
The expedition did not go well. Stanley’s men ended up disease ridden and half starved. When they eventually managed to find Pasha, he had no desire to be rescued by them. He had carved out a niche for himself where he was and was happy to stay.
Stanley came under pressure for taking part in an expensive and embarrassing waste of time. There were also stories about the inhumane treatment of African guides and carriers, some of whom had beaten or whipped to death for minor misdemeanours.
In the midst of this pressure, two years after the expedition, the story of Jameson re-emerged when one of Stanley’s men, William Bonny, repeated the allegations. This time the story became an international scandal making the papers across Europe and the United States.
The Jameson family described it as a smear campaign, promoted by Stanley to deflect attention from his shortcomings and accusations of brutality on the expedition.
Jameson’s wife, Ethel, decided to end the story by publishing extracts from his diary. It was a move that spectacularly backfired. Instead of ending the speculation, the diary confirmed that the basic allegations were true.
Jameson had written about talking the slave trader Tippu Tib about cannibalism, saying he could hardly believe such a thing existed. Most people in Europe considered it to be just lies.
This seemed to anger Tib who had got tired of Jameson’s jibes and refusal to believe. Tib said something to one of his men called Ali, who turned to Jameson and said: “Give me a bit of cloth, and see.”
The diary entry then reads: “I sent my boy for six handkerchiefs, thinking it was all a joke, and that they were not in earnest, but presently a man appeared, leading a young girl of about 10-years-old by the hand, and then I witnessed the most horribly sickening sight I am ever likely to see in my life.
“He plunged a knife quickly into her breast twice, and she fell on her face, turning over on her side. Three men then ran forward and began to cut up the body of the girl, finally her head was cut off, and not a particle remained, each man taking away his piece down to the river to wash it.
“The most extraordinary thing was that the girl never uttered a sound, nor struggled, until she fell. Until the last minute I could not believe they were in earnest. I have heard many stories of this kind since I have been in this country, but could never believe them, and I never would have been such a beast to witness this, but I could not bring myself to believe that it was anything save a rise to get money out of me until the last moment.”
Jameson’s wife no doubt hoped that the public would see that her husband had not meant any harm and was surprised and disgusted by what happened. It didn’t work out that way, with most people finding it impossible to believe that Jameson, who was an experienced traveller in Africa, could be so naive.
He had, after all, travelled and spoken with Tippu Tib, and seen slave traders kill without a moment’s hesitation when it suited them. The New York Times reflected the mood of the day: “If Mr Jameson really thought the proposed act was “all a joke,” credit is scarcely done to his intelligence.
“He had been at that time more than a year in the country and ought to have understood native views on human life rather better than this implies.”
The allegations stuck, and the reputation of the Jameson whiskey family was tarnished for a generation of more.