At a Glance:
British of Irish descent
Bird names: 3
Content Note: This profile contains discussion of slavery, colonial exploration, and cannibalism.
Jameson’s Antpecker (Parmoptila jamesoni)
Jameson’s Firefinch (Lagonosticta rhodopareia)
Jameson’s Wattle-eye (Platysteira jamesoni)
There’s some books that, even if you have never read them, are a significant enough thread in the cultural fabric that you don’t have to pick them up to be aware of them. I’ve admittedly never read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness— I’d rather read African authors’ thoughts on Africa, as a rule– but it’s seeped into the cultural zeitgeist enough and influenced so many other works that many people are at least aware of the broad outlines, and have some passing awareness of the central character, the sadistic European colonist Kurtz.
There is unfortunately no dearth of utterly horrifying Europeans who left a trail of destroyed lives in their wake as they shot their way across Africa, and there has been a long-standing debate if Conrad’s villain was just a reflection of an all-too-real archetype, or a reference to a specific person. In the latter case there have been multiple candidates suggested (again, there are a distressingly large number of absolutely awful people to choose from), and one of these intersects, unfortunately, with the history of ornithology: the explorer and naturalist James Sligo Jameson.
Jameson was heir to that Jameson– the whiskey distiller. Born in 1856 into wealth in Scotland and dying in 1888 of blackwater fever (a complication of malaria in which red blood cells burst) somewhere in central Africa, Jameson never had to particularly worry about money, and spent his time traveling around the world. Most of his life was spent bouncing around various parts of the ever-growing British Empire, collecting beetles, butterflies, and birds and hunting whatever big game was in the area wherever he went. Eventually, his reputation as a naturalist (and likely his wallet– he gave the expedition 1000 pounds) led to him signing onto Henry Morton Stanley’s greatest fiasco, the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition, in 1887.
It was during this, Jameson’s last journey, that the alleged incident that he is most infamous for took place. Jameson was part of what was called the Rear Column– the slower-moving bulk of the expedition, left to clean things up as Stanley frantically sprinted ahead in fear he would lose the race to reach to Emin Pasha to one of the numerous other explorers trying to do so. Many of the atrocities of the expedition were attributed to this Rear Column, but it is still debated by historians how much they actually did, and how much was exaggerated by habitual liar Stanley to blame the conveniently dead leaders of that column for the overall disaster.
However, the incident of 11 May 1888 is recorded in Jameson’s own journal, so it seems likely that at least something along its utterly horrifying lines took place. Europeans of the day were obsessed with reports of cannibalism. There was a general sense among many in the period that cannibalism was widely practiced in Africa, reinforced by sensational stories of dubious veracity. These reports were often used as a rationale for colonization– who, after all, could argue with European expansion if it was in the name of stopping a practice that claimed untold innocent lives? Explorers often as not bought into these beliefs, and so frequently brought up the topic in their travels.
It is likely in this context that Jameson, totally convinced that the local people were cannibals, offered a leader of the group six handkerchiefs in exchange for them killing and consuming a ten year old girl purchased for that purpose. The passage in which he describes this event in his journal is incredibly repugnant, both for its violence and its intense racism– the n-word is used repeatedly as Jameson echoes every racist trope about “darkest Africa”. He expresses his horror at this scene repeatedly…but also admitted later that he in part initiated the whole awful sequence of events so that he could sketch it.
Again, it is not entirely certain whether this happened as described, or even at all. But in a way it doesn’t matter. Jameson’s narrative was a particularly powerful addition to the colonial myth of widespread cannibals, itself one of the key tools of imperialist propaganda. There were certainly many monsters who became explorers, colonial administrators, and soldiers because it was a socially legitimate way (in the eyes of their European homelands, of course) to hurt and kill other people. But the vast majority needed convincing that they were in the right, and the colonial myth of cannibalism– which was spun out of whole cloth– was one of the narratives that reinforced the self-deception that, in some way, colonialism was actually about helping people.
Jameson never returned from the Emin Pasha expedition. Like many colonizers before and after him, what he certainly thought of as his self-evident superiority was no match for the most common of tropical diseases. Unfortunately, his story did return, and helped fuel the nightmare of colonialism that much more.
Fletcher, Chris. 2001. Kurtz, Marlow, Jameson, and the rearguard: a few further observations. The Conradian, 26(1). pp. 60-64. [link]
Hochschild, Adam. 1998. King Leopold’s ghost: a story of greed, terror, and heroism in colonial Africa. Houghton Mifflin: New York. p
Jameson, James Sligo. 1890. The story of the rear column of the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition. R.H. Porter: London. pp 290-292. [link]
Richardson, J.A. 1993. James S. Jameson and “Heart of Darkness”. Notes and Queries, 40(1), pp. 63-64. [link]
Watkins, Morgan G. 1892. “Jameson, James Sligo”. In: Dictionary of National Biography 1885-1900. Vol 29. [link]