Monday, August 01, 2011

James Jameson in the Congo - Magan's World, Oct 2009

Sat 10 Oct 2009
A grisly drop of history

MAGAN'S WORLD:THE FLAUNTING by Guinness of the memory of auld Arthur so prominently last month brought to mind the ancestor of another of our great alcohol dynasties, James Sligo Jameson, grandson of the man whose signature appears on the whiskey bottles. James Sligo was Henry Morton Stanley’s only Irish officer on his ill-fated expedition up the Congo River, the first to penetrate the heart of Africa, in 1887.

I had his diaries with me while on a trip following in his footsteps in 1990, and was surprised by how similar our experiences were. We both paid £1,000 to a British company for our respective journeys, and both found ourselves completely out of our depth.

‘The last six months have been the most miserable and useless I have ever spent anywhere,’ Jameson wrote. ‘Ever since my childhood I have dreamt of doing some good in this world, and making a name which was more than an idle one.’

Both of us ended up haunted by remorse at some of the things we did on the trip. In my book Truck Fever, I admit to buying up all the food in poor villages, while Jameson writes candidly about a forced march he led, ‘one of the most disgusting pieces of work I have ever had to do . . . a lot of slave drivers of the old school would have done it much better, for that – slave-driving – is what it often resolved itself into.’

Africa in its wisdom managed to exact its revenge on both of us in the exact same location. We found ourselves abounded within two miles of each other on the Congo river, 103 years apart. Both became ill and faced starvation, and had to resort to inhumane behaviour just to stay alive. I won’t rehash my own travails here, but what happened to Jameson is an incident that is so unsavoury that it’s unlikely Jameson Distillers will ever seek to promote their intrepid ancestor in the same way as Guinness appropriated Antarctic explorer Tom Creen.

The story goes that Jameson, while in conversation about cannibalism with a local chief, offered 6 white handkerchiefs to see someone being killed and eaten so that he could sketch the scene. In a letter home to his wife he claimed it was all a misunderstanding: ‘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 ten 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 his piece away down to the river to wash it. The most extraordinary thing was that the girl never muttered a sound, nor struggled, until she fell.’

Jameson claims he only started sketching after they had begun to chop her up. He then decided to make the best of a bad lot and got out his pen. Unfortunately, news of his actions had reached the Times of London before he could set the record straight and he died of fever a few months later without ever clearing his name.

Having made my own mistakes in Africa, including being responsible for young boys being battered over the head with a machine gun butt until they bled, I think we ought to look with compassion upon Jameson, and if I do raise a pint to Uncle Arthur, I’ll definitely follow it with a chaser in memory of poor James Jameson.