Sunday, 6 April 2014

The Whiskey Cannibal & The Heart of Darkness

* This is a cut-down of a chapter from my last book - Murder, Mutiny & Mayhem - The Blackest Hearted Villains From Irish History - it's also an incredible story that had not really been told (in full form at least) until I came across it. I would love to go to the Congo some day to retrace the steps of Jameson & The Last Expedition. It's on the to-do list. If you want the full story, check out the book - it's O'Brien Press available on Kindle, Amazon etc, most good bookstores & some mediocre ones. ENJOY! 

The Whiskey Cannibal - James Sligo Jameson and the Heart of Darkness.

James Sligo Jameson

In a jungle clearing in an unmapped region of the Congo River basin, an Irish gentleman discusses the rites and rituals of cannibalism with a slave trader. James ‘Sligo’ Jameson, scion of the famous whiskey-distilling family and one of the great naturalists of the late-nineteenth-century ‘age of exploration’, is far from home, fever-wracked and travelling under the dubious protection of the notorious Arab slave master Tippu Tib.

Jameson is a well bred, well-connected Victorian gentleman-explorer and naturalist, famed for his sketches of butterflies and birds, made during previous travels through Southern Africa, Borneo and the Rocky Mountains of the North America continent. An experienced traveller, he had volunteered to face danger in the previously impenetrable Ituri forest of the Congo basin. He has been fascinated with science and nature since he began collecting birds’ eggs around the family home at Glen Lodge, in Co. Sligo as a young boy. But in April 1888, he is hopelessly lost, cut adrift from the main column, abandoned by the legendary explorer who recruited him to take part in the greatest expedition of the age, Henry Morton Stanley.

Struggling along a slaver’s trail towards the village of Kasongo, a reluctant, desperate guest of Tippu Tib – independent Arab warlord and trader – and his private army, Jameson has, between
bouts of fever, been nursing a dark and growing fascination with stories of cannibalism. The only other white officer in the rag-tag column, British army Major Edmund Musgrave Barttelot, is going slowly mad. Barttelot has already kicked one camp boy to death and killed another with three hundred lashes from a rhino-hide bullwhip. He will shortly be shot dead by a local gang-master after physically attacking the man's wife.

Bivouacked overnight in a jungle clearing, Jameson once again pesters his host about the ‘travellers' tales’ he has heard concerning the local tribes and the butchery and eating of slaves. This time, perhaps exasperated by his guest's obsession with cannibalism, Tippu Tib offers a practical demonstration.

Henry Morton Stanley - Hat Enthusiast
What happened next would be at the centre of the final, gruesome chapter of the story of the heroic age of European exploration in Africa and its enduring legacy of brutal conquest, instability and exploitation. It would pit Henry Morton Stanley, the journalist and adventurer who found fame as ‘the man who found Dr Livingston’ against the Jameson family and become one of the great, international scandals of the late Victorian era.

Allegations and counter allegations made by Stanley, survivors of the expedition, the Jameson family and British colonial officials would be made via letters and editorials in the most influential newspapers of Dublin, London and New York. Stanley and his allies would accuse Jameson of the most horrible crime, buying a young slave girl for the ‘sole purpose of having her murdered, so that a cannibalistic scene might be furnished for his sketch book’. The Jameson family would accuse Stanley and others of fabricating horror stories and attacking the reputation of an honourable man who could not defend himself. Stanley’s expedition had become a three-year, continent-crossing trek of slaughter, savagery and disease, costing thousands of lives, and attracting fierce public criticism. The great man would be accused of finding a convenient fall-guy in the Anglo-Irish naturalist.

What would never be in question was the fact that a father and husband, who had dreamed of exploring Africa as a young boy, poring over maps in his grandmother's house in Co. Sligo, met a terrible, squalid end in a disease-ridden camp far from home.

And what sealed his fate as a "Consort of Cannibals" was his own, incredible journal, carried out of the jungle by one of the last survivors. It clearly detailed his own involvement in dark rites and condemed him in his own words.

The scandal would drag on for years and the Jameson name, for a time, became synonymous not with whiskey, but with cannibalism; there is even strong evidence that James ‘Sligo’ Jameson was the model for Joseph Conrad’s Mr Kurtz in his classic story of civilisation, madness and the Congo, Heart of Darkness.

Conrad, the Polish-seafarer-turned-British-novelist had only recently returned from his time as a river boat captain in the Congo and the press was full of accounts of the appalling behaviour of Stanley’s officers on his last, disastrous expedition. Conrad’s biographer Chris Fletcher cites the infamous, real-life, tale of the Irish gentleman naturalist who consorted with cannibals and notes the great novelist described Mr Kurtz starting out as ‘an emissary of pity, and science, and progress’. Conrad has Kurtz ‘presiding at certain midnight dances ending up with unspeakable rites, which ... were offered up to him – do you understand? – to Mr Kurtz himself.’ These eerily mirror the charges laid against James Sligo Jameson.

Further parallels may be seen when Conrad writes of Kurtz’s widow and her inability to deal with the truth of her late husband’s madness. However, Conrad, Ethel Jameson and the readers of the Victorian press might never have learned the true story of James Sligo Jameson if it wasn’t for a few survivors, including a Roscommon-born doctor and adventurer, who miraculously completed a a cross-continental trek of almost unimaginable horror and difficulty.

That doctor was Thomas Heazle Parke, who joined the expedition in early 1887 after a chance meeting with Stanley at Cairo, where he was serving as a military surgeon.

A Rather Fanciful Illustration of Parke
Parke would play a significant role in the expedition and the subsequent controversy. By any measure, he was a remarkable figure. He took part in the Gordon Relief Column into Sudan. He spent almost three years with Stanley, became the first Irishman to cross the continent of Africa (on foot) and if any member of the expedition could have been considered a hero, it was the modest, resolute and kindly army surgeon who spent his childhood in Leitrim. There is a statue of Parke outside the Natural History Museum in Dublin.

The stories of Jameson and Parke, two Irishmen far from home, and the true motives for what has become known as The Last Expedition, reveal the darkness, greed and power-plays at the heart of the great age of exploration in Africa.

That the gentle, butterfly-obsessed grandson of a Dublin distiller should have been there at all is one of those strange quirks of history, a forgotten chapter in the story of an Irish family name known throughout the world. It involves ruthless newspaper magnates in New York and London, a rapacious Belgian king, private African armies, renegades, slave traders, corrupt politicians and a famous explorer with a secret past.

And it begins with the one of the most dramatic convulsions of the High Victorian age, the killing of Major-General Charles George Gordon at Khartoum in January, 1885.

The death of Gordon, and thousands of soldiers and civilians, at the hands of a radical Islamic general and self-styled messiah known as the “Mad Mahdi” in the Sudan unleashed a torrent of emotion back in London.

It brought down the Government of William Gladstone and led to the imperialists and the Jingoist press calling for a new effort to plant the flag in the heart of Africa.

They turned to the great explorer, Stanley, not knowing that he had already negotiated a secret side-deal with the King of Belguim, who owned and operated a vast, private slave-empire across the Congo region and wanted more.

Stanley and his men, including Sligo Jameson and the Leitrim-born, Dr Parke, were officially on a mission to rescue the last remnants of the men who stood with Gordon.

But only Stanley knew what the real purpose of the mission of mercy was. A ruthless man, he took Sligo Jameson and his comrades right into the heart of darkness and then abandoned many of them to fend for themselves in what became known as the Lost Rear Column.

Sligo Jameson, a father to two young children, would languish alone in a fever ridden camp in the Ituri jungle for almost a year, growing increasingly bitter, disillusioned and obsessed with primal horrors around him.

He would die of a virulent form of Malaria, on a river bank in the Congo in late 1888, leaving a young widow and two very young children at home in Dublin.

The greatest adventure of his life ended in a lonely, squalid death in the jungle and lasting infamy as a madman who consorted with cannibals.

The mild-mannered naturalist travelled a strange road to his lonely death.

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