(c) DJT

Did Richard Meinertzhagen See Proof of Manyema Cannibalism?

Alleged Cannibalism as a Justification for Imperial Savagery

© D J Trotter, October 2019

As well as a soldier and spymaster, Richard Meinertzhagen was a distinguished naturalist who brought the giant forest hog to the attention of scientists[1]. During his service in the British East African Protectorate, including what is now Kenya, he was an officer attached to the King's African Rifles.

King's African Rifles (KAR) at drill.

In spite of David Livingstone failing to persuade any Manyema to let him witness cannibalism, even for a substantial reward[2], Meinertzhagen, in his diary entry for October 25th 1905, wrote that a Manyema corporal in his company had five black hands in his belt. The corporal explained that they were for his supper. Meinertzhagen wrote that he did not punish the corporal because there was nothing in the army regulations about cannibalism, but told him not to mutilate bodies in the future. He did not specify whether he allowed the corporal to eat the hands. He went on to write that the corporal told him that the best part of a human body is "the buttocks of a young girl"[1]. (In this, the corporal's opinion clearly differed from the sentiments expressed in the Manyema song that entertained Verney Lovett Cameron, which extolled the pleasures of eating men's flesh over that of women[3].)

The most famous explorers of Central Africa, Livingstone[2], Cameron[3] and Stanley[4], all agreed that the Manyema were cannibals, although the evidence was mostly circumstantial, and based partly on claims perpetuated by the Manyema themselves, possibly to make their enemies fear them. Meinertzhagen tried to give his cannibalism story some anthropological credibility by stating that the Manyema were cannibals in the sense that they ate human flesh to gain the strength of their enemies. However, he contradicted himself with the bit about the deliciousness of young girls' buttocks.

Meinertzhagen was a fine but somewhat unscrupulous naturalist[5], and his diary entry is equally suspect. Other entries in his diary seem to display extraordinary prescience about the future of Kenya. However, Meinertzhagen edited and transcribed his diaries before publication, so we may never know what he really wrote on the day that he supposedly saw proof that the Manyema were cannibals.

Meinertzhagen must have hoped that the more savage Africans appeared, the more his own savagery would seem justified. On September 8th 1902, he led a punitive expedition against a village of the Kihimbuini Kikuyu because they had drowned a white man with urine and mutilated his body. He wrote

"I gave orders that every living thing except children should be killed without mercy."

The result was that

"Every soul was either shot or bayoneted, and I am happy to say that no children were in the village."

According to Meinertzhagen, a Political Officer called McClean was aware of his plan to massacre the villagers, but neither consented to nor interfered with his actions. Obviously, there was no point in Meinertzhagen rewriting a diary entry about a war crime that may have entered the public record when its Official Secrets Act protection expired.

If it is true that there were no children in the village at the time of the massacre, it was indeed fortunate, as it is unlikely that all of them would have escaped with their lives in the heat of the slaughter. In the entry for February 29th 1904, Meinertzhagen wrote that he personally shot two of his soldiers and three Maasai levies out of hand because, in the heat of an attack on an Irryeni Kikuyu village, they killed a woman and two children. As he put it,

"The Levies bolted, but I bagged them all three before they were clear of the village".

Meinertzhagen continued

"What I did was contrary to military law and therefore illegal. For this reason and because I am aware of the temperament of our Commissioner, Sir Charles Eliot, who would most certainly take a serious view of my actions, I have not reported it."

However, a Political Officer called Humphery was aware of what he did.

Meinertzhagen explained

"The lesson to be taught was discipline, and my object was to stop once and for all such barbarous habits as the killing of women and children in cold blood and to enforce the carrying out of my orders."

However, he did not really believe that the woman and children were killed in cold blood. Of one of the Maasai levies, he wrote

"I yelled to him to stay his hand, but I suppose his blood was up, as he paid no attention to me and killed the child."

Also, his order at the Kihimbuini village, "that every living thing except children should be killed without mercy", shows that in the case of women, at least, he did not object to their being killed, just to the disobeying of his orders. Besides, the fact that he was aware that his actions were illegal, and did not report them, shows that he had little regard for discipline and the carrying out of orders when they applied to him.

Meinertzhagen wrote

"The two men of my company whom I shot were Manyema and men whom I personally liked."

I am sure that he hoped that portraying the Manyema as bloodthirsty cannibals would mitigate the public perception of his own guilt.


  1. Kenya Diary 1902-1906 by Richard Meinertzhagen (Eland Books and Hippocrene Books 1983 reprinted 1984 [First published by Oliver and Boyd 1957])

  2. The Life and Explorations of David Livingstone, LL.D. by John S Roberts (The Tyne Publishing Company, Limited, no earlier than 1877. Published originally by John G Murdoch, 1874 but the Tyne edition has information about subsequent Central African explorations.)

  3. Across Africa by Verney Lovett Cameron (Harper & Brothers 1877)

  4. Through the Dark Continent by H M Stanley (Harper & Brothers 1878)

  5. Richard Meinertzhagen - a case of fraud examined by Alan G Knox (Article in Ibis 135, April 2008, pp320-325)


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