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Did Tippu Tip Lead an Army of Cannibals?

Turning Misguided Prejudice into Savage Reality

© D J Trotter, October 2019


It was claimed by some of the slaver Tippu Tip's associates, and by Tippu Tip himself, that his warriors and carriers largely comprised practising cannibals. Some of these claims could be explained by tall tales told to travellers, or by propaganda to make Tippu Tip's enemies fear him. However, some of the evidence that Tippu commanded a cannibal army is convincing. He factored his expectations of his men's cannibalism into the logistical planning of his campaigns.

Even so, the scale and openness of the cannibalism is not consistent even with allegations about the Manyema made by explorers such as Verney Lovett Cameron and David Livingstone. Tippu Tip's warriors must have been behaving in a manner inconsistent with their traditional culture. Only Tippu Tip himself could have been responsible for that, although he may have been unaware that he influenced or caused the cannibal behaviour of his followers.

The existence of the cannibal army is not proof that cannibalism was part of the traditional culture of any indigenous peoples of the Congo.


Claims of a Cannibal Army

The Cannibal Army Existed

Creating an Army of Cannibals




Tippu Tip (aka Tippu Tib, Tippoo Tib, Tippo Tib etc.), trader, slaver, conqueror and self-made Sultan of Utetera (aka Utotera or Utetela, i.e. the land of the Tetela people) in what is now eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, had a power base of indigenous warriors, many of whom had been enslaved. They comprised a number of ethnic groups including Manyema, Bakusu, Barua and Tetela but have been collectively called "Manyema hordes".

Tippu Tip claimed himself to have led an army of cannibals. This is an extraordinary admission for someone who regarded himself as a Muslim. But was his claim true?

Claims of a Cannibal Army

Herbert Ward, later a famous sculptor, wrote that on January 31st 1888, while he was with the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition, he conversed with an Arab called Selim bin Mohammed. Selim told him that

"between Kassongo and the east of Lake Tanganyika, the native carriers who form Tippoo Tib's large caravans, carry human flesh with them. They divide the slaves they catch en route, Tippoo Tib takes one-half, and the carriers the other portion, whom they kill and eat."[1]

(Kassongo is nowadays spelled Kasongo.)

On February 28th, Ward was visited by two Arabs: Nassibu, one of Tippu Tip's sheikhs, and Hadi bin Nassib (Nassibu's son?). They told Ward that the camp followers from friendly tribes accompanied the Arabs on their raiding expeditions and

"... appropriate all the dead and wounded, who they cut up and divide, drying the greater portion for future use. They said they had seen heaps of human flesh three feet high, cut up into serviceable joints."[1]

That is consistent with what Ward wrote decades later:

"... in most of the Arab raiding expeditions there were bands of natives themselves who aided the raiders by piloting them towards the village homes of their neighbours. Their reward for so doing consisted of the bodies of their kinsmen who were slain in the attack. It was no unusual experience to witness the women of a native caravan, who were acting as allies of the Arab raiders, carrying portions of human flesh in baskets slung upon their backs by means of a band which passed across their foreheads, to serve as provisions for their journey."[2]

Woman with a basket.

Yet on March 6th 1888, after watching Manyema soldiers preparing to fight on behalf of Arab slavers, Ward wrote that

"The Manyemas themselves are cannibals in their own country, but out here, under the Arabs, they affect horror at the eating of human flesh. The Arabs have told me that they punish such an offence by summary death, and let the natives have the corpse."[1]

Most Arab and Swahili traders certainly would not have approved of cannibalism. Indeed, to Livingstone, that was the explanation of the Manyema being discreet about their alleged cannibalism:

"... the practice is now hidden on account of the disgust that the traders expressed against open man-eating when they first arrived."[3]

However, the execution of Manyema soldiers, for cannibalism, appears to distinguish between what was allowed for the soldiers and what was allowed for the camp followers. The radical punishment of cannibal soldiers seems surprising, as Ward was, at the time, at the camp of Selim bin Mohammed, the Arab who had told him that Tippu Tip provided half of any slaves captured on journeys as food for his cannibal carriers. Of course, the explanation could be that the Arabs had earlier told Ward lurid tales of cannibalism, for their own amusement. And, if cannibalism among the Manyema soldiers was always punishable by death, Tippu Tip could NOT have led a cannibal army. On the other hand, committed Muslims or Wangwana (Swahili for "gentlefolk" or "civilised people") would not have been proud of leading cannibal warriors, and would have had a motive for denying it. So, which version was true?

Tippu Tip may have been more pragmatic about having cannibal soldiers than some of his sheikhs. At Riba-Riba (now called Lokandu[4]), Tippu told James Sligo Jameson a number of stories about cannibals, including how, after a battle in which cannibals fought for him, many of the enemy were killed and all of their bodies eaten. "He tells me that two men will easily eat one man in a night", wrote Jameson. Tippu continued, saying that when he sent for water from a well, for washing and drinking, he found that the water was unpleasantly oily and sticky. Upon investigation in the morning, he found that the water in the well was covered in a layer of fat because his soldiers had washed the body parts before eating them. Afterwards, in such situations, he made his camps by streams, with his cannibal soldiers downstream of him[5].

So, Tippu Tip himself claimed to have led an army of cannibals. Either he was lying or Ward was lied to about Manyema soldiers being punished by death for cannibalism. Of course, Tippu could have been telling his guest fictional tales of cannibalism, either for his own amusement or because he wanted to be feared. In fact, that is what Jameson at first thought. After all, nobody could literally eat half a man in one evening, so that must have been, at best, a gross exaggeration (although many years ago, I met Kalahari San with bellies wrinkled from the swelling that occurred when they ate great amounts of meat in one sitting; also, the fat induced "roaring diarrhoea"[6], leaving room for more meat). If Tippu wondered why all of the bodies had disappeared by the next morning, hyenas were probably the main culprits. We should also not forget Sheikh Nassibu's claim to Herbert Ward that camp followers cut up and dried most of the human flesh "for future use"[1].

Tippu Tip or Tippoo Tib.

Jameson told Tippu that he was telling "travellers' tales", which led to the infamous incident in which a child was murdered and quickly dismembered in Jameson's presence[5][7]. (Tippu Tip later denied having any knowledge of the incident[8], but he cannot have been truthful. Both Jameson and Jameson's accuser, Assad Farran[9], stated that Tippu was involved. Also, as Tippu was the most important person in Riba-Riba at the time, he would have quickly learned about it even if both Jameson and Farran lied about his actual involvement.)

While he was a warring slaver whose power was being threatened by the Congo Free State, Tippu Tip may have had a motive for telling people that two of his soldiers could "easily eat one man in a night". However, after Tippu retired to Zanzibar, King Leopold of Belgium became the master of Tippu's former empire, the Germans and British similarly ruled the East African mainland, and even Tippu's home of Zanzibar was occupied by the British. Tippu lost much of his wealth to litigation[8] and, if he had enemies, they could no longer be intimidated by his army, cannibal or otherwise, as it no longer existed. According to Richard Meinertzhagen, Tippu was not even allowed to leave Zanzibar and did not want to[10] (although Dr Heinrich Brode wrote that Tippu hoped one day to visit Europe and Mecca[8]). He could no longer have had any ulterior motive for claiming that he had led a cannibal army, especially as the very idea must have disgusted devout Muslims. Yet in his autobiography that was transcribed by Dr Brode, he gave an account strikingly similar to the story that he told Jameson. After Tippu's Uncle Bushir had been killed and, Tippu believed, eaten by the Bakusu, he led a force that avenged him:

"Killing and burning, as usual, they marched from place to place, and the cruelties elsewhere practised were enhanced by all the male prisoners being devoured, at which the victors developed a hearty appetite, two of them eating up a whole man."[8]

Again, Tippu was exaggerating, perhaps because he didn't realise that hyenas had eaten (or camp followers had "cut up into serviceable joints"[1]), most of the human remains. On that occasion, Tippu tried to persuade his men to stop eating human flesh, as the smell sickened him, but his soldiers made a counter demand:

"'If,' they replied, 'we are not to eat men's flesh, do you refrain from goat's flesh.' In face of this reasonable argument things remained as they were."[8]

Tippu Tip's narrative does not specify whether the human flesh was cooked or eaten raw. The reader might presume that it was cooked but according to Johnston[11] and Cameron[12], the Manyema ate it raw. If it was cooked, the unpleasant smell could have been caused by the burning human flesh, which I have heard is sickening. If it was eaten raw, the smell could, perhaps, be explained by the Manyema having had a penchant for eating meat that was somewhat "high", as claimed by Johnston[11], Cameron[12] AND Livingstone[3].

(This was no worse than the British upper classes preferring to eat high game, hence the adjective "gamey" for slightly putrid meat. In the eastern Congo, meat was usually left in running water to putrify but according to Livingstone, another method was

"... to bury a dead body for a couple of days in the soil in a forest, and in that time, owing to the climate, it soon becomes putrid enough for the strongest stomachs."[3]

[This is remarkably reminiscent of what Mary Kingsley wrote about the Fang of Gabon, although the reasons may differ:

"I may remark, however, that they tell me themselves that it is considered decent to bury a relative, even if you subsequently dig him up and dispose of the body to the neighbours."[13]

{Although modern methods of research were not available when the Fang (aka Fan) practised the collection of human bones (Sir Richard Burton saw no evidence of it, as the practice was already dying out when he visited the Fang in the mid 1870s[14]), the contemporary academic position is that the Fang were never really cannibals. I accept that "ethnologists who actually spent time with the Fang people"[15] found that the bones were kept for ancestral reverence, and I accept that modern Fang are certain that their ancestors were not cannibals. However, interpreters also spent time with the Fang, to learn their language. Since stating categorically that the Fang were never cannibals amounts to stating categorically that EVERY interpreter ALWAYS lied to their early explorer employers, my own opinion, as in the case of the Manyema, is that cultural cannibalism is unproven rather than disproven.}])

Herbert Ward appears to have favoured the idea that the human flesh was cooked, as he wrote that

"Once in the great forest, when camping for the night with a party of Arab raiders and their native followers, we were compelled to change the position of our tent owing to the offensive smell of human flesh, which was being cooked on all sides of us."[2]

Herbert Ward was not just a superb artist but an adventurer who even died heroically[16]. However, in writing the above, he must have been using "artistic licence". That anecdote was published in 1910. Ward left the Congo in 1889 and did not return[16], so if the incident had really happened, it would surely have been included in one or other of his books My Life with Stanley's Rear Guard[1] or Five Years with the Congo Cannibals[17], both published in 1891. It appears in neither. I am sure that in writing about "the offensive smell of human flesh", he was inspired by reading Tippu Tip's story, the English translation of which was published in 1907.

The Manyema in 1874.

The Cannibal Army Existed

Although some of the testimony that he led a cannibal army could be dismissed as tall tales or propaganda, and he was obviously exaggerating about how much human flesh his soldiers could eat, two facts form convincing evidence that Tippu Tip really did command an army of cannibals:

  1. The speed and readiness with which his slaves butchered a little girl in front of James Sligo Jameson, to prove their master's claim that they were cannibals[5]. They were not new to the task.

  2. The fact that Tippu Tip repeated his claim that he commanded cannibal warriors, in his autobiography[8], even when it served no ulterior purpose and must have horrified many of the devout Muslims among whom he lived. He was hardly claiming that his Sultanate of Utetera was a civilising influence.

Those facts in turn give more credence to some of the other testimony about Tippu Tip's cannibal caravans.

However, the brazenness of the cannibalism, of the soldiers and camp followers, is not consistent with the documented reluctance of the Manyema to allow outsiders to witness cannibalism. Livingstone could not persuade the Manyema to allow him to watch a "cannibal feast", even for a large reward[7][18]. Also, although even some Manyema claimed to be cannibals, they would have preferred to eat Tippu Tip's "goat's flesh" rather than the "men's flesh" that they found on the battlefields. As Livingstone put it,

"They say that human flesh is not equal to that of goats or pigs ; it is saltish, and makes them dream of the dead."[18]

Besides, although the Manyema often indulged in traditional "warfare", H M Stanley found that their "wars" were mostly against their kin, and there were usually no casualties even after days of "fighting", even if guns were involved. As he succinctly put it,

"An internecine 'war' in Manyema is exceedingly comical."[19]

Therefore, the behaviour of many Manyema part-time warriors must have altered for the worse during their conversion from farmers into Tippu Tip's professional army of "Manyema marauders", as Herbert Ward called them[17].

What could have changed farmers who might not have been real cannibals and, if they were, were very shy about it[18], into an army of real and brazen cannibals? Tippu Tip himself could have done it, without necessarily realising that he had changed their cultural behaviour.

Creating an Army of Cannibals

I have already discussed the cannibalism during Tippu Tip's campaign to avenge his Uncle Bushir. Tippu claimed that his invasion force was very large indeed but his transcriber and commentator Dr Brode was a little doubtful:

"Tippoo Tib declares they had in a few days got together 100,000 men. The number is, of course, exaggerated, for the Arab has no conception of exact computation, besides which he is fond of big-sounding figures. But an imposing levy was no doubt mustered."[8]

Dr Brode may have been right about the exaggeration, although we may dismiss his libel about Arab computational ability. However, we should remember that at the time of the Zulu War of 1879, the Zulu Kingdom, much reduced after its defeat by the Voortrekkers[21], was tiny by comparison to Tippu Tip's sultanate but could still muster an army of 40,000 men[22]. Anyway, even Dr Brode agreed that Tippu mobilised a considerable number of armed men.

How did Tippu Tip, who waged war for material profit, expect to feed his "Manyemahorden"[23] (Manyema hordes) while simultaneously destroying the economy of the country in which they were raiding? Where possible, his victims would have fled, taking as much food and livestock as possible with them. There would have been no point in farming when everything could be taken by Tippu's army. (That could have also caused non-cultural cannibalism from desperation, just as on occasion, Europeans have succumbed to it. It is unrealistic to suppose that all of the Congo was swarming with game or that every farmer was skilled in hunting.)

Clearly, Tippu Tip did not expect to have to feed his army out of his own pocket. The fact that the soldiers and camp followers ate human flesh, when they would have preferred to eat goats' meat[18], shows that Tippu did not transport sufficient meat or livestock to feed his armies. Indeed, why would he, if he expected them to eat the corpses of the slain? His expectations of his army's cannibalism were factored into the logistical planning of his campaigns. But why would his army comply with Tippu's expectations, if large scale cannibalism was not really part of their culture?

Many of Tippu Tip's soldiers were slaves although, obviously, their loyalty did not require the frequent use of whips (I believe that Stockholm Syndrome and sex were more effective). As Stanley wrote of Tippu Tip's followers who accompanied him on part of his journey across Africa,

"One hundred men consist of Ba-rua, Manyema, Bakusu, Ba-Samba, and Utotera slaves ; most of these slaves are armed with flintlocks, the others with formidable spears and shields."[19]

Many of the slaves were trained from an early age:

"There are also about fifty youths, ranging from ten to eighteen years of age, being trained by Tippu-Tib as gun-bearers, house servants, scouts, cooks, carpenters, house-builders, blacksmiths, and leaders of trading parties. Meanwhile such young fellows are useful to him ; they are more trustworthy than adults, because they look up to him as their father ; and know that if they left him they would inevitably be captured by a less humane man."[19]

(The last statement is perhaps a little ironic, bearing in mind what happened to the little girl in front of Jameson.)

Another useful quality of young gun bearers, scouts and other cadets is that they would have been more adaptable than adults and, to survive, could more easily have learned to eat whatever was available.

The Manyema in 1889.

With little food available for his marauding armies, and believing that they were cannibals anyway, Tippu Tip may not have flinched from implicitly encouraging his young and hungry soldiers and gun bearers to eat anything, even the bodies of people that they had killed during their campaigns. He may even have led them to believe that cannibalism was part of their traditional culture. They, in turn, would have set an example for new recruits.


Although some of the allegations about Tippu Tip's cannibal army could be interpreted as travellers' tales or propaganda, there remain elements that are best explained by accepting that Tippu Tip really did command cannibal warriors: the alacrity with which his slaves dismembered a child to prove that they were cannibals; and the fact that Tippu Tip confirmed the claims, which his Muslim neighbours must have regarded as abominable, even while he was retired in Zanzibar and barred from leaving that island.

However, the brazenness and scale of the cannibalism can only be explained by the behaviour of the soldiers being changed from what would be expected in their traditional culture. Only Tippu Tip himself could be ultimately responsible for that change, regardless of whether he was aware of it. This could have been achieved by indoctrinating his young slaves to behave in accordance with his prejudices about their traditional culture.

Indeed, Tippu factored his expectations of his soldiers' cannibalism into the logistical support of his army. Unlike the cannibalism occasionally practiced by, for example, Crusaders in Palestine or the Japanese Army in New Guinea, Tippu Tip's hordes did not wait until they were starving before eating human flesh.

However, the existence of Tippu Tip's cannibal army is not proof that cannibalism was part of the traditional culture of any tribes of the Congo.


  1. My Life with Stanley's Rear Guard by Herbert Ward (Charles L Webster and Company 1891)

  2. A Voice From the Congo by Herbert Ward (William Heinemann 1910)

  3. The Last Journals of David Livingstone, in Central Africa, from 1865 to His Death, Volume II edited by Horace Waller (John Murray 1874)

  4. Lokandu (Retrieved September 9th 2019)

  5. The Story of the Rear Column of the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition by James S Jameson (National Publishing Company, New York, 1890)

  6. What Did the Bushmen Actually Eat? (Retrieved October 30th 2019)

  7. James Sligo Jameson and the "Wacusu" (Bakusu) Cannibals: Jameson the Fool and Livingstone the Ghoul by D J Trotter

  8. Tippoo Tib: The Story of His Career in Central Africa Narrated From His Own Accounts by Dr Heinrich Brode and translated by H Havelock (Edward Arnold 1907)

  9. HORRIBLE DEEDS (San Francisco Call, November 14th 1890)

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

  11. George Grenfell and the Congo : a history and description of the Congo Independent State and adjoining districts of Congoland together with some account of the native peoples and their languages, the fauna and flora, and similar notes on the Cameroons and the Island of Fernando Pô by Sir Harry Johnston (Hutchinson 1908)

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

  13. Travels in West Africa by Mary Kingsley (Third Edition, Frank Cass & Co. Ltd. 1965, first published by Macmillan & Co. Ltd. 1897)

  14. Two Trips to Gorilla Land and the Cataracts of the Congo by Richard F Burton (Sampson Low, Marston, Low and Searle 1876)

  15. Fang people (Retrieved October 25th 2019)

  16. Herbert Ward (sculptor) (Retrieved October 10th 2019)

  17. Five Years with the Congo Cannibals by Herbert Ward (Chatto & Windus 1891)

  18. The Life and Explorations of David Livingstone, LL.D. by John S Roberts (The Tyne Publishing Company, Limited, no earlier than 1877. Originally published by John G Murdoch, 1874 but the Tyne edition contains much information about subsequent explorations.)

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

  20. Were the Manyema Really Congo Cannibals? by D J Trotter (Accepted for publication)

  21. Rule of Fear by Dr Peter Becker (Viking 1979)

  22. Zulu Rising by Ian Knight (Pan paperback undated)

  23. Mit Emin Pascha ins Herz von Afrika by Dr Franz Stuhlmann (Dietrich Reimer 1894)


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