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The True Story Behind The World’s Greatest Headline

‘Three Englishmen Saved From Boiling Pot By Cannibal Chief’—what a trolling article! But the story behind the story is even more outrageous.

A short piece with a delightfully bizarre headline from the Dec. 16, 1922 edition of The New York Times made its Twitter debut recently and went as viral as a century-old story could.

The headline: "Three Englishmen Saved From Boiling Pot By Cannibal Chief, Who Was Friend at Oxford." The story, as the Times noted, “which may or may not be true,” relayed the adventure of three missionaries in Borneo or Papua who only escaped the cauldrons of a tribe of savage cannibals after the chief, a man described as huge, black, and more elaborately dressed than the others, objected to the meal.

The chief, you see, was a former Oxford man and recognized the trio as old classmates. He clubbed half a dozen hungry dissenters, released the trusses, and sent the missionaries on their way with an apology and a whispered explanation. “I’m dressed so differently that probably you do not recognize me, but I recognize you well enough. You were along with me at Balliol three years ago, and of course no Balliol man could think of eating a fellow Balliol man.”

Fun, right? But there’s more to the story behind the quirky headline.

While there is little hope of proving the veracity of this tale (and ample evidence of its inaccuracy), what we do know is that it first appeared in Truth, a weekly London publication founded by Henry Labouchère, an ex-member of Parliament known for his progressive, although sometimes contradictory views. Labouchère, for instance, argued vociferously against the British imperial expansion and control of African and Asian populations, but also authored the British law classifying homosexuality as “gross indecency” which led to the conviction of Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing, sentenced to years of hard labor and chemical castration, respectively.

A pop over to the New York Public Library provided access to the journal. By 1922, Labouchère was dead and the editor was Robert A. Bennett.

As it happens, the missionaries’ tale wasn’t offered as one of adventure, or escape. The writer of the unsigned piece provided the anecdote as part of a longer piece where he argued against the admission of black students and professionals into London’s white institutions. As in, the only benefit from letting people of color into universities and associations would be in case a white alumni should happen to meet the cannibalistic savages back in their native land.

It’s clearly a loathsome opinion, but also one that—as the Truth correspondent notes—would have been widely accepted at the time. Racial discrimination was inescapable, even though as far back as the 18th century, it was common for Africans from well-to-do families to be sent to London for their education, mostly in the fields of medicine, law, and the clergy, according to Peter Fryer’s, Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain.

Students of color in Britain dealt with constant bigotry and harassment and struggled to find housing, restaurants that would serve them, and employment after their studies were completed. In response, black Londoners created organizations like the West African Students’ Union (WASU) to fight against both racism in Britain and colonialism in their native lands. Britain was, until these groups formed and began to create their own spaces in the 1930’s and 1940’s, an almost insuperably inhospitable place for non-white students, fueled in part by ignorant ideas like the ones expressed in the pages of Truth.

The original piece follows.

Plucked From The Boiling

Truth, London. Dec. 13, 1922

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An article appeared in Truth not long ago deploring the number of coloured students who now overrun our universities, Inns of Court, and medical and scientific schools. In it I ventured to say that the so-called education of these young men far away from their own lands and own people in the midst of great cities of strangers free from all control was never of any advantage to themselves or to anybody else. Those who know more than I do about the lives they lead here and their subsequent lives in their own country generally agreed with this view. But a story I recently received from a young graduate of Oxford, who has lately abandoned the clerical calling, has led me to qualify it.

This young gentleman returned from the Great War with his two closest friends in a very serious state of mind. Together the three entered Balliol College; and there their seriousness rapidly developed into religious fever—I mean fervor—and they all agreed that as soon as they had graduated they would devote themselves to missionary work among the heathen. They kept their vows; and so great was their fervour that they begged the missionary authorities to send them to the most heathenish place just then open. So they were sent either to Borneo or Papua, I forget now which.

They found the neighbourhood in which they began their labours as heathenish as they could desire; for they were planted among cannibals. A few of these along the coast had been weaned from their wicked ways and professed and called themselves Christians. But in the interior, heathenism and cannibalism still prevailed; and it was to the interior that the three young missionaries were directed to carry the light of the Gospel. Now it so happened that in one of their excursions for this purpose they were captured by the natives, who promptly trussed them up and began preparations to make a feast of them. The young men watched with horror the building of three large fires, the production of three large pots, the sharpening of knives made of fish bones, and the gloating looks which their captors from time to time cast on them.

The missionaries had practically abandoned hope when their attention was aroused by the arrival of a huge negro, adorned with more feathers and shells and dyed in more striking colors then the other cannibals. From the deference with which he was received they rightly guessed that he was the chief of the tribe. He seemed at first much pleased of the situation, but after examining the captives closely he called a palaver. The missionaries’ knowledge of the local lingo was only slight; but slight as it was, what they could make out of the speeches began to raise hope their breasts. It was clear the chief was objecting to their being cooked.

There was considerable opposition to his view. This opposition became so hot that the chief found it necessary to club his chief opponent. He hit the tribesmen on the head with his bludgeon and “the subsequent proceedings interest him no more.” Even that was not sufficient to silence protest, and before the chief succeeded in carrying his motion unanimously he had to club six others.

The motion carried, the chief selected a dozen of his most trusty clansmen, who at once released the three missionaries from their bonds. Then the chief said in good English with a slight Oxford drawl, “I am very sorry you have been inconvenienced gentleman; but all is well now. These warriors will see you safely back to the missionary station, and so good-bye.” Then he whispered an aside: “I’m dressed so differently that probably you do not recognise me but I recognise you well enough. You were along with me at Balliol three years ago; and, of course, no Balliol man could think of eating a fellow a fellow Balliol man.” Then turning away, he gave final instructions to the guards and went back to his own people.

So as I have indicated, I now see that I went too far when I said the education of black students at our universities and schools is never of any advantage to themselves or anybody else.