By Ben Egginton
A high risk expedition – overseen by Brazil’s indigenous protection agency – was hailed a success earlier this month, defusing tensions between the rival Matis and Korubo tribes.
Like most interactions with previously uncontacted indigenous peoples, the spectacle attracted international attention: a sure sign that as their numbers have dwindled, people’s fascination in these ancient societies has grown.
The death of the American missionary John Allen Chau at the hands of the Sentinelese tribe in 2018 received extensive press coverage, as did recently released drone footage of an uncontacted tribe in the Amazon rainforest.
But how many people have heard of the Wednesfield couple who established contact with the Amazon’s Nhambiquara people over 90 years ago?
John Francis and Elsie Minnie Jameson were missionaries in the interior of Brazil from 1921 to 1926.
Even in the present day, Mr and Mrs Jameson’s story continues inspire friends and relatives.
Their grandson, Darren Jameson, who lives in Harborne, is a passionate supporter of indigenous rights, and believes their work can continue to have a positive influence.
He said: ‘The situation has changed dramatically for indigenous people in Brazil since my grandparents visited all those years ago.
‘Very few remain uncontacted and even fewer are safe from the risk of commercial expansion, legal or otherwise.
‘Fortunately the legacy of John and Elsie’s life work is alive and well at one of the world’s greatest museums.
‘Hopefully these artefacts will continue to encourage members of future generations to respect and in turn fight to protect these societies from the ongoing threat of deforestation, resource exploitation and forced assimilation.’
The couple are best known for the collection of indigenous artefacts they brought home: aptly named ‘The Jameson Collection’.
A large portion of these were deposited in the British Museum in 1928 and remain there to this day.
But the election of the far-right politician, Jair Bolsonaro, as President of Brazil in 2018 has heightened the fears of environmentalists and indigenous rights campaigners that endangered tribes such as the Nhambiquara will be stripped of their remaining protections.
Earlier this month, President Bolsonaro said: ‘Environmental politics can’t muddle with Brazil’s development.
‘Today, the economy is almost back on track thanks to agribusiness, and they are suffocated by environmental questions.’
These comments and others have sparked widespread condemnation, including by the American Museum of Natural History which cancelled an event being held in President Bolsonaro’s honour this month.
In an official statement the museum said it was ‘deeply concerned’ about hosting an event in honour of someone who ‘does not in any way reflect the Museum’s position that there is an urgent need to conserve the Amazon Rainforest, which has such profound implications for biological diversity, indigenous communities, climate change, and the future health of our planet’.
The history of the group can be found in Mr Jameson’s memoirs, The Cross and the Nhambiquara, which provide a rare insight into the cultural practices of one of Brazil’s endangered tribes.
In the account, he said: ‘After two years in the Men’s and Women’s Bible Schools of the Pentecostal Missionary Union, we were sent by their Council to Brazil to establish work amongst the Nhambiquara Indians of Mato Grosso.’
Mato Grosso is a state in western Brazil, home of the Pantanal – the world’s largest wetland – which serves as the habitat of almost 1,000 species of animal.
At that time the Nhambiquara were estimated to number 10,000 people.
They are especially noted for their unique nasal flute, played under the nostril using nasal respiration.
After spending two and a half years obtaining a working knowledge of the country in the capital of Mato Grosso, Cuiabá, in May 1924 Mr and Mrs Jameson and their infant son set out on muleback to Barão de Melgaço: a small clearing in the forest over 500 miles away. It took over three months of back-breaking trekking to reach.
Mrs Jameson vividly recalled her first meeting with the Nhambiquara.
She said: ‘We had reached the bottom of the hill, when, to my horror, appeared on top a group of Nhambiquara men and boys, each one holding a bow the same height as himself in his left hand and several arrows in his right.
‘They certainly looked fierce, and anything but friendly. No wonder I was afraid. I was the first white woman to have entered their territory and I feared greatly what their reaction would be.’
But warm relations were soon established, allowing them to obtain a wealth of material culture from their hosts.
The priceless artefacts they secured and shipped to England included bows, poison-tipped arrows, bangles, headdresses, nose plugs, body paint and a monkey teeth necklace.
Recent events have increased the significance of these items, after a fire devastated the National Museum of Brazil in 2018, destroying many of its indigenous collections.
In his memoires, Mr Jameson recalled how he acquired one of the items now held in the British Museum: ‘When he [the chief] learnt that we were going home to England for twelve moons he went back to his village and a little later brought us a handful of poisoned arrows which he made us understand he wanted us to bring home to let our friends see that he was good, in other words, that he was our friend.’
In other instances he actively sought to acquire Nhambiquara goods.
He said: ‘I met an Indian man, I should say, about 40 or 50 years of age, who had two necklaces of monkeys’ teeth round his neck. He had recently lost his wife. I chatted in sign language with him for a while and begged one of the necklaces in exchange for a kitchen knife.’
Unfortunately for the Jamesons, retrieving these items for posterity to study and admire did not come without paying a heavy price.
During their travels their first two children – Frederick Stanley Jameson (1923) and Dora Evelyn Jameson (1925) – were born. Neither would live to see England, and their parents were lucky to.
When Mrs Jameson arrived home in 1926, suffering from malaria and black water fever, experts at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine gave her three months to live, but she miraculously recovered after several months of treatment.
Mr Jameson did not fare much better; returning on 8th January 1927, weighing just 6 stone.
The Nhambiquara people first encountered Europeans in the latter half of the eighteenth century.
However, prolonged contact was not established until the early twentieth century, when Brazilian army official, Cândido Rondon, passed through their territory to extend telegraph lines.
Shortly thereafter, Rondon was joined by former US President, Theodore Roosevelt, when they embarked on the famous Roosevelt-Rondon Scientific Expedition (1913-14).
But in 1930 the population reached a low of 500 after epidemics of small pox and measles decimated their numbers.
A census conducted by the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) in 2002 shows their numbers have since recovered to over 1,300 people.
However, despite this demographic growth, some groups have been driven to extinction and others reduced to a handful of individuals.
Today the territory occupied by some 30 Nhambiquara groups is divided into nine non-contiguous Indigenous Territories: Vale do Guaporé, Pirineus de Souza, Nambikwara, Lagoa dos Brincos, Taihãntesu, Pequizal, Sararé, Tirecatinga and Tubarão-Latundê.
For more information about the ongoing struggle to preserve the rights and customs of Brazil’s indigenous tribes, visit FUNAI’s website at: https://www.survivalinternational.org/about/funai