“The Torso In The Thames: Imagining Darkest Africa In the United Kingdom” by Todd Sanders

Sanders, Todd. (2005). “The Torso in the Themes: Imagining Darkest Africa in the United Kingdom.” Anne Menely and Donna J. Young (Eds.), Auto-Ethnographies: The Anthropology of Academic Practices (126-142). Toronto, Ontario: University of Toronto.           

In the chapter “The Torso in The Thames: Imagining Darkest Africa in The United Kingdom,” Todd Sanders described the 2001 investigation surrounding the discovery of a torso belonging to “a young black boy found floating in the River Thames” (2005:126). Sanders began the chapter by describing the case’s development over the following two years. Through his summary, Sanders considers the consequences of the police-media engagement surrounding the investigation. More specifically, he draws the reader’s attention to four sequential consequences–the homogenization of an African image, the supposed moral bankruptcy of this artificially unified culture, their perceived Western infiltration, and finally the role anthropologists play in the public sphere.

By mid-October of 2001, merely one month after the torso was first reported, newspapers began reporting the possibility of a ‘ritual murder’ performed by ‘African witchdoctors.’ Several months later, Police furthered the possibility of a ‘ritual killing’ when they announced the decision to fly in a South African pathologist specializing in African muti killing, to conduct further testing on the torso. During the same conference, police also announced the discovery of “seven half-burnt candles wrapped in a white sheet in the Thames” (2005:127). The media suggested that the police believed the name on the sheet to be of West African origin. Simultaneously, the torso was linked to both South and West Africa. No attention to the geographical, cultural and or religious differences was paid to the two vastly different locations. Rather, Africa was being imagined, and not for the first time, “as an undifferentiated entity” (2005:131). Sanders noted that the police and media’s interchangeability between South and West Africa, continued throughout the whole of the case’s investigation.

In April 2002 The Met’s Detective Inspector Will O’Reilly, and Scotland Yard’s Commander Andy Baker travelled to South Africa in order to ask Nelson Mandela to appeal for help identifying the boy’s murderer. Sanders noted that the detective and commander’s desire for Mandela’s involvement indicated their ignorant assumption of Mandela as Africa’s orator. Even more, the efforts to appeal to an African icon situated within Africa, is indicative of Western police-media’s insinuation that Africans are unlikely to receive news from outside Africa. Sanders described the case’s blending of Southern and Western Africa, and the sought out cooperation of Mandela, as both proof of an imagined singular African culture and belief system. The continual reduction of multiples to singulars allowed the police-media to reproduce an image of a communal African identity, and therefore a communal African threat.

Sanders emphasized the evident ‘us versus them’ dichotomy at play in the Thames Torso case. He described the ‘us’ identity as incorporating The Met, British, European, and white. Reasonable, sensible and logically minded individuals were all tied to the image of ‘us.’ While ‘them’ encompassed African, black and Other. Through the case’s homogenization of Africa, all of Africa and Africans were summarized as those “who hold weird, inexplicable and morally bankrupt beliefs” (2005:132). These overarching generalizations were eagerly attached to the notions of ‘them.’ In this epic battle, the police-media pitted the rational ‘us’ against the superstitious savage ‘them.’ ‘Them’ was imagined as an entity to be feared, especially when police-media began claiming that their proximity was increasing. Sanders highlighted Baker and O’Reilly’s cautions that due to technological advancements that have enabled globalization, ‘them’ resides uncomfortably close by.

Anxiety towards the proximity of these others was heightened further by the release of a scandalous story that detailed the raid of a north London shop. The raid was lead by detectives and environmental health officers in search of illegal African bush meat and human flesh. The story communicated the idea that the young boy “was trafficked from West Africa to the UK for the sole purpose of ritual murder and that his body parts were sold alongside bush meat for occult purposes” (2005:130).  The story left its readers imagining that not only has human flesh become accessible in the UK, but this underground business is blossoming. In January 2003, the story aired on television as an hour-long segment. The documentary intensified existing feelings of angst by claiming that the number of heinous African practices was steadily increasing. Sanders argued that the documentary conveyed the message that “the Thames torso is only the tip of a massive malevolent iceberg” (2005:130).

Sanders argued that the sudden presence of this “malevolent iceberg” was explained by police-media as being a “corollary that comes with globalization” (2005:134).   Sanders quoted O’Reilly’s explanation that “in promoting cultural diversity [the UK has] imported these aspects of a culture into mainland Britain” (2005:134). Thus due to a willingness to incorporate different cultures, the UK has simultaneously incorporated the darker aspects of African culture. Sanders importantly suggested that these xenophobic explanations likely satisfied the public because it echoed existing “British anxieties about otherness, globalization, immigration, and multiculturalism, and raises the grave possibility of having “our” life-world unraveled by “their” cultural practices” (2005:135). Sanders found these xenophobic justifications issued by the police-media to be remarkably tenacious. His efforts to dismantle the underscored ideas of otherness went unheard when he called the Met in 2001. He later discovered that three of his colleagues, with comparable opinions to his, had experienced a similar neglectful treatment.

Sanders concluded his chapter with a humbling realization that the anthropological voice is in fact not as authoritative as some might think. He left his readers contemplating the treacherous navigation of broader power structures we must face as anthropologists. Sanders ended his chapter on a hopeful and rousing note through his sober ‘work cut out for us’ finale. While he identified a commendable and necessary goal anthropologists should strive towards, an analogy as to why the police-media might have ignored the opposing opinions of anthropologists seems to be lacking. Sanders is direct about his belief that anthropologists, through the nature of the discipline, often have access to first-hand reliable facts and information. However, in this case he emphasizes that both anthropologists and the Thames Torso detectives knew that the panic over ‘ritual murder’ “far outstripped the number of actual killings” (2005:136). Furthermore that such practices in Africa are quite rare. Throughout the Thames Torso investigation, the police-media has, like the screenwriter for a horror movie, gripped its audience with fear by drawing on pre-existing xenophobic anxieties and derogatory images of Africans. Anthropological oppositions, confined to much smaller platforms, have acted as the logical parents who peek under beds to check for monsters, and resurface with reassuring confirmation that there are in fact none.

Perhaps the ideas of ritual murder and underground human meat markets prove to be simply more seductive to a culture obsessed with entertainment saturated in murder, serial killings and crime scene investigations. Or, more cynically, perhaps the “reassuring” logic anthropologists offer is in fact more terrifying than blaming other misrepresented cultures. Perhaps by removing the blame placed on another culture(s), the Met must face the possibility that one of their own citizens, maybe even someone with a long British ancestry, brutally murdered and disfigured a child.  After all, accounts of ‘Jack the Ripper’ and Amelia Dyer, to name a few, are reminders that human remains in the Thames is more characteristic of British history. Perhaps the police-media involved in the Thames Torso case were well aware that the anthropological opposition proposed an  unbearably unsettling reality.

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One thought on ““The Torso In The Thames: Imagining Darkest Africa In the United Kingdom” by Todd Sanders

  1. Well, you said it. Let’s hear it for sensationalistic ‘epic battles’ and ‘malevolent icebergs’ — societies love their local horror stories, as long as they’re able to sit on the edges and enjoy, police included, I should add. Too cynical?

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