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Lion-hunting with the Colonel

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I expect that most of us, particularly in the current economic climate, have experienced trying times in our working lives, whether dealing with uncooperative colleagues, rude customers or overbearing management. However, next time you feel inclined to grumble, spare a thought for Lieutenant-Colonel J. H. Patterson, the author of The Man-eaters of Tsavo. His account of the extreme difficulties he endured while employed as an engineer on the construction of the Uganda Railway at the end of the nineteenth century is a sure way of keeping one’s own problems in perspective – all the more so since Patterson bore it all without a hint of complaint.

In 1898 John Henry Patterson was commissioned to oversee the construction of a section of the railway that would link the port of Mombasa with Nairobi, running through a large expanse of hostile terrain in the Tsavo region of what is now Kenya. Upon arriving at the construction site in March of that year, he found that his workforce was beset by a number of problems. In addition to friction between the Hindus and Muslims in the camp, his employees included several ‘scoundrels and shirkers’ as well as stone masons who ‘had not the faintest notion of stone cutting’.

In order to establish his authority and keep the building work on schedule he had to resort to unorthodox methods. So when one particularly recalcitrant individual, Karim Bux, took to his sickbed claiming to be at death’s door, Patterson decided to persuade him to return to work by piling some wood shavings under his bed and setting them alight.

To ensure that the masons did a fair day’s work, he introduced a piecework system of payment by results, and this caused a number of them to start plotting against him. One day, during an inspection of the quarry, he was surrounded by a large group of angry men carrying crowbars and flourishing heavy hammers. As they closed in, ‘one burly brute, afraid to be first to deal a blow’, h

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I expect that most of us, particularly in the current economic climate, have experienced trying times in our working lives, whether dealing with uncooperative colleagues, rude customers or overbearing management. However, next time you feel inclined to grumble, spare a thought for Lieutenant-Colonel J. H. Patterson, the author of The Man-eaters of Tsavo. His account of the extreme difficulties he endured while employed as an engineer on the construction of the Uganda Railway at the end of the nineteenth century is a sure way of keeping one’s own problems in perspective – all the more so since Patterson bore it all without a hint of complaint.

In 1898 John Henry Patterson was commissioned to oversee the construction of a section of the railway that would link the port of Mombasa with Nairobi, running through a large expanse of hostile terrain in the Tsavo region of what is now Kenya. Upon arriving at the construction site in March of that year, he found that his workforce was beset by a number of problems. In addition to friction between the Hindus and Muslims in the camp, his employees included several ‘scoundrels and shirkers’ as well as stone masons who ‘had not the faintest notion of stone cutting’. In order to establish his authority and keep the building work on schedule he had to resort to unorthodox methods. So when one particularly recalcitrant individual, Karim Bux, took to his sickbed claiming to be at death’s door, Patterson decided to persuade him to return to work by piling some wood shavings under his bed and setting them alight. To ensure that the masons did a fair day’s work, he introduced a piecework system of payment by results, and this caused a number of them to start plotting against him. One day, during an inspection of the quarry, he was surrounded by a large group of angry men carrying crowbars and flourishing heavy hammers. As they closed in, ‘one burly brute, afraid to be first to deal a blow’, hurled the man next to him at Patterson – ‘If he had succeeded in knocking me down, I am certain I should never have got up again alive.’ However, the seemingly unflappable engineer stepped aside and, taking advantage of the confusion, sprang on to a rock and successfully faced down the murderous mob by haranguing them in Hindustani. As if this weren’t enough, shortly after Patterson’s arrival two large lions began to stalk the workers’ camp by night, dragging their victims from their tents and carrying them off into the bush before devouring them. After a Sikh worker named Ungan Singh was taken, Patterson set about tracking the lions’ path, eventually finding an area covered with blood, strips of flesh and bones, with Singh’s head lying a short distance away, ‘the eyes staring wide open with a startled, horrified look in them’. Despite the erection of high thorn barriers and the nightly lighting of campfires, these attacks continued for nine more months and began to exert such a strong hold over the minds of the labourers that they believed the lions to be the spirits of two tribal chiefs angered by the encroachment of the railway. At one stage the attacks became so frequent that the workers downed tools and fled, bringing construction to a complete standstill. Clearly something had to be done and the resourceful Patterson (who had served in the army in India and was an experienced tigerhunter) set about hunting down the lions using a variety of methods. These included improvising a trap out of wooden sleepers, tram rails and some lengths of wire and chain, and spending the night camped out on top of a raised platform. There is palpable tension in his account of sitting out night after night, listening to the sound of the lions stalking the brush below. With typical understatement he writes, ‘If one of the rather flimsy poles should break, or if the lion should spring the twelve feet which separated me from the ground . . . the thought was scarcely a pleasant one.’ After several fruitless attempts, Patterson’s determination eventually paid off and by the end of the year he had shot both lions. They turned out to be massive specimens, measuring over nine and a half feet from nose to tail. By the time they were dispatched, they had devoured no less than twenty-eight of his Indian workers as well as ‘scores of unfortunate African natives of whom no official record was kept’. Patterson’s account of his lion-hunting is very matter-of-fact: indeed he comes across as the epitome of the phlegmatic British colonial. However, as well as earning him the respect and admiration of his formerly mutinous workers (who presented him with a silver bowl inscribed with a message of thanks), his exploits were mentioned in the House of Lords by the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, and have formed the basis of at least three films, most recently The Ghost and the Darkness, released in 1996. While he had little choice but to hunt down the man-eaters in order to protect his workers and continue the railway’s construction, Patterson was also an enthusiastic big-game hunter and managed to dispatch a staggering array of creatures, including eight more lions (the photographed heads of which form the book’s frontispiece), two warthogs, a leopard, a zebra, a rhinoceros, two snakes and a hippopotamus (which he describes as being ‘without doubt the ugliest and most forbidding looking brute I have ever beheld’). Yet he declined an opportunity to shoot a giraffe on the grounds that ‘it is a pity to shoot these rather rare and harmless creatures’. And, while we might find his passion for big-game hunting hard to understand today, he did at least recognize the need to preserve the range of species he encountered and was pleased that the country south of the railway, up to the boundary of German East Africa between the Tsavo River and the Kedong Valley, had been designated as a game reserve. The Man-eaters of Tsavo, first published in 1907, is an engaging book on a number of levels. First and foremost it is a gripping tale of adventure. However, its author also has a keen eye for geography and provides a fascinating portrait of the area then known as British East Africa, before the railway opened it up to colonial settlement and enabled the export of coffee and tea. It is illustrated with a selection of Patterson’s own photographs, featuring everything from the two man-eaters after they had been shot (propped up in lifelike poses) to the indigenous peoples he encountered. As to the final fate of the lions, after a speaking engagement at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago in 1924, Patterson agreed to sell their skins and skulls to the museum for the then sizeable sum of $5,000. The animals, which had previously been displayed as trophy rugs in Patterson’s house, were reconstructed and put on permanent public view, where they can still be seen today.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 35 © Stephen Honey 2012


About the contributor

Stephen Honey has worked in publishing for over 20 years during which time he has been called upon to perform a variety of tasks. He is grateful that these have yet to include hunting man-eating lions or facing down a murderous mob.

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