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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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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