The Man-Eaters of Tsavo
Lt. Colonel J. H. Patterson, D.S.O.
(Lyons Press)Patterson was sent off from England to Uganda in 1898 to build a railway from Mombassa to Nairobi. He was given materials and 3,000 workers, most Muslims from India. By training, he was an engineer, so he set the course of the railroad, built the bridges, and designed the stations.
While he wasn't belaboring his "coolies" to get on with it, he went out with his faithful .303 to bag hartebeests, wart-hogs, waterbucks, Grantis, impala, snakes, ostriches, marabouts, crocodiles, rhinoceros, elephants, and --- our faves --- greater and lesser bustards. And lions; or rather, "man-eaters."Besides the wastage implied in this --- killing beasts that in this day and time would be protected, shipped off to the local zoo --- there was a fairly compelling reason to dispatch the lions. They were having nightly picnics on Patterson's manpower or, as they used to say in ancient Rome, "the lions were eating up all the prophets."
A man-eating lion had taken up his quarters at a little roadside station called Kimaa, and had developed an extraordinary taste for the members of the railway staff. He was a most daring brute, quite indifferent as to whether he carried off the station master, the signalman, or the pointsman; and one night, in his efforts to obtain a meal, he actually climbed up on to the roof of the station building and tried to tear off the corrugated-iron sheets.
At one point, the lions were carrying off so many of the Queen's sturdy workers that they were abandoning the project in droves, returning to India. Something had to be done.
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You and I have been taught to despise colonialism --- mostly through the writings of the liberal historians and the biographies of those who fought the good fight: Gandhi of India, Nelson Mandela and Patrice Lumumba of Africa. Much of this literature describes the bitter last throes of colonialism as Great Britain, France, Portugal, Italy, Germany, Japan, Spain and the United States were dispossessed of their conquered territories.
The Man-Eaters of Tsavo ostensibly about lion-hunting is, more exactly, a chronicle of the Good Old Days of Colonialism, when Great Britain was at the height of its powers, when it could send in a single ambitious officer to design and build a railroad and keep an army of workers and "natives" under control. Outside of the simple tale of murdering as much wildlife of Uganda as possible in two short years, The Man-Eaters of Tsavo is a fascinating document on colonial power --- a power that struck both ways.
Plain Tales from the Raj, which we reviewed several years ago, revealed that fully seventy-five percent of the front line soldiers from England were to die in India. Likewise, Patterson had to deal with not only lions, hippos, crocodiles and bustards, but malaria, dysentery, yellow fever, typhoid, leprosy, sleeping sickness and, in one case, the plague:
I gave the natives and Indians who inhabited it [Nairobi] an hour's notice to clear out, and on my own responsibility promptly burned the whole place to the ground. For this somewhat arbitrary proceeding I was mildly called over the coals, as I expected, but all the same it effectually stamped out the plague, which did not reappear during the time I was in the country.
"Mildly called over the coals." Ah, shades of Kipling.
There are not a few facts to be gleaned from Man-Eaters. Not only do lions roar, but they purr; and when they eat the coolies, or the linesman, or the occasional gringo, they always start at the toes and work themselves up to the head, which they usually don't eat. Why? Perhaps people-brain is too much, filled as it is with fear. How would you react to a half-a-ton of beestie with his claws on your groin, starting in on eating up your toes?
Patterson comes across as a bit of a bumbler, in his pith helmet, endlessly getting lost in the veldt, missing a lion as it is charging him, forgetting to cock his borrowed 12-bore shotgun, packing a shot-gun shell only to have it blow up in his face. Then there is the picture of Patterson hiding in a tree, shooting directly down at a rhino charging about like a locomotive below. There is some wild comedy here; indeed, at times it is like the Charlie Chaplin comedy, The Circus, our hero, by mistake, locked in the lion cage as the beast is waking, yawning, flicking its tail.
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Thus Man Eaters is not unlike an extended fisherman's tale, but at the same time, it is good writing, not-so-subtly making our leading character out to be a superhero. Patterson takes the time to learn Swahili. He speaks with real affection of his workers, especially a Pathan named Roshan Khan, who "had been my 'boy' for some time and was much attached to me" --- leading one to suspect that Patterson's two years away from England were not without a touch of love.
There are almost 100 grainy old photographs taken by Patterson included in the book. They are a delight. Above all, Man-Killers is a hell of a story of the adventure of the "bwana" astride a mass of "natives," acting the hero who inspired such affection that when he departed, the workers worked up a poem about him (included as an Appendix),
The fearless lion made his appearance;
Patterson sahib loaded both barrels of his gun and went forth against him.
He fired many times in succession and totally paralyzed the animal.
The lion roared like thunder as the bullets found their way to his heart.
This Englishman, Patterson, is most brave, and is indeed the very essence of valour;
Lions do not fear lions, yet one glance from Patterson Sahib cowed the bravest of them.
He fled, making for the forest, while the bullets followed hard after him;
So was this man-eater rendered helpless; he lay down in despair,
And after he had covered a chain's distance, the savage beast fell down, a corpse.
Now the people, bearing lights in their hands, all ran to look at their dead enemy.
But the Sahib said, "Return my children; the night is dark, do not rush into danger."
And in the morning all the people saw the lion laying dead.
And then Sahib said, "Do not think of work today --- make holiday, enjoy and be merry."
So the people had holiday and made merry with the friends from whom they had been long parted, on account of the lion.
This book --- if published now --- would get the author and his family mauled if not murdered by the animal rights people as well as the politically sensitive. But we suspect Lyons Press knows that since it was written over a century ago, they can well get away with being enormously and proudly incorrect politically, socially, and animally.
Dear old Patterson may be a lousy shot but he is a fine story teller, and you and I can well imagine being in the veldt with him, around the campfire, eating grouse and grousing about the coolies and the dollar-a-week we were forced to pay them.--- Josh Wakefield