It’s about lions, folks, not wicked women. In fact no woman has a speaking part in The Man-Eaters of Tsavo; this is a strictly masculine adventure, and so securely rooted in its period that I wondered briefly whether it might not be parody. (It was when John Henry Patterson quoted W.S. Gilbert without attribution — can you imagine the kind of writer for whom Gilbert’s elaborately phrased humor was a natural form of expression?)
Here’s the premise. Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson was an Army officer on loan to the British East Africa Company, sent out to monitor the construction of a railroad bridge across the Tsavo River in what is now Kenya. Read his Wikipedia bio: this guy did a little bit of everything, though it made me queasy to think of him as a game warden. More on that in a jiffy. This book, published in 1907, is his somewhat discursive account of adventures with a pair of lions during the erection of the bridge. The railway line was built by the British in 1896-1901, running inland from the port of Mombasa all the way to Lake Victoria, using largely Indian laborers (“coolies”). The lions of the title disrupted the progress of the rail line by devouring dozens of members of the railway crew. It was Patterson who ultimately killed both lions, and the narrative backbone of this book is the man/beast struggle. But as in many travelogues, the structure is quite loose, with little pen portraits of various “characters” and descriptions of the several tribes Patterson came into contact with, as well as a lot of big-game bragging. Which is hard to read now, even if you try to think of it as quaint. Patterson killed a great many animals and writes about the process in detail, including tips on how to get your trophies back to England and where to have them stuffed. The skins of the titular lions were ultimately sold to the Field Museum in Chicago for $5,000.
Yet overall this is an entertaining, even a jolly read, probably owing to Patterson’s enthusiasm for his job and for Africa itself. It’s hard not to patronize him as an author, reading from our more anxious vantage point. But it’s equally hard not to be charmed by his perception of Africa as some kind of Eden. What makes this interesting is that he is Adam before the fall — this is the rare Africa narrative that’s almost free of nostalgia. Even Winston Churchill’s My African Journey (published six years earlier) focuses more clearly and more accurately on the sometimes disastrous impact that British colonial policy is going to have on eastern Africa.
Oh, and here’s a progress update: it is now illegal to kill game in Kenya. The railroad tracks Patterson worked on now divide the the massive Kenyan national parks known as Tsavo East and Tsavo West. And trains still run on the meter-wide track, between Mombasa and Nairobi. Maximum speed is 30 m.p.h.