John Henry Patterson, “The Man-Eaters of Tsavo”

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?)

Kenya Railways today, courtesy The Daily Nation (Kenya's national newspaper)

Kenya Railways today, courtesy The Daily Nation (Kenya’s national newspaper)

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.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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5 Responses to John Henry Patterson, “The Man-Eaters of Tsavo”

  1. Patrick Thyne says:

    Carol, Last fall, Brendan read and then gave to me a novel, Three Weeks in December, which must be the fictionalized account of the same “lions” story. The author was Audrey (?) Schulman. There WAS a female in this one, a somewhat gratuitous and lifeless character to simply etch another aspect of the lead character’s barren life. Anyway, your review today called the novel to mind. It’s sure been good for me to have your constant reviews. Thanks.

    • carolwallace says:

      Yes, Rick, “Three Weeks in December” sounds like it’s drawn quite directly from “The Man-Eaters of Tsavo,” though Schulman seems to be heading in quite a different direction. I’ve sent a sample to my Kindle — it sounds intriguing!

  2. Robin Olson says:

    Have you seen “The Ghost and the Darkness,” the movie based on the Tsavo story? It’s not great (it has a dreadful and cheapening dream sequence) but some of it is very vivid and thrilling.

    • carolwallace says:

      No, Robin, I haven’t, but I’m tempted. Glad you weighed in with your opinion because it doesn’t seem to have attracted a wide range of viewers… And did you think maybe I wouldn’t figure out who you were, btw? So glad to be in touch!

  3. Robin Olson says:

    I think you’ll like the movie (I do), since you’re already a fan of the material. Lots of good things in it, including gorgeous visuals.
    I didn’t really expect to escape detection by such a girl sleuth. I just thought I would sneak up on you. I love your book club — the only one I belong to.

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