How lives of man-eating lions of Tsavo were ended

The lion eaters of Tsavo. FILE PHOTO | NMG

What you need to know:

  • Leutenant-Colonel Patterson published book on the animals with taste for human beings.

During a year-long reign of terror in 1898 near the Tsavo River, where the British colonial government was building a bridge over the river, two man-eating lions devoured at least 35 Indian workers and unknown number of local residents.

The man-eaters were finally killed by Lieutenant-Colonel John Henry Patterson the engineer in-charge of bridge building on the railway line in December 1898. Patterson kept the lions’ skins and skulls of these unique males, which did not have manes, a characteristic of lions in the Tsavo (“place of slaughter”, in the local language) region. In 1907, at the urging of wildlife and adventure-enthusiast, President Theodore Roosevelt, Patterson published a book “The Man-Eaters of Tsavo and Other East African Adventures” describing the story of the lions, which became an instant best-seller and is still widely available to date. The story created a legend and lions were talked about only in whispers out of a morbid fear of an animal that could kill and eat a human being in seconds. A quarter of a century later Patterson sold the trophies to the Chicago Field Museum for $5,000 a piece, which was a tidy sum at the time. The skins were then stuffed and are on display along with the original skulls.

In 1996, the story was immortalised in the popular Hollywood film “The Ghost and the Darkness”. In recent times the story has been the subject of much scientific research as to what exactly caused the lions to develop a taste for humans in their culinary delights and why the males did not have manes. But what became of Patterson and what was his background?

Patterson was born in 1867 in County Longford, Ireland, to a Protestant father and a Roman Catholic mother. At the age of 17, he joined the British Army and was trained in the Engineers Corps eventually attaining the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel and later being awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). He served some time in India where he became proficient in the Hindi language and hunted tigers in the wild.

In 1895, he married Frances Helena Gray, a headmistress who, in 1890 had become one of the first women to gain a BA in Science and a Doctorate of Law in England. They had two children who died at birth. He was a tall and handsome man who had a way with women.

Patterson then left for Kenya arriving in March 1898 to build bridges for the railway, leaving his wife in England. After killing the man-eating lions and finishing his work with the railway, Colonial Secretary Lord Elgin appointed Patterson Game Warden for the East African Protectorate, an experience he recounts in the book “In the Grip of Nyika” (1909).

In 1907, while Patterson was guiding an aristocrat couple Ethel and Audley Blyth on safari some where north of Isiolo, disaster struck. Audley shot himself in his tent under suspicious circumstances. Patterson buried him on the spot and it is claimed he and Ethel were living in the same tent and continued with the safari without reporting the incident.

After returning to Nairobi, they travelled together by ship to England by which time the rumour mill was full of gossip about the “apparent” affair. The case eventually reached the House of Lords where Patterson was cleared of any wrong doing as, by this time, he had connections in high places for his bravery in East Africa. But even Churchill had his doubts about the mysterious death and he expressed them in writing, which he later had to retract or face legal action. Nevertheless, Frances took Patterson back. Strangely enough, nine months after Patterson and Ethel returned to England, a baby boy, Bryan, appeared in the Patterson household. The incident was fictionalised by Ernest Hemingway in his book “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” and eventually turned into a movie “The Macomber Affair” (1947).

It was during the Middle East Campaign in 1914 that Patterson found himself in command of the Zion Mule Corps, a group of Jewish volunteers eager to serve the international cause and to advance their own cause of creating a Jewish state at the same time. He became a passionate Zionist supporter and the ranks of his detachment included influential heroes of the cause, Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Joseph Trumpeldor.

Patterson took his Jewish volunteers to war around the dangerous beaches of Gallipoli in what history remembers as a doomed British effort to attack the German Empire through the territory of its ally, the Turkish Empire. He became the first commander to lead Jewish forces to battle for two millennia making him an important figure in the history of Zionism.

Using his charm and celebrity status, Patterson was able to rally support among ministers for the Balfour Declaration obligating the British towards the establishment of a Jewish homeland.

Soon after World War I, Patterson left the army and embarked on a full-time campaign advocating for the creation of a separate Jewish state. He spent the rest of his life, with his wife Frances, in America constantly speaking and writing on behalf of Zionist causes. He became close friends with a Jewish professor named Benzion Netanyahu, the father of current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Together, they worked tirelessly in favour of implementing the Balfour Declaration and creation of an Israeli state.

A year before Patterson died, Netanyahu invited him for the circumcision of his son, Jonathan. Jonathan was named after John Henry Patterson.

Jonathan died in 1976 leading the raid on Entebbe, Uganda, not far from the railway line, “The Lunatic Express” which Patterson risked his life to bring into existence in 1898.

As Geoffrey Clarfield wrote in 2016, this was a case of “From the Lions of Africa to the Lions of Judah”.

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