Monday, March 4, 2024

The Man-Eating Lions of Tsavo

Annamaria on Monday 

It's 5 PM in Florence.  I just returned from three weeks in Kenya and Tanzania, and thanks to my share of the world-wide pandemic of air travel snafus, I have just three days to organize things for my return to NYC on Tuesday.  There are a LOT of details to be seen to.  So today, I offer you a story that I told here then years ago, and one that I recounted to friends when I was in Nairobi these past weeks. 

This is about a pair of serial killers in a story written by a guy named Patterson.

No.  Not that Patterson.  This Patterson is Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson, who was commissioned, in 1898, to build a railroad bridge over the Tsavo river in the Protectorate of British East Africa, now Kenya.  This project was part of the building of the Lunatic Line, the subject of a couple of my previous posts.

Patterson was not an engineer.  He had joined the British Army at the age of seventeen, having only whatever education was available in County Westmeath, Ireland for a lad like him—the son of a Protestant father and a Roman Catholic mother.  That heritage may account for the sang-froid and fearless determination he exhibited in the trackless African wilderness of the time.

Patterson’s work on the bridge had barely begun when a couple of the area’s maneless male lions began attacking his Indian workers, dragging them from their tents as they slept.   Building thorn-bush enclosures and bonfires in the night did not stay the beasts.  After a few deaths, the building crew began to think that the lions were a manifestation of evil spirits who put a curse on their work.  Pretty soon the project came to standstill because workers decamped en masse.  Without his large crew, Patterson himself became more exposed to the danger.

To save his job and his own life, he had to find and kill the marauders—who in the end turned out to be a pair of rogue males with a taste for human flesh.  Multiple theories have been posited to explain why the cats preferred human flesh—everything from a paucity of other game in the area to the fact that captured slaves often died nearby while being dragged to the coast, and their corpses made for easy meals.

Accompanied by a brave gun bearer and often by other shooting companions, Patterson went on the attack.    It took him months to find and do away with the lions, who continued to kill in the meanwhile.

He recounted one attack while he and two other men were asleep and thought themselves safe in a railway carriage.  Patterson took the top bunk (an excellent choice), another British officer was on the bottom bunk, and an Italian hunter slept on the floor.  The downstairs Brit could not stand the heat and opened a window.  In the middle of the night, a lion entered through it, landing on the back of the Italian.  In the melee of shouting, reaching for rifles, and trying to run out of the locked door, the man-eater managed to drag the man on the bottom bunk through the window and made away with him.  Patterson buried what was left of his remains the following day.  The Italian decided that, much as he loved hunting, he would be better off trying his luck in another locale.  He left for Mombasa on the next train.

Eventually, Patterson killed both lions—huge males, nine feet from the tips of their noses to the ends of their tails.  It took eight men to carry each one back to camp.  In all, the monsters had killed twenty-eight railway workers.

The bridge was completed two months after the second lion bit the dust.

Patterson had them made into rugs, which he kept in his home until 1924, when he sold them to the Field Museum in Chicago.  Their skulls are still on display there, as is a diorama of what they looked like in life.

Patterson went on to write his account these and his other adventures durings the building of the railroad in his 1907 book, The Man-Eaters of Tsavo.  His story (Hollywoodized) was made into two films: Bwana Devil in 1953 with Robert Stack and Nigel Bruce and The Ghost and the Darkness in 1996 with Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas.  I have not seen either one.  I will watch the first one this evening, so by the time you read this, I will be able to tell you if it is worth watching.  If you want to know about the Val Kilmer/Michael Douglas film, you have to take your chances on your own, as it is against my religion to watch a film with either one of them.  Both in the same film will, I am sure, be more than I bear.

As close as I will ever get to seeing a movie with Val Kilmer

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