I have not encountered a more thrilling rendition of living, working and hunting in Africa than is found in J.H. Patterson’s The Man-Eaters of Tsavo. It is one of my most cherished books.
It is also a book with an incredibly misleading title.
Don’t misunderstand me. Patterson gives a marvelous description of his dealings with the two male lions that ate 28 railroad workers and who-knows-how-many native Africans. However, he relates this portion of his experiences to a mere seven of the 27 chapters (approximately 70 out of 350 pages).
The remainder of Patterson’s text paints a wonderful tale of traveling and hunting in the East African wilderness. I honestly enjoyed the 20 remaining chapters as much, or more, than the seven occupied with the battle to rid the area of the man-eating lions.
Patterson doesn’t come across as an arrogant individual. In fact, he relates all of his adventures in a self-deprecating manner. So I can imagine that when he delivered his manuscript to his publishers, it might have carried a different title; maybe the author’s suggestion was My Time Working as an Engineer in East Africa.
If so, and having dealt with book publishers myself, I can imagine them rolling their eyes and stating sarcastically “Oh, yeah, that title will really make people want to read this book!” The publishers would have then put a thick red line through the author’s suggested title and written Man-Eaters of Tsavo in its place. And, history was made.
Again, I don’t mean to minimize the wonderfully exciting and harrowing tale of how Patterson hunted down and killed the two man-eating lions. The great F.C. Selous was interested enough to write the forward to the book, stating “…no lion story I have ever heard or read equals in its long-sustained and dramatic interest the story of the Tsavo man-eaters as told by Col. Patterson.”
That’s wonderful praise when one realizes that it came from that period’s dean of African hunting.
I won’t presume that I can give praise with the same weight of Selous’. Instead, I’d like to mention two of what I like to call Patterson’s “Hold my beer, and watch this!” episodes which may give you a flavor for what he’s written here.
There are many, many more, causing Patterson himself to conclude, “…it was much more likely that [the man-eaters] would have added me to their list of victims than that I should have succeeded in killing either of them….”
That Patterson includes these episodes for his readers seems to indicate some measure of honesty and humility.
- On the night Patterson shot the first of the two man-eaters he stationed himself within leaping height of the lions on a rickety perch that an aggressive moth could have toppled. One of the lions appeared and began stalking the hunter-cum-prey. In Patterson’s words, “…the staging had not been constructed with an eye to such a possibility. If one of the rather flimsy poles should break, or the lion could spring the twelve feet which separated me from from the ground…the thought was scarcely a pleasant one.”
- Patterson insisted on hunting dangerous game (including the man-eating lions) with what many would argue was an exceedingly light caliber for such species, his .303 rifle. One particularly telling event involved him stalking a rhino, it charging him, his shooting the rhino with the hope of turning its charge, but only irritating the rhino further. He then threw his pith helmet to the side and dove onto the ground to lay there while the rhino beat the hell out of his helmet. He then breathed a sigh of relief when the rhino retreated, heading away from where Patterson was on the ground. But, as the author relates “…I could not resist the temptation of sending a couple of bullets after him.” The result was predictable: “…for directly he scented me…and down he charged like a battering ram.” After tearing up all of the real estate with horns and feet – except for that occupied by Patterson’s trembling form – the rhino once again departed. This time Patterson chose not to pop the retreating animal in the fanny.
As I mentioned, 20 chapters of Patterson’s book are filled with wonderful vignettes of living, working, traveling and hunting in late-19th abd early-20th century East Africa. I commend this work to any who are interested in tales of adventure, suspense, slapstick humor and courage.
The Man-Eaters of Tsavo is one of my go-to books when I want to dream of a life well-spent in the pursuit of daring exploits. It also acts as a valuable reminder of some of my own “Hold my beer, and watch this!” foolishness.