Lessons from Literature: Behave Like a Man


Editor’s Note: This is the first in a new kind of post here at Servants and Heralds – book reviews that aim at helping you Get Up To Stuff for the Kingdom.

Lesson 1: Behave Like a Man
from The Man-Eaters of Tsavo and other East African Adventures
by Lt.Col. John Patterson

On my recently launched podcast, Script v Manuscript, we are enjoying the challenge of reading some things that may not have otherwise peaked our interest. In some cases the mission of the podcast has driven us toward some books that I have always wanted to get around to reading and now we have appropriate pressure to take action.

When I was probably too young, I saw the movie The Ghost and The Darkness (1996 dir. Stephen Hopkins). I always thought it was very good. Much to my chagrin I discovered that my co-host on Script v Manuscript had not seen this movie and so we prioritized it. This was the excuse I needed to read the true account of Colonel John Patterson about the building of the bridge over the Tsavo river and the…issues…he had with the local wildlife.

The book is a great, and short, read. It has action, it has personal stories of loss and difficulty and it is packed with lessons for men to learn from someone forged by a particular kind of trial.

I want to unfold a few of those lessons and leave them here for the reader to ponder.

Take Tough Assignments

Patterson was selected to go to Africa and build a railroad there. The goal of the railroad was simple: to enable the British colonizers to bring civilization to the African interior. The African geography in the region was challenging for a number of reasons, but a railroad would enable safe, cheap and rapid transit from the coastal city of Mozambique across a long swath of arid region that is patrolled by a menagerie of dangerous animals and unpredictable environmental conditions.

I’ll take a moment here to let you sort out in your mind how you feel about this particular operation. Modern readers may balk at the idea of the British muscling a railroad across tribal lands in Africa. Even the British of the day were not sure about the project, believing it to be a colossal boondoggle. Let your conscience be assuaged by the fact that Patterson cared about the workers and got along very well with the local tribes near the railroad project.

The biggest part of his job was to build a bridge across the inconsistent Tsavo river. Patterson was appointed to this task after a career mostly of military service. The river was prone to sudden and severe flooding. It was in a very remote area. The bridge was being built by a combination of skilled and unskilled laborers mostly from Britain’s Indian colonies (they were employees and went voluntarily).

Patterson was the supervisor of this group and knew from the beginning that he was going to have his hands full with labor issues, supply issues, bureaucratic annoyances and problems that would crop up from the local conditions. He took the job anyway and was not prone to complaining. His journals are almost entirely devoid of gripes even when they would seem justified. On the contrary, Patterson seemed to be thrilled by the challenge of the bridge project and later when the project was finished, and had survived a worse than usual flood, he was apt to point out the bridge to friends when he happened to cross over it by train. He took pride in a job well done. The fact that the job was very hard to do just made it that much more satisfying.

The railroad is still there, by the way.

Take Responsibility

Practically as soon as Patterson arrived at the worksite, the attacks began. Contrary to the movie, it was relatively quickly determined that there were two male lions in the region that had decided to come into camp and eat men rather than their more usual prey. A theory about why they chose to do this is that one of the lions had an injury to its teeth and jaw that would have made most of their normal prey too difficult to kill and eat. That theory doesn’t really explain why two of them chose to do this.

Patterson, as it happens, loved big game hunting more than Barack Obama loves golf. So that’s a fortunate turn of events because Patterson was equipped and enthusiastic about bringing the lions down. Wild animal problems were common enough. The camp had a complement of livestock and stores that were prone to raids by the local wildlife. The area held hyenas, wild dogs, spitting cobras, crocodiles and other less homicidal but equally dangerous animals.

Patterson began to immediately build defensive fortifications out of the local thorny trees and had fires burning all night inside the barriers to dissuade predators. This is one of the first things about the lions that begins to make them look…off somehow. Not only did the lions penetrate the encampment in spite of these measures, but they would snatch a man and drag him out through the thorns to a safe distance before eating him. Patterson says in the journal that he thinks the lions licked the skin off the victims before drinking the blood and then feasting on the meatiest parts of the body. The lions did not cleverly bypass the thorn fence somehow, they just crawled through it, injuring themselves in the process. Patterson reported that when he eventually brought them down, they were covered with scars and scabs from their nightly raids.

Patterson sat up night after night with various baited traps to try and shoot the lions. One night he nearly met his end when he and a friend waited in a covered wagon. A lion attacked them but was frightened off from mid-charge by a shot from Patterson’s friend. Patterson himself was not looking at the moment. The lion had been waiting in the tall grass for him to stop paying attention and when Patterson moved to get out of the wagon, it struck.

Eventually Patterson brought down both lions. The first lion was killed much the way the movie describes. He was up on a rickety scaffold with an animal tied below as bait. The second lion took six rifle rounds to die at an uncomfortably close range. Patterson killed both lions. He took it upon himself to do so. It was his job.

Show Grit

One of the more unbelievable moments in the movie was the moment that Patterson found himself face to face with one of the lions while hunting them. He raised his rifle and fired, but it misfired. It should have resulted in his immediate and painful death, but providentially the lion was frightened off by gunfire from others nearby. This event actually did happen in real life, though not exactly the same way. He borrowed a more powerful rifle from an associate but, having never tested it, found that it was not in good order after the incident. He returned the rifle “with his compliments” to the lender later. Hopefully that’s a euphemism for a fist to face.

In the movie, the character arc of the John Patterson character is pride to humility to balanced confidence. He is perplexed, frustrated and confounded by the lions. After the incident with the misfire, he has lost confidence and must decide if he will be able to continue as the hunter or transition to the prey. This theme is not as heavily present in Patterson’s writings, but one need not be a Hollywood screenwriter to see that he probably had this same issue in the actual moment.

Patterson’s repeated efforts, traps, strategies, superior weapons, extensive experience and intelligence failed to bag two mere lions. The lions’ ability to avoid the carefully laid traps and to ignore bait is partially what gave them the reputation of being otherworldly or bearing a charmed life. They did not behave in the way animals can generally be predicted to behave. Even for odd animals, they failed to adhere to the patterns they set in previous encounters.

Patterson had to sit up all night in a tree waiting for them to return to the same place to finish a meal they started the day before only to hear the lions attack someone on the opposite side of camp or in another camp a mile away. According to Patterson, almost every night either someone from his camp or a neighboring camp was killed. Patterson reported being able to hear them crunching on bones just out of sight of the camp at night. Their behavior was more consistent with lions that were starving to death and desperate for food. The frequency and success of their nightly visits to camp made this a virtual impossibility, however.

Patterson’s book states that about thirty-five workers were killed. He thinks the lions killed more than that but there are no records of local tribesmen who were either killed in the countryside or who were short term laborers on the railroad project. He believed it was probably closer to 135. Scientists have tested the teeth of the lions and believe that 35 is a very likely amount. They do not believe 135 is reasonable, but scientists these days are an unreliable lot who are more interested in disproving the fantastic and I am more sympathetic to the eye witness account of the sober and even keeled Col. Patterson. Listening to your failures night after night, especially when those failures involve men dying, would grind down most men until they quit. But Patterson kept on task until he brought those monsters under the dominion of God’s image bearers. Whoever sheds man’s blood, man or beast, by man must his blood be shed.

Deal with Problems Head On

Patterson could have handled the lions in a few ways, but he chose to personally go out and hunt them down himself. Eventually he was successful by using himself as bait. Patterson’s account details that the lion he killed from the scaffold was in the vicinity for hours stalking him and looking for a way to get the drop on him. The movie spices this encounter up a bit, but the real story describes the lion as “terrorizing” Patterson for hours before he was able to get a good shot at the thing.

Patterson was an incurable hunting enthusiast and there were several other lions that he bagged while on station at Tsavo. The policy of the day was pretty much to kill every lion they say because of how dangerous the animals were. They also were very useful to the locals for a number of products that could be harvested from them and rarely went to waste. One can’t help but wonder if Patterson held a slightly irrational grudge against lions after the man-eaters were eventually killed. The typical method for hunting the lions was either to follow them until you got in rifle range, which was about 100 yards, or to flush them toward a point where the shooter was waiting in an advantageous position for taking them down.

Take a moment to visualize yourself standing on a flat plain in the African savannah with a lion or two looking at you from 75 yards. You are equipped with an admittedly powerful .450 nitro express double barreled rifle. You get two shots then you have to reload. Lions can run at a top speed of about fifty miles per hour and are natural sprinters. They can jump about 12 yards in one leap.

Patterson pursued them on foot. Occasionally he rode a pony to pursue them but generally dismounted to actually stalk up close to them for the final shot. This is risky behavior by anyone’s standard, but it was the way to hunt lions and he wanted to hunt lions. Patterson had several close calls with lions on hunts and was nearly killed by one that at the last moment redirected to chase a fleeing man, allowing Patterson and others with him to shoot it. On a different hunt, a man standing right next to Patterson lost his leg to a lion that they were not able to shoot in time.

Patterson occasionally had a close shave with other animals in Africa. He was nearly run over by an angry rhinoceros twice in one outing because he shot it with no effect (he was using the wrong ammunition) and it charged him. After it missed him, because rhinos apparently are very near-sighted, he got up…and shot it again to see if he would have better luck this time. He did not, and again almost got killed. He let it go after that.

Patterson never made excuses and he didn’t take so much blame on himself that he became ineffective. He dealt with problems head on. At certain times that meant hunting lions on the ground, in the dark, with the almost certain knowledge that if he failed to kill the lions tonight, another man was dead. Sooner or later it would be him that got snatched.


Patterson was regarded as a hero by the local workers after he killed the lions. They presented him with a hand crafted silver bowl with an inscription praising him for saving them from the wrath of the lions. His book was a major seller at the time and he became quite famous and wealthy. He was able to successfully lay miles and miles of track for the rail project and build a temporary city (which he had to burn due to a plague outbreak (and he rebuilt it)). He dealt with mutinous workers, he had to contrive novel solutions to unforeseen problems, he dealt fairly with the locals and treated his workers with dignity. Before departing Africa, Patterson even had the distinction of discovering, shooting and cataloguing an unknown species of Eland. His legacy is his own writings and the multitude of films based on them, including The Ghost and the Darkness, which I commend to your viewing.


The journal itself is written by Patterson and it would be tempting to raise an eyebrow or two at his version of events. Having read the book though, I am inclined to say that Patterson may have actually understated some of what happened due simply to the typical British reservedness of his era and class. One thing that is for sure is that he was a typical specimen of British courage from that era. Courage to the point of near insanity. I found a great deal to emulate in Patterson’s writing.

There is a reason that the Lord warns us that the enemy is a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour. Lions loose in the area is an intolerable situation and must be addressed. Men of the West must learn from the example of the successful lion slayers of the past, in this case literally.

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