Railways, Race, and Lions – The Tale of the Tsavo Man-Eaters

Written by: Lewis Twiby.

The Uganda Railway appeared to be one of the best examples of imperial negligence by the British Empire. Quickly called the ‘Lunatic Express’ by contemporaries for its high cost to build (over £5.5million), and its apparent leading to ‘nowhere’. British imperialists claimed that the railway was required to secure the East African Protectorate, now modern Kenya, as it would prevent other European empires from moving into the area and constructing dam projects which would impact Britain’s access to Egypt and consequently India. So, from Mombasa on the coast to the Kingdom of Buganda along the shores of Lake Victoria, a railway stretching 700 miles began construction in 1896. Despite successive disasters it was finally completed in 1901, but the cost of running it meant it was mostly abandoned by 1929. However, one of the big disasters to strike the railway was at the Tsavo River where two lions killed around thirty workers. From March to December 1898 the infamous ‘Tsavo man-eaters’ preyed on the workers, and the story of them has inspired countless narratives and movies – most famously the movie The Ghost and the Darkness (1996) starring Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas. The story of the man-eaters offers an insight into labour and colonialism in East Africa.

     The construction of the railway offers three different accounts, largely depending on race. The first, is the African viewpoint. The railway cut through the land of various ethnic groups including the Kikuyu, Maasai, Kamba, and Luo. Kenya would later be known as the ‘White Man’s Country’ thanks to its white settler population, and their settlement in the Rift Valley was first opened up by the railway. Key imperialist Frederick Lugard recorded the fertility of the soil, ‘with excellent and luxurious pasture throughout the year’ in 1893, which offered prime farming land for a settler population. During the construction of the railway the local communities were forcibly evicted from their land, which later allowed farmers to claim these ‘empty’ lands. The forcible arrival of British industrialism created a new economic system for Africans to become part of. Some communities became labourers to help build the railway for the British, however, as they were few in number, the Ugandan Railway Company had to rely on alternate sources of labour. This brings us the second account, that of South Asians.

     Even though Britain abolished slavery in its empire in 1833 this did not end slavery. Instead, it was recast as a new system called ‘indentured servitude’. Indians were hired on contracts, in the case of East Africa these lasted five years, where they worked for the time allotted on the contract, and at the end they would get paid. However, this was an excuse to utilise slave labour – employees could not leave the contract, corporal punishment was allowed, and many people were worked to death. Indians, primarily from poorer regions, were put onto these contracts, and were sent to work in Britain’s far-flung empire. An Indian diaspora was formed across the world ranging from the Caribbean, to Fiji, to South Africa, and to Mauritius. Colonial administrators became frustrated at Africans resisting work, and, although Indians would also resist the backbreaking work, they were used, as they lacked the ties to local communities. Over 19,000 people from the Punjab, Sind, and North Western Provinces (today’s Uttar Pradesh) were sent to work on the railway – Hugh Tinker estimates that 7 per cent of them died and a fifth were declared ‘invalid’ upon returning. Ironically, British abolitionists had championed the railway as being a way, in the words of The Anti-Slavery Reporter, to engage in the ‘suppression…of the slave trade,’ despite actively engaging in slavery.

     Finally, we have the view of the colonisers. Alongside the desire to secure Britain’s imperial holdings the paternalistic view towards the colonised was very much in evidence. As already mentioned, abolitionists viewed British expansion into the region as a way to stop ‘petty tribes’ from exploiting their ‘weaker neighbours’. The ‘White Man’s Burden’ was regularly used to justify colonial expansion – colonised peoples had to be ‘civilised’ by the guiding hands of Europeans. However, there is a stark hypocrisy in this narrative – colonisation regularly entrenched ‘regressive’ traditions which colonisers argued they were combatting. The Anti-Slavery Reporter is a prime example of this. While stating that the Uganda Railway could be used to end slavery in East Africa and admitting that indentured servitude could lead to ‘very grave evils’, they argued that it ‘affords an inducement to the men to do their best’. Kenya soon became a colony where white Europeans could lead a life of aristocratic pleasure at the expense of the non-white population. In particular, big game hunting became a popular pastime and famous hunters, including Theodore Roosevelt, visited to hunt animals. John Henry Patterson, hired to oversee the construction of the railway at Tsavo, was an avid hunter, and his account of the man-eaters shows this. He gives paternalistic descriptions of Africans on one page, and on the next boasts how he ‘was especially anxious to bag a hippopotamus.’ This brings us to the man-eaters.

     Two male lions would hunt workers along the Tsavo River, and Patterson’s account would greatly mythologise them. Originally, he claimed that ‘they had devoured between them no less than twenty-eight Indian coolies, in addition to scores of unfortunate African natives’, but later he would claim that they killed over a hundred people. The man-eaters became part of Kenya’s legend – it was the land where lions ate men so skilled hunters could prove their worth. Research by zoologists have shown that the lions started eating humans due to one of them having a damaged tooth preventing them from hunting their traditional prey – Patterson later said that one of his bullets caused this damage. Patterson’s credibility as the fearless, white hunter would become dented if the infamous ‘man-eaters’ only ate humans as they were injured. Exploitation is also a key reason why they started eating humans. Slave trading in the region regularly left corpses due to brutal conditions, and their regular prey started to dwindle. Railway construction bisected habitats cutting the lions off of their traditional prey, and a ‘rinderpest’ outbreak wiped out local populations of buffalo, warthogs, and antelope. This outbreak happened as cattle from India was imported to Africa believing it could help ‘acclimatise’ the South Asian labourers, but it had a consequence of spreading disease to the local wildlife. Humans became an optional food source due to this.

     Race and labour practices were a key reason why the lions managed to kill as many people as they did. The Uganda Railway Company wanted to maximise profits regardless of the human cost, and, buoyed by the idea that it was protecting the empire and preventing slavery, labour protection was ignored. The Indian government had been trying since 1890 to protect labourers abroad, but underhand negotiation allowed over 1,300 people to leave Karachi before anyone in India could check if they were even healthy enough to work. Africans and Indians were forced to work long hours with the promise of pay in the future, and in the heat of East Africa this raised mortality rates. Samuel Ruchmen has emphasised that papers reported tales of clashes with ‘African tribes’ and the lions, but ignored the thousands to die from hard labour and disease. Doctor John Brock in 1899 tried to convince the company to introduce vegetables to food rations due to the outbreak of scurvy, but his report was rebuffed as it would cost too much. Most workers also had to sleep in tents, something which is very flimsy when in contact with the claws of a lion. Meanwhile, overseers and managers had the luxury of medical aid, food, shade, and the protection of actual buildings or guards – it is no coincidence that these figures were white Europeans. Lion attacks soon fell along racial lines.

     Patterson arrived along with the workers in March 1898 at the Tsavo River, and already the impoverished and overworked Africans and Indians would have poor working conditions. As to what decimated workers in Panama and Suez constructing their canals, yellow fever and malaria struck down many people. The tsetse fly also spread sleeping sickness, something made worse as rinderpest had killed off most of the fly’s regular hosts. During the night the lions would sneak into camps and drag people from their tents – as the months went on the lions grew braver and both would venture into camp to claim a victim each. Desperate, workers lit campfires to scare off the lions and constructed fences made of thorn bushes to hope it could deter the lions – both failed. These attempts to scare off the lions made disease worse – fires attracted malaria-carrying mosquitoes and tsetse flies made their home in thorn bushes. The racial hierarchy of work meant that only non-white individuals were killed – safe in fortified areas Europeans escaped the lions. The district officer was nearly killed, but that was more due to the fact that he almost ran into one of the lions at the train station, rather than the lion stalking him. The attitudes to this also differed based on race.

     As argued by Harriet Ritvo, hunting lions became a metaphor for the domination of Africa – hunting the ‘King of the Jungle’ showed mastery over the land, and therefore the people. Patterson chastised the ‘coolies’ for being fearful of the wildlife as ‘they were sure it was a lion’ – in this context actually a valid fear. However, as Patterson did not face being eaten, valid fears were seen as evidence of Indians being ‘never remarkable for bravery’. In a callous remark he even mocked the attempts they made to avoid lions at night, including trying to erect tents on water-tanks, trees, and roofs. In the end, it was the workers who forced Patterson to properly act. Small-scale strikes regularly occurred on the railway – one in 1900 was reported by The Times of India over poor work conditions and a lack of access to medicine. Conspicuously absent from Patterson’s account labourers brought work to a standstill until the lions were dealt with by the end of 1898 – keen to keep his image intact he claimed that they gave him a bowl engraved with ‘Hindustani’ words to show their thanks. 

     Two lions driven to hunting humans became legends in Kenya’s history. The promotion of the colony in later years as one for the ‘white man’ turned them into a daring tale of man conquering nature. However, this narrative obscures the multifaceted nature of colonialism. A railway built for imperial prestige changed the landscape, brought a weakened and enslaved population to East Africa, and created animal attacks which fell along racial lines. It also shows another aspect overlooked. African and Indian labourers suffered thanks to the lion attacks, but they also were the ones who put pressure on Patterson to make a concerted effort to hunt down the lions. These workers managed to halt imperial expansion – a rare thing overlooked in the history of the British Empire.


‘The Uganda Railway’, The Anti-Slavery Reporter, 19:3, (1899), 137-139

‘The Uganda Railway’, The Times of India, (23/01/1899), 4

‘Uganda Railway Coolies: Some Alleged Grievances, “The Uganda Railway Strike”’, The Times of India, (20/09/1900), 6

Hill, M.F., Permanent Way: The Story of the Kenya and Uganda Railway, (Nairobi: 1949)

Meredith, M., The Fortunes of Africa: A 5,000 Year History of Wealth, Greed, and Endeavour, (London: 2014)

Patterson, J.H., The Man-Eaters of Tsavo, and other East African Adventures, (London: 1907)

Ruchman, S., ‘Colonial Construction: Labor Practices and Precedents Along the Uganda Railway, 1893-1903’, International Journal of African Historical Studies, 50:2, (2017), 251-273

Tamasula, G.A., ‘The Lions of Tsavo: Man-Made Man-Eaters’, Western Humanities Review, 68:1, (2014), 195-200

Tinker, T., A New System of Slavery: The Export of Indian Labour Overseas, 1830-1920, (Oxford: 1974)

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