The Men of the Man Eaters

Much is known about the man eating lions of Tsavo, but very little about the men who were actually eaten…


The man eaters of Tsavo made their indelible mark in history as the ferocious blood hungry lions who in December of 1898 managed to bring the construction of the Kenya-Uganda railway famously known as the “Lunatic Express “ , to a standstill for nearly 3 weeks.

The lions were elusive at worst and seemed invincible at best.  After what seemed like a rampant, unstoppable killing streak, the coolies were disposed to believe that the lions were not real flesh and blood animals except in their appetites. Instead, they were said to be the angry spirits of two departed native chiefs, who were protesting against the passing of the railway through their land.

But history is a lot like music, it takes both the musician and his instruments to come up with a beautiful symphony.

Each instrument is of equal importance , from the harmonica to the accordion, from the flute to the trumpet; each note however subtle or however high is as vital a part of the symphony as the next.

 This is a story about instruments, instruments of different ages, instruments of different races from different places . Because while the lions made history as the conductors of a ravenous orchestra, the unsuspecting men who fell prey,  equally played their parts as the elemental means through which the symphony was complete.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you: The Men of the Man eaters……




One of the first people to mysteriously disappear from the Tsavo camp was a sikh jemadar who went by the name Narain. Narain who had initially served as a sepoy in India was a former soldier of the British East India Company and had been assigned to Colonel J.H Patterson’s personal staff. He also specialised in stone building and had come as part of the railway building team that had been chosen to set and dress the piers of the Tsavo Bridge.


Tsavo Bridge

One evening as was his routine, Colonel Patterson was making his rounds around the camp accompanied by Narain and a friend named Charles Rawson.  Patterson who walked around with an infamous little black book made it his duty to point out any defects within the camp that were of hindrance to the railway’s progress. That particular evening he noted down evidence of some serious faults.

The coolies were noncompliant, their living quarters were unclean, explosives were left unguarded and materials carelessly used. However of all these defects, there was one that he felt called for immediate attention. Patterson observed that there was no union jack anywhere around the camp.

He proceeded to the administration hut and asked the officer in charge, a barrage of questions that went something like this:

‘Is this land not a possession of the crown?

And are these men not subjects of the queen?

And is not the railroad not an undertaking of the crown? ‘

To all these, the officer wearily nodded in affirmation.

Patterson then turned to Narain and asked him whether he was familiar with the Union Jack and whether he could make one, to this Narain replied, “Yes Sahib” after which he went off to the stores to obtain the necessary materials. After a short while, he returned with strips of Manchester cloth in red and blue, and some lengths of white cotton.

Throughout the rest of the evening, Narain carefully stitched together a flag that was not entirely accurate but was somewhat identifiable and later that night, reverently laid it on the colonel’s bed.  Afterwards a fellow jemedar named Ungan Singh admitted him to the tent and Singh was the last person to ever see him.

The next morning Patterson demanded an investigation to the jemedar’s disappearance. A search party was sent out to look for him and after 12 unsuccessful hours, his case was taken to be one of desertion.

Later that day a coolie working ten miles down track failed to board the trucks retuning to camp. Another party of nearly 30 men was sent to find him, but returned with nothing.


A group of men at the Tsavo camp

The soon to be rampant streak of mysterious deaths and disappearances had just begun. Up until this point rumours had begun to spread all around the camps, that there were man eating lions  which seized people from their tents in the dead of night. Many believed that the unexplainable disappearances were not just merely cases of desertion as the British officials had chosen to think.

As it were, some of the officials were even convinced that the stories of the vanishing men were made up, just so the coolies would receive each other’s daily allowances. But as fate would have it they were soon to be proved gravely wrong.

 Ungan Singh

Ungan Singh’s case was a rather horrific one and it is his death that brought the immensity of the lion threat to light. Singh was a powerful sikh jemadar who had been put in charge of Patterson’s wellbeing . In total, Patterson was served by four Punjabis and a cook all who were answerable to Singh. The Punjabi’s, swept the tent, cooked, cleaned and drew water for the bath, among other duties.

On one particular ominous day, Patterson had gone off on a hunting expedition and assigned all the Punjabi’s to various other duties. Leaving Singh with the daunting task of prepar -ing that evening’s bath. Singh who was already alarmed by the disappearance of Narain was cautious about being alone and  hastily went about preparing the bath as fast as he could…

Nervously he splashed the water into it and forgetting that the bath was made of a flammable material (Indian rubber) he placed it on the fire and went down to the river to fetch water.By the time he was returning, the fire had been put out and all that was left of the bath was a black, pungent, smouldering mound. A disappointed Patterson stood there in abject dis-pleasure while Ungan Singh himself was more horrified at the repercussions of his mistake, than at the piteous site of the bath that lay before him.

It was now getting dark and after the all the chatter and banter caused by the “shocking bath scandal” had died out, the men returned to their tents, in preparation for the next day. That night Ungan Singh was taken…


The tent from which Ungan Singh was taken

The next morning Patterson is quoted
“I was aroused at daybreak and told that one of my jemedars, a
fine powerful Sikh named Ungan Sing had been seized in his tent
during the night and dragged off and eaten …
On reaching the spot where the body had been devoured, a dread –
ful spectacle presented itself, The ground all round was covered
with blood, and morsels of flesh and bones, but the unfortunate
jemedars head, remained intact… “

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Men of the Man Eaters

© Thee Agora. 2015