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The battle between fierce lions and Colonel Patterson

From Tsavo to Sohawa, how the man-eaters were battled to build the railway

The battle between fierce lions and Colonel Patterson
Railway bridge at Sohawa

“Darkness fell almost immediately, and everything became extraordinarily still. The silence of an African jungle on a dark night needs to be experienced to be realised; it is most impressive, especially when one is absolutely alone and isolated…” and so started the extraordinary story of Colonel John Henry Patterson, titled The Man-Eaters of Tsavo.

My interest in the story of Colonel Patterson, who sailed into the Mombasa harbour on March 1, 1898, got revived when I ventured out into village ‘Chanjerlat’ in District Jhelum last August, and where I was convinced I had to write its postscript.

Tsavo bridge in 1899

Tsavo bridge in 1899

The Hindu raiyot of the Raj staunchly believed that if he sailed across the oceans, he would lose his caste and be haunted by demons and other misfortunes. That is exactly what happened during the Scramble of Africa when the Uganda Railway Commission in London decided to construct a metre-gauge railway line, linking the interior of British East Africa with the port city of Mombasa. Patterson, though not an engineer, was commissioned by the Uganda Railway Committee in London to oversee the construction of a railway bridge over Tsavo River (now in Kenya). Thousands of skilled labourers were taken from British India, across the Indian Ocean, to construct railways and bridges on the river. Expectedly, some of them lost their caste and bizarrely were hunted by two mane-less lions — that dragged out the “Indian coolies” from their camps as soon as the sun set and would audaciously feed on the victims.

Interestingly, Patterson’s arrival in Africa coincided with the appearance of a pair of man-eaters on the scene. It didn’t take long for the superstitious workers to believe the lions were evil spirits that had come to Tsavo to punish those who lost their caste. Despite preventive measures of bonfires at night, thorn barriers around the camps, night curfews, drumbeating and night surveillance, the rogue lions became even bolder. Eventually the fear of mass departure of labourers ceased the construction of the bridge and Patterson faced the challenge of maintaining his authority.

During this reign of terror, there were few comic scenes. “One night when the camp was attacked, so many men swarmed on to a particular tree that it came crashing down, hurling its terror-stricken load of shrieking coolies close to the very lions they were trying to avoid. Fortunately for them, a victim had already been secured.”

In another incident the lion actually climbed the roof of the railway station and tried to tear off the corrugated iron sheets. “The terrified baboo in charge of the telegraph sent a laconic message to the Traffic Manager: Lion fighting the station. Send urgent succor.” Fortunately, the lion lost the battle with the ‘station’ and retreated with his feet badly cut by the iron sheet.

After months of trepidation, Patterson, an experienced tiger hunter himself, who had acquired his skill from his earlier military service in India, shot dead the first man-eater from a machan on December 9, 1898 and wounded the second one on December 29,1898. He followed this wounded brute the next day that charged at him despite being shot again. Patterson managed to escape harm by climbing the nearest tree and coolly shot it dead.

As I sat down on a rock to ponder upon the genius of Mistri and his team, a train crossed the railway bridge at Sohawa, followed by silence, occasionally disturbed by the chirping of swallows. The only thing missing was the blood-curdling roar of the man-eating lions. And with that my quest for the real-life story of Colonel Patterson finally ended at Sohawa.

The news about the incident spread far and wide. Congratulatory telegrams came pouring in. Then Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, announced it in the House of Lords. The Spectator ran the story, ‘The Lions that stopped the railway’.

With the man-eater finally eliminated, the workforce returned and the Tsavo railway bridge was completed on February 7, 1899. However, during the First World War, the Germans destroyed the railroad but the stone foundations of the bridge were left standing and subsequently repaired.

On behalf of the overseers, clerks, workmen and coolies, Baboo Purshotam Hurjee Purmar presented Colonel Patterson with a silver bowl as a token of gratitude. He also received an unusual present, “…a long poem written in ‘Hindustani’ describing all our trails and my ultimate victory”. Translation of this poem is included in the appendix of Patterson’s book.

Interestingly, the poem was written by Roshan Mistri, son of Kadir Bux Mistri, a native of the village Chajanlat, Dakhli, post office Domeli, district of Jehlum, in January 29, 1899.

Bridge at Tsavo in East Africa, as it  stands today.

Bridge at Tsavo in East Africa, as it stands today.

To know more about the story, I rang up my friend Jehanzeb Awan, Deputy Commissioner of Jehlum, to help me track down Chajanlat, where someone might remember this century-old story. Soon after, I got a call from Tariq Basra, Assistant Commissioner, Sohawa, stating that Domeli is a moaza (revenue estate consisting of a number of villages) and Chanjlot Dakhali (not Chajanlat) is a village. The patwari had traced the descendant of Roshan Mistri from the Jamabandi record of 1940.

Roshan Mistri’s family holding the book.

Roshan Mistri’s family holding the book.

That very same evening I reached the residence of Awan, where we watched the 1996 Hollywood movie, The Ghost and The Darkness, based on Patterson’s book The Man-Eaters of Tsavo, and starring Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas.

Next morning, Basra accompanied me to Chanjlot to meet a few octogenarian — all Sials by caste and descendants of the family of Roshan Mistri. Among them were his 80-year-old great grandson Mushtaq and 68-year-old great great grandnephew, Abdul Rasheed. They showed me their family tree drawn on a paper, according to which Chanjal Khan, after whom the village is named, migrated to this place from Chiniot during the early Sikh rule in Punjab. The African adventure of their forefathers was common knowledge — they said, after zuhr prayers (3 or 4pm) work would stop and the labourers would gather in the camps or under the trees… The semi-naked Negros, armed with spear and shield, were not afraid of the lions… Towers were constructed by the sahib to kill the lions…

Roshan Mistri, along with his two cousins, Qasim and Hashim, an uncle and a few other villagers went to East Africa were among those taken to East Africa. They were extraordinary masons, blacksmiths, carpenters and mechanics, and had laid railway lines and built bridges from Jehlum to Rawalpindi in 1879-80. They were offered work in East Africa on exceptionally high salaries, Rs100 a month.

Mistri and his team returned home in 1899. On return, he settled down in Domeli, where he wrote the poem, the translation of which is annexed in the book.

Around 1914, he and his team headed for their second overseas adventure. This time to Iraq, where they “were called by Colonel Patterson”, but the family does not know the precise details.

I was curious to know what exactly was their nature of job. Blowing away bridges instead of building new ones? For back then Patterson commanded Zion Mule Corps in Palestine during the First World War when the Turkish empire was pushed out of the Middle East and Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq).

Roshan Mistri and his team returned homes safely from Basra in 1918. Thereafter, Roshan tilled his land in Chanjlot village and was called occasionally for building projects by various government contractors. An enthusiastic poet, he compiled a book of his own Urdu poetry, which got destroyed in 1999 when his house collapsed during heavy rains. He is buried near his village.

Tsavo, East Africa.

Tsavo, East Africa.

Before I returned home, I had to see the railway bridge on the Sohawa stream, accessed through the GT road towards Rawalpindi, that brought fame to Roshan Mistri, his uncle, his talented cousins and more than a hundred labourers from the surrounding villages. This magnificent bridge at Sohawa was completed around 1878-79 when the railway was extended to Rawalpindi. There is astonishing resemblance between the two bridges of Sohawa and Tsavo in Kenya — arches joining the two ridges with perennial water flowing underneath.

As I sat down on a rock to ponder upon the genius of Mistri and his team, a train crossed the railway bridge at Sohawa, followed by silence, occasionally disturbed by the chirping of swallows. The only thing missing on that day was the blood-curdling roar of the man-eating lions. And with that my quest for the real-life story of Colonel Patterson, that started in Tsavo more than a century ago, finally ended at Sohawa.

Dr Raheal Ahmad Siddiqui

raheal siddiqui
The writer is a conservationist and animal right activist and can be reached at [email protected]

One comment

  • Great, Shows the Courage/Architecture Skill of The People of Asia.

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