How Accurate Was
by Marula

Lt. Col. John H. Patterson Col. Patterson
The lions known as the Ghost and the Darkness were unlike any other lions previously observed. Man-eaters as a rule are rare, but these lions seemed to kill for the actual pleasure of it - something unheard of and never before documented. Their bloody killing spree spread terror through the countryside and the railroad worker camps at Tsavo in the late 1880's, effectively halting the plans of the greatest colonial empire on earth. The local natives believed these lions were spirits, demons, and the engineer in charge of building a railroad through their hunting grounds knew they had to be stopped.

It was the chronicle of the hunt for these lions that became one of the most thrilling true stories ever told and was the basis for the movie THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS.

So how accurate was the Hollywood depiction of this incredible story? First let's take a look at the railroad itself and the project Patterson was put in charge of - building a bridge across the river Tsavo.

It is true that in 1898, the British Empire set out to construct a railroad in East Africa. The railroad was to extend from Mombasa on the coast of present-day Kenya to Lake Victoria, and later into Uganda. An interesting note is that this railroad, formally called the Uganda Railroad, was referred to as the 'Lunatic Line' as it was criticized by those opposing such an undertaking as being a railroad going from 'from nowhere to utterly nowhere'.

However, in the spirit of imperialism the railroad was to be built. The rationale for such an undertaking was the fact that at this time there was no other way to venture into the interior of the continent except by foot. The British believed there to be a wealth of agricultural goods and other commodities that could only make it back to legitimate markets if there was an effective means of transporting large shipments. The missionaries of the time pressed for more effective transportation in order to reach the masses living in the interior, too far removed from the reaches of the church. And then there was the issue of the slave trade. The slave trade was losing ground as a respectable business and there were those that hoped more effective transportation opening up new markets would encourage those in the interior to resort to other means of making a living. And last but not least there was the pride of the British Empire to be considered. If anyone was going to be first into this uncharted territory with its potential riches it had to be the British and their railroad. Nothing else would be acceptable. It was in this climate of imperialist expansion that Patterson forged his career.

The character of Beaumont most effectively conveys this attitude of British superiority. His at-all-costs attitude towards the railroad project is indicative of the political climate of the times. There was indeed a race to see who would conquer the wealth and markets of Africa and the British Empire was going to be the first one to fully exploit the potential of the 'dark continent'! Thus the railroad was going to be built and it was going to be built quickly. Patterson's mission to oversee aspects of the railroad's construction would indeed have been given much importance and approached with no small degree of urgency.

However, unlike what we see in the movie, Patterson's orders were not that immediately clear at the outset. In the film he is specifically told he is going to Africa to build a bridge. This is again conveyed in his farewell conversation with his wife. In reality, Patterson arrived in Mombasa on March 1st, 1898, knowing only that he was going to work on the Uganda Railway construction. It was a week later that he was ordered to Tsavo to oversee the construction there - one of the most important tasks to be the building of the bridge.

As far as the actual, physical railroad was depicted this too is fairly accurate. The Uganda Railroad is one of the great engineering feats of the late 1800's. "It's 580 miles of track had to cross the Great Rift Valley, several rivers, and some of the most inhospitable territory you could imagine. Construction started in 1896, and reached what is today Nairobi in 1899. It finally reached Kismu on Lake Victoria in 1901. It took 27 more years for the railroad to actually be extended to Kampala, Uganda."

So what we see in the film, the length of the journey to get to Tsavo and the incredible scale of the railway camp at the river are quite accurate. It is apparent that care was taken to as accurately as possible depict the scope of this engineering project. It is true that indentured Indian workers supplied much of the labor required to build the railroad. Again, though there is not a great emphasis placed on it in the film, it is accurate that the site hospital would have been quite busy. Tragically many of the Indians, some reports indeed say the majority of them in fact, succumbed to diseases and were victims of numerous accidents. Thus the busy hospital portrayed in the film was perhaps even underplayed if these reports are accurate.

In 1898, when Patterson arrived at the railhead the railroad had already extended past the Tsavo river. A temporary bridge had been constructed to allow workers across and supplies to follow the track laying. It was Col. Patterson's mandate to oversee the construction of a permanent railway bridge. Again the movie is quite accurate in its depiction. The bridge spanning the river would be approximately 100 yards long and would look like the bridge we are presented with in the film.

Patterson himself was still a young man, in his early 30's, when he was sent to Tsavo and he had indeed recently spent time in India overseeing civil engineering projects. However, interestingly there is some debate as to whether or not Patterson actually designed the bridge he was to build. Apparently there are no records of Patterson ever receiving any formal training in bridge design. Though it can easily be argued that if he did not actually come up with the original concept, as depicted in the film, he still had to be the one to decide whether or not it would work and to make any modifications.

Pattersons Bridge
Patterson's Bridge
Given time limitations in telling a story in a two-hour movie and the fact that the focus of the film was the lions themselves, some daunting details of the actual construction were omitted. I have included some of this here for interest's sake and because it truly indicates the challenges faced by Patterson at Tsavo. One of the more difficult tasks facing Patterson was the building of the foundation piers. Suitable stone had to be quarried for these and none was available at the bridge site. Stone was found three miles away and the problem of transporting this to the actual bridge site had to be overcome. To accomplish this Patterson had a tramline constructed which itself required that two bridges be built over the river.

As if geographical challenges were not enough to defeat most faced with this task, the lions proceeded to complicate matters in ways that Patterson could never have predicted. Patterson had only been at Tsavo for a matter of days when he received reports about workers disappearing. In the film this is conveyed to the audience by the incident with the porter who narrowly escaped an attack by a man-eater. In fact, there was a recorded incident of a worker on a donkey who was attacked. So again, the film has managed to stick closely to historical fact. Though in reality the worker escaped without injury and spent the night in a tree.

Although he was told that lions were responsible, Patterson did not believe these accounts at first but upon investigation it was learned that not one but two lions were indeed responsible for the carnage. Early attempts to hunt down and kill the lions were unsuccessful. Patterson would write in his book that the lions seemed to be able to predict what he would do next. What we do not see clearly in the film is the fact that there were many camps scattered up and down the railway for over 30 miles. Thus these lions could attack different camps each time making it impossible to predict where they would strike next. However, the frustration and fear felt by Patterson and the workers is most effectively conveyed in the movie. In his memoirs Patterson wrote: "(The lions') methods became so uncanny, and their man-stalking so well-timed and so certain of success, that the workmen firmly believed they were not real animals at all, but devils in lions' shape."

Railroad and Thorny Wilderness
Railroad and Thorny Wilderness
The construction of the bomas, thorn fences, as depicted in the film is also accurate. These bomas were erected around the camps, and fires were kept burning at night, in an effort to keep the predators out. Normally this is an effective method of protecting dwellings and corrals, but these lions seemed to ignore the thorny fences, literally crawling through them. Perhaps this is because the terrain around Tsavo was thick with the thorny bushes used to construct the bomas and they were used to passing through thick hedges while roaming the countryside.

As depicted in the film, the lions did in fact attack workers in their tents. There were a number of lucky escapes with the lions carrying off supplies or a mattress and 'missing' the intended target. Unfortunately they often succeeded in obtaining what they were after - the men.

The effect on the workers was not as immediate as is depicted in the film. With the camps as spread out as they were up and down the railroad the true extent of the lions' hunting sprees was not known at first. As the railroad construction proceeded far past the bridge site, only a few hundred of the thousands of workers remained at the Tsavo railhead. However, the lions soon seemed to turn their attention to this camp. And this is when the real trouble and panic erupted at Tsavo.

The movie may have 'played up' some of the more terrifying acts of these lions in order to make a more interesting movie. But reality itself was not too different. One of the lions did indeed attack the hospital tent, although in reality it was scared away only to return and seize one of the patients and injure others. The hospital tent was moved and the new hospital was attacked the very next night. However, unlike the incredible carnage depicted in the movie only one worker was killed. The movie, however, was regrettably accurate in its portrayal of what remained of the lions' victims. Very little was found of the hospital worker - his head, a few larger bones and a hand!

The biggest discrepancy between the movie and reality is the character of Remington. There was no hunter named Remington to come to the aid of Col. Patterson. Patterson hunted the lions alone for the most part, typically with his gun bearer and sometimes a native tracker. However, Remington was a useful vehicle for the film to condense some of the events and others that Patterson interacted with.

For example, when the hospital was moved yet again after the second attack, it was the doctor with whom Patterson lay in wait for the lions to return. A thicker boma was erected around the new hospital tent location and a supply wagon with cattle tied to it was left at the old hospital site. A lion did appear and Patterson's shot only managed to scare it off. Though Patterson was to write later in his Field Museum account of this particular incident that he believed he managed to shoot one of the canine teeth of the lion. This cannot be verified, but if it is true then of the two lions on display this lion would have had to be 'man-eater #1', missing a canine tooth.

The lions seemed to disappear from Tsavo at this point, though reports of missing workers continued to come in from the other camps. Patterson constructed his 'contraption' in preparation for the lions' return. As depicted in the movie Patterson utilized a boxcar, divided into two compartments. This contraption was exactly like it was shown in the movie and Patterson did indeed spend the first nights waiting inside.

The Contraption
"The Contraption"
Eventually the workers did abandon Patterson and Tsavo, though unlike in the film he was not left entirely alone. A handful of workers did remain behind. It was December 1st, 1889 and Patterson had been in Africa for nine months. And unlike the film Patterson did receive help from the authorities. On December 3rd help arrived in the form of the Superintendent of Police and twenty men to help hunt down the lions.

It was while these men were in the camp that a lion did enter the contraption. And although it might not have happened exactly as depicted in the movie, for example the majority of the workers had already left the camp at this time, the attack was not just pure Hollywood. The lion was trapped and managed to escape with only minor injuries. Patterson, the Superintendent of Police and some of his men tracked the lion and although one man claims to have glimpsed the creature, they again escaped. Now Patterson was to be left virtually alone with the lions as the police could not remain.

On the morning of December 9, one of the lions was spotted devouring a donkey. And yes, Patterson's rifle did misfire and it was nearly as dramatic a moment as depicted in the film though there was no Remington or Masai warriors and no stare down between the two hunters. Rather Patterson had rounded up some of the remaining workers to make noise and flush the lion out of a thicket. Standing at the opening of an animal trail through the thicket Patterson did face one of the lions. The lion was intimidated by the sound of the misfire and ran past Patterson. Though Patterson failed to kill the lion while it was feeding he came up with a plan to finally ambush one of the creatures

Believing the lion might return to finish off the donkey, Patterson built a machan, the platform as depicted in the movie, and waited for the lion. As in the movie Patterson was alone in his vigil, not being attended by his gun bearer that night. In fact, unlike the film, Patterson was not lying in wait night after night for the lions alone. This night, however, Patterson was on his own.

Eventually the lion did show. And apparently there was indeed an owl that flew at Patterson but it did not knock him from his perch. Patterson was able to shoot and kill the first man-eater. This set off a wild celebration by the remaining workers. It took eight men to carry the nine foot, eight inch (from nose to tip of tail), maneless male lion back to the camp. This too is not depicted in the film. In the Hollywood version there are no workers remaining in the camp to carry the carcass back let alone celebrate the creatures demise. And the lions depicted in the film all had their manes. The Tsavo lions were maneless. Perhaps a result of crawling through the thick thorny bushes found in the area. Manes would soon become tangled in the thick underbrush and would eventually become lost.

It was to be days later before the second lion made another appearance but attempts to shoot and kill it again failed. After an unsuccessful attack on one of the workers, Patterson and his gun bearer took up watch in the same tree the worker had taken refuge in. The lion did venture into the clearing and Patterson managed to shoot it twice but not kill it. The lion was tracked to where it lay wounded. According to Patterson's account he shot the lion three more times but failed to stop the lion's advance. Taking refuge in a nearby tree, he shot the lion once more and believing it to be dead left the tree. Amazingly the lion charged again and two more shots, to the chest and head, finally stopped the beast. The second man-eater was dead! And though the scene did not play out as it was shown in the movie, the lion did savagely bite a branch on the ground until the life drained from it. As it turned out the lion had taken six or seven shots. Also a maneless male, this second lion was only 2 inches shorter than the first.

Another interesting point to note is that the lion cave that was found by Patterson containing the evidence of the lions' years of killing humans really existed. Its depiction in the film is actually quite accurate. The real Patterson cave was only recently discovered, and as the pictures below show, again the movie stuck amazingly close to the actual facts.

The Real Lions
The Real Lions on display at the Field Museum
And like the movie, the end of this incredible story was like a fairy tale - the workers returned, the bridge was built and the railhead was soon to reach Nairobi. On January 30th, 1899, the workers presented a silver bowl to Patterson in appreciation for the bravery he had shown in relentlessly hunting down the man-eaters.

Although this was not covered in the film it is interesting to note what Patterson went on to do. He left Africa in 1899 and returned in 1906. He spent several years as a game warden during which he wrote 'The Man-Eaters of Tsavo'. In 1924, he sold the skins and skulls of the man-eaters to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois. There the skins were converted from rugs to mounts and were finally displayed in 1928 where they remain to this day.

All in all THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS stayed surprisingly close to the actual facts. Some elements were added, such as the Remington character, for the sake of telling a story in an entertaining way in a two-hour time frame, but essentially the story of these two marauding lions was told as it happened. The details surrounding the actual shooting of the two lions was somewhat "Hollywoodized" to keep the movie's audience on a dramatic rollercoaster ride, but the events as depicted in the film are no more or less dramatic than the incredible reality of the man-eaters of Tsavo.

All photos of the real lions, Patterson's camp and the railroad are from the Chicago Field Museum's website.

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