The Ghost & The Darkness

The Ghost & The Darkness Tales of History and Imagination


The human history of Kenya, were we to know it fully, would certainly be one of the longer histories out there. On the continent’s East, below the ‘Horn of Africa’, certain simian ancestors of ours, such as homo habilis and homo erectus have been found to have thrived there. Fossil records in the region show an abundance of human apes as early as two million years ago. Pre human primates were there even longer – perhaps first settling in Kenya 20 million years ago. 

As early as 300,000 years ago some species of human, possibly homo-sapien, were beginning to develop traits we think of as what differentiates us from the other animals – primarily they started to make and use tools – and possibly even traded goods with neighbouring villages. “Hey I’ve got several chunks of obsidian, wanna swap for some of those colourful pigments you’re hoarding?”

Over a long, Neolithic period, nomadic groups of humans came and went. Over time the weather changed, becoming wetter and more alluvial, and hunter-gatherers began to stay local, keep livestock and grow crops. Groups of Proto- Khoisan and Bantu tribes settled in the region. By the first century there were cities along the coast, famed in the region for their iron work. They traded with the Arabs, among others.

I mention this as far too many histories glancingly acknowledge there were native people on the land, but history truly starts when Arabs colonised the coast in the 7th Century – Or perhaps pick up from the Portuguese arrival in the 15th Century. The Portuguese almost immediately began warring with the Arabs for control of the land. Some accounts may start with tales of the explorer Vasco da Gama narrowly avoiding death at the hands of an unscrupulous Arab pilot. Those same chroniclers – my main source for this tale among them – are far less apt to tell how, in 1502 da Gama attacked The Mira – a ship laden with hundreds of Indian pilgrims on their way home from Mecca. The explorer set fire to the captured ship, immolating 300 innocent travellers. That tale is too deep a rabbit hole for today’s episode. My point however, not only is Kenya a land with a long long history, often poorly acknowledged by writers of a certain era – It is a place where, by and large, humankind thrived for millennia.  

We do need to know, however, the British Empire showed up in 1888 and laid their own dubious claim to the region. In 1890 they set about building a railway through the land via Uganda. It was this task which brought Lt Colonel John Henry Patterson to Tsavo, Kenya in March 1898. Among his tasks – the construction of a stretch of railway through dense forest – and a bridge over the Tsavo river. No-one was expecting the sudden arrival of a pair of man-eaters days after Patterson’s arrival. For the following nine months the two lions, later named The Ghost and The Darkness, would prey upon the men building the railway.

Only days after Patterson arrived, the first few imported Indian workers disappeared. Late at night, while everyone was sleeping, a sole lion crept into a tent. Seizing a sleeping man by the head, the lion would drag the man kicking and screaming into the forest, where the leonine pair chowed down on the hapless victim. Patterson – not atypical of a 19th century colonial – ignored early reports from the workers on the encroaching lions. The coolies (his wording) – well paid as they were, must have fallen foul of bandits in a nearby town. This didn’t concern Patterson. If we’re to take Patterson’s account as gospel, the terrified men were convinced the lions were vengeful spirits of departed native chiefs opposed to the construction of the railway – all fairness to the man, he was right in doubting they were demons at least. 

Three weeks after his arrival, an incident occurred that he could no longer ignore. A jemader – one of the supervisors – named Ungan Singh was seized by the throat as several other men looked on in horror. Singh attempted to fight back, but was nowhere near as powerful as the lion. The following morning Patterson, accompanied by one Captain Haslem – a guest of his – went out  to investigate. Along the way they came across several pools of blood, where the lion possibly stopped to play with his meal. When they finally came across Singh’s remains, they were greeted by a large pool of blood, scraps of flesh, several bones and the more, or less intact head of the unfortunate jemader. This, especially the terrified look on Singh’s face, shook Patterson into action. 

For many nights following, Patterson took to perching in one tree or another, a rifle and a shotgun by his side. Come hell or high water he was going to bag the lions. The Ghost and the Darkness, however, had the better of him. At the time, the men were split across several camps along the railway line. Whatever camp he was watching, the lions would attack elsewhere. Patterson would get himself settled in, only to hear a blood-curdling scream several miles down the track. Daytime excursions through the heavy undergrowth also came to nil, though a number of daylight attacks did occur. In one case, a travelling salesman narrowly escaped death when one of the lions took out his donkey – but got caught up in a rope the donkey was carrying. The rope tangled up with several oil tins. The din of the rattling tins as the lion tried to free himself spooked the lion – giving the salesman time to scramble up a tree to safety.

It would be a distraction to the tale to cover Lt Colonel Patterson’s atrocious refusal to pay the employees the sum agreed upon, or willingness to take workplace injuries for what they were in detail. He was utterly convinced the men were lying to him about their capabilities, and constantly swinging the lead. Patterson was always ordering them back to work, injured or not, for a quarter of their previously agreed wage. Workplace relations reached a low point when several men conspired to kill Patterson and leave his body for the lions. Suffice to say, intent to murder aside, he was not a swell chap to work for. Add to this the arrival of the lions was enough to send many of the men running for completely different reasons.

In an attempt to keep the workers there, and to make the workers feel safe, Patterson had circular boma – thick, thorny fences – built around the work camps. The lions were not put off at all by the fences and soon both lions took to forcing their way through the boma for a midnight snack. 

For those who remained, the following few months were terrifying. The Ghost and The Darkness prowled from camp to camp. One night they raided the hospital. All the while Patterson spent his night in the trees, a couple of guns constantly at his side. At times he tied goats to trees, even left human remains where they lay, in the hope an easy meal would entice the lions. One night he recalled staking out a deserted camp only to hear screams from the direction of the recently relocated hospital. That night the lions leapt the boma, eating an unfortunate water-carrier in front of the man’s horrified colleagues. 

This brazenness was yet another thing which could be said of these lions. If someone had a gun, and was nearby, gunfire, yelling, the clanking of anything metallic meant nothing to them. If they decided this was the spot they were going to enjoy their meal, no-one was going to disturb them. 

The aforementioned attempt to mutiny and dispose of Patterson in September 1898 finally brought a little help. Those higher up in the organisation were called in to arrest the conspirators. Following the arrest, and punishment of the mutineers the top brass were suddenly far more interested in the goings on in Tsavo. 

Patterson had, by this stage, built a cage – half of which held some poor railway worker or other as bait. The other half was a trap to contain one of the beasts. For several days the lions ignored the trap. They did burst through a boma one night, however, picked out a victim and dragged the poor man into the jungle. For weeks Patterson, now aided by several military officers, staked out several camps at once. The lions continued unabated – with increasing impunity. They had now taken to staking out the Tsavo railway station for a fresh meal. One night the railway inspector fired fifty shots at one of the lions, convinced he hit the animal. 

The following morning men went out to track the beast down. A trail was left in the sand that resembled a dragging limb – had the conductor struck the beast in the leg, causing it to limp off? To their shock the trail was left by a human arm dragged along the ground as the lion strode off, carrying a half-eaten torso. Said torso had been discarded some way down the track.

Towards the end of the year, the railway employees finally refused to go back out, going on strike till the company built them lion proof accommodation. For three weeks work came to a standstill while huts were finally constructed. The district officer, Mr Whitehead, also arrived with soldiers to help hunt down the lions. Three weeks of strike was more than enough disruption for him. On his late night arrival at Tsavo station, Whitehead nearly fell prey to a lion. He escaped with deep, long gashes down his back from one of the duo taking a swing at him. The police superintendent arrived soon after to help also. 

It would be Patterson himself who finally took down the lions. The first was shot and killed on 9th December 1898. Patterson bagged the second 20 days later – the latter requiring eleven shots to put down. At just shy of ten feet, nose to tail – both were on the large side – as the mane-less Tsavo lions often are. Lt Col. Patterson made several claims in his 1907 bestseller as to the death toll from “…no less than twenty-eight Indian coolies, in addition to scores of unfortunate African natives…” to 135 victims. Scientists examining their remains have more recently put forward a lower figure of around 35 victims of their reign of terror. 

But what caused this reign of terror? 

While the encroachment of the British into their territory to build their railway seems the most obvious answer, it ignores the fact locals lived nearby for millennia. Lions did occasionally eat a human, but generally they avoided people, and vice versa. The favoured meal of the Tsavo lions, was zebra, wildebeest or antelope. 

One possible reason they turned man-eater relates back to Mr Patterson’s hero, Vasco da Gama. When da Gama and the Portuguese took notice of this region of Africa at the tail end of the 15th Century – subsequently taking over from the Arab interlopers. They were always on the lookout for slaves to import to Brazil. Brazil was their cash cow. Local slave labour was scarce. The Conquistadors brought European diseases, like smallpox, with them. These diseases went through native populations in the Americas, wiping out up to 90 percent of the population. Needing people to enslave and quite literally work to death in the plantations and mines, they imported millions of Africans to Brazil. 

(Sidebar: I have covered some of this history in Njinga of Ndongo and Henry ‘Box’ Brown). 

When the Sultan of Oman finally got the better of Portugal, expelling them from Eastern Africa in 1698, they continued the practice of selling slaves. On the island of Zanzibar, where Sultans would reign and continue to co-exist well into British times, a slave market flourished. 40,000 to 50,000 mostly Bantu people from Central Africa were brought to the island to be sold to wealthy Egyptians, Persians, Arabs and Indians. A third of the haul stayed on the Tanzanian island to replace the slaves worked to death that year in their own plantations. Many slaves also died on their way to the market, their bodies unceremoniously dumped on the way. One place which became a regular dumping ground was the Tsavo river. 

The British allowed Zanzibar to remain a protectorate – free to govern themselves, with a handful of restrictions, throughout the 1880s and 90s. They finally cracked down on their slave trade in 1897. Did the start of the slave trade give Tsavo lions a liking for human flesh? Did the end of Zanzibar’s slave trade cut off the flow of The Ghost and The Darkness’ favoured snack, forcing them to look for an easy meal elsewhere? 

Another possibility is the lions were simply following the principle of adapt or die. 

When scientists examined the teeth of the two beasts, it was noticeable neither had taken on a larger boned animal, like a wildebeest, in quite some time. The expected wear and tear simply wasn’t showing on their chompers. One of the pair however – for the life of me I couldn’t tell you if Ghost or Darkness – had three broken incisors, a missing canine tooth and an abscess under another tooth. The man-eater would have been incapable of bringing down a wildebeest or zebra, and was likely in constant agony. Some poor, slow moving human however, was manageable. 

Patterson went on to do other things. He became a war hero in World War One, leading the Jewish Legion – five battalions of mostly Jewish soldiers, against the Ottoman Turks. He also discovered a completely new species of antelope – the eland – only after shooting one of course. He commanded a battalion of Ulster Unionists in Ireland, just prior to the First World War and saw action in the 2nd Boer War. Patterson was a prominent Zionist who argued for a Jewish state in Palestine. His final wish was to be buried in Israel. Benjamin Netanyahu, a fan of Patterson, facilitated this for both his and his wife’s remains in 2014. 

The Ghost and The Darkness suffered a somewhat less dignified fate. They were skinned, their hides becoming trophy rugs of Patterson until 1924, when he sold them to the Chicago Field Museum. They were taxidermied and placed on display in a diorama in 1925. You can still visit the remains of these remarkable beasts today.   

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