The lion-killer who became an Israeli hero

JH Patterson with one of the Tsavo lions Image copyright Getty Images

The ashes of a swashbuckling hero of the British Empire are to be reburied in Israel after a service attended by the country's prime minister. John Henry Patterson was a soldier, big-game hunter and writer, whose exploits inspired three Hollywood movies. The BBC's Kevin Connolly explains why he is so admired in Israel.

The man who was to become a hero to Israelis and Britons was not Jewish, and was more Irish than British. Like many servants of the crown in the days of Empire he was an Irishman born in County Longford in 1867 to a Protestant father and Catholic mother. Ireland was then part of the United Kingdom and military service was a popular option for many young Irishmen - partly from a want of other opportunities and partly from a sense of adventure.

In Patterson's case we can assume it was the sense of adventure. By 1898 he'd been commissioned to oversee the construction of a railway bridge over a ravine at Tsavo, in Kenya, but found work was being held up by two man-eating lions who were terrorising the huge camps housing the Indian and African labourers.

Image copyright IWM

It's hard to be sure, but the two lions between them may have killed more than 100 people in all. Patterson wasn't an expert on lions, although he'd shot tigers on military service in India, but to protect his workers and get his bridge finished he resolved to kill the predators.

Man-eating behaviour isn't common among lions - it's possible that the two killers at Tsavo had got the taste for human flesh from the careless disposal of human remains over the years. Over a three-week period Patterson killed both the predators. His workers, who'd been growing fractious, presented him with an inscribed drinking cup to salute his extraordinary nerve. It remained one of his most treasured possessions. Patterson told the whole story in his best-selling book, The Man-Eaters of Tsavo.

The book has inspired no fewer than three Hollywood movies - Bwana Devil (1952), the Killers of Kilimanjaro (1959) and The Ghost and the Darkness (1996). The American hunter Remington, played by Michael Douglas, who appears in The Ghost and The Darkness is a pure invention - in real-life our Irish hero did it all himself. The lions to some extent are the stars of the story and they were exceptional creatures. These animals measured 9ft (2.7m) from the nose to the tip of the tail, and after they'd been shot each of them required a team of eight men to carry them back to the camp. The stuffed carcases are in the Field Museum in Chicago but the taxidermist's art has apparently somewhat diminished their impact... according to legend the original skins had been used as rugs and so when it was decided to stuff and mount them they came out slightly smaller than they had originally been.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Male Tsavo lions don't have manes - an evolutionary quirk attributed to the fierce heat in the region

Nothing ordinary ever seemed to happen to Patterson. Bwana Devil is generally cited as the first full-colour 3-D movie made in English and so is a Hollywood milestone in itself. When you see those old black and white photographs of movie audiences thrilling to the 3-D experience in their cardboard spectacles, there's a good chance they're watching Patterson in action. The film also deserves to be remembered for a slogan designed to reassure audiences that the coming of startling 3-D realism didn't mean the end of old-fashioned romance. "Bwana Devil!", it said. "A Lion in Your Lap; A Lover in Your Arms!"

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionLt Colonel J H Patterson recorded in the 1940s. Courtesy: The Jabotinsky Institute

Having your life turned into a Hollywood movie isn't always a positive experience. A few years after the events at Tsavo, Patterson was involved in a scandal that made him the talk of big-game hunting high society in Africa. On safari a fellow British soldier, Audley Blyth, died of gunshot wounds in his tent, as ugly rumours swirled that Patterson had been rather too close to Mrs Blyth, who was also a part of the expedition. At one point it's believed that Patterson threatened to sue Winston Churchill for slander as the incident became the talk of fashionable London dinner tables. Ernest Hemingway was intrigued enough to fictionalise the story in The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber - and true to form it was eventually turned in to yet another movie, The Macomber Affair (1947).

Big-game hunting is no longer fashionable, of course, but it's worth remembering that hunters tended to see themselves not as despoilers of the natural environment of Africa but as experts in it. Patterson shot an eland in 1906 and had the head mounted. He thought it had some unusual characteristics and when it was eventually seen by a member of faculty at the British Museum in London it turned out to be a sort of unique sub-species that to this day bears Patterson's name, Taurotragus Oryx Pattersonianius.

There was nothing honorary about Lt Col Patterson's military rank. He served with distinction in a British cavalry regiment during the Boer War in South Africa, winning the Distinguished Service Order, and when he was recalled to the colours during World War One he was almost 50 years old.

Image copyright Mary Evans Picture Library

It was during the Middle East campaign that he found himself in command of the Zion Mule Corps, a group of Jewish volunteers eager to serve the international cause and to advance their own cause of creating a Jewish state at the same time. Patterson became a passionate supporter of Zionism and the ranks of the detachment he commanded included influential heroes of the cause, including Ze'ev Jabotinsky and Joseph Trumpeldor.

Vladimir (Ze'ev) Jabotinsky (1880-1940)

  • Zionist leader, journalist and orator born in Odessa
  • He founded the militant Zionist Revisionist movement that played an important role in the establishment of the State of Israel
  • Convinced the British government to allow military participation by Jewish refugees from the Ottoman Empire during World War One

Joseph Trumpeldor (1880-1920)

  • Zionist pioneer and former hero of the tsarist army, born in Russia
  • Died at the Tel Hai (Tal-ha in Arabic) former settlement in 1920, in an early battle of the Arab-Israeli conflict

Source: Encyclopedia Britannica

Patterson took his Jewish volunteers to war around the dangerous beaches of Gallipoli in what history remembers as a doomed British effort to attack the German Empire through the territory of its ally, the Turkish Empire. It's often said that Patterson thus became the first commander to lead Jewish forces on to the field of battle for two millennia making him an important figure in the history of Zionism.

Image copyright Other
Image caption John Henry Patterson (left) with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's parents

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told me that his older brother, Yonathan, was named in honour of John Henry Patterson, who had come to know their father when he lived in New York campaigning for the Zionist cause in the mid-1940s.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionBenjamin Netanyahu speaks to Kevin Connolly about John Henry Patterson

The family still has an engraved goblet given to Yonathan by Patterson to celebrate his birth. Yonathan went on to become an Israeli national hero who died leading the extraordinary raid on Entebbe in Uganda in 1976 in which commandos from Israel's special forces rescued hostages who were being held at an airport by members of the German Baader-Meinhof gang and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Prime Minister Netanyahu told us he regarded Patterson as godfather to the Israeli Army as well as the godfather to his brother and says it's right that Israel should honour him. He's expected to attend the burial of Patterson's ashes on Thursday.

You can hear Kevin Connolly's radio report about John Henry Patterson on BBC Radio 4's Broadcasting House, at 09:00 GMT on Sunday 30 November - or afterwards on the BBC iPlayer

Subscribe to the BBC News Magazine's email newsletter to get articles sent to your inbox.