In 1896, my husband’s grandfather helped to build the telegraph from Cape to Cairo, during which he was mauled by a lion. This is his story. (Please bear in mind that this was written in 1898, so some of the words may not be PC. I’ve kept them in as written in the original article.) As an aside, we are in possession of the skull of the lion. Quite a family heirloom.
The most appalling true narrative on record.
My name is Ernest Brockman, and my present age twenty-eight. In May, 1896 after having served the Chartered Company as postmaster and telegraphist in Mashonaland, I returned to England for six months holiday.
At the expiration of this period, I went back to Africa, making straight for Beira, where, in December of the same year, I was introduced to Major Patrick Forbes who represented Mr. Cecil Rhodes in Northern Rhodesia and had charge of the telegraphs and general administration of that particular territory.
The construction of the Trans-Continental telegraph wire – Rhodes’ pet scheme, the “Cape to Cairo” telegraph – was being actively pushed forward and Major Forbes suggested that I should join the working party at “the front”, going direct to Chinde, at the mouth of the Zambezi.
I promptly acted on this suggestion and some weeks later found myself one of a very large party of telegraph workers in the very heart of Central Africa. The great work is going on surely and rapidly. Yet it is practically unknown to people at home.
We worked in sections of gangs, each section being composed of 100 or 200 natives under the command of a white man experienced in the work of telegraph construction. The first gang cleared the forest along the route where the wire was to be laid, the next gang dug holes for the poles and the third section fixed the poles upright and placed the insulators in position.
The section I had charge of was the last of all, and my duty was to test the wire after the ordinary work of the day was finished. I had to see that proper communication was maintained with our base at Blantyre so that we could order up stores as required.
Our object was to take the wire right up to Lake Tanganyika, where the northernmost point was about 700 miles from the extreme south of Lake Nyassa. About the beginning of October last year, I found myself settling down to work in the telegraph camp, about thirty miles distant from Kota Kota.
My mate – the only white man in that place besides myself – was a stout-heated Irishman named Dan Morkel; and we had a following of about fifty natives.
Our camp was established in a small clearing in the great forest about two hundred yards in circumference. This clearing was almost entirely encircled by oil palms which stretched away on all sides for countless miles, interspersed at intervals with groups of rubber trees and prickly cactus.
This open space also contained three regularly made huts, built for us by the natives, whilst they themselves put up curious brushwood shelters for their own use. My friend, Morkel, occupied one of the huts, the second was used as a storage house, whilst I was the occupant of the third.
These huts were circular in shape, and about 10ft in diameter. It is necessary here to say a word or two about the construction of the huts. Stout poles, 2ft or 3ft apart, were first of all driven into the ground to form the skeleton of the hut, and the walls were simply of matting, woven out of strips of shredded bamboo. There was, however, an inner coating of twisted grass, and a thatched roof of the same material.
My hut was near the centre of the clearing and close by it was the telegraph wire on which we were working. A small wire ran right down into my hut and was connected with a telegraph instrument resting on a cask that stood by my bedside. The cask itself contained our sugar and was used by me as a table. My bed was composed of four bamboo stumps, with bamboo netting stretched between them, on which the mattress was laid, and I was provided with a couple of pillows and two or three blankets.
Above the bed was a mosquito net, supported on bamboo poles at the corners and enveloping me completely like a big, square meat-safe. The bed, I should mention, stood close to the wall of the hut, almost opposite the doorway, which was merely a small opening, blocked up at night by a shield of grass and bamboo.
My Lee-Metford rifle stood leaning against the sugar barrel, where I had placed it on retiring to rest. These details may be uninteresting in themselves, but they are, nevertheless, necessary to a complete realization of my terrible tale.
On the fateful day I arose soon after sunrise – say about a quarter to six – and, as I had no very pressing business on hand, I went out into the forest for a little shooting, accompanied by two or three of the natives. My luck was not very great, however, although I succeeded in potting a hartebeest; and I returned to camp about four o’clock, when I had tea with Dan Morkel in the open air.
When the meal was over, we sat smoking before the big fire our boys had lighted for us, and we continued to tell yarns to one another until nearly ten o’clock. This gossip in front of the camp fire in the open air was our regular custom on fine nights.
At this time the dry season was drawing to a close, and the weather not quite so warm as it had been. At a little after ten o’clock I began to yawn, so I rose to my feet and tried to peer out into the extraordinary dense darkness of the night. I said goodnight to my companion, and we each went off to our respective huts, intending to go to bed without further delay.
I was not sleepy, however, and after getting into bed I commenced to read a copy of Tit-Bits that had reached me by the last mail. My reading lamp was the end of a candle, stuck in an old whisky-bottle, and placed on the sugar cask by the side of the telegraph instrument. I gradually dozed off and lost consciousness.
The next thing I remember was waking up suddenly around midnight and listening to the doleful howlings of the hyenas that surrounded the camp. These brutes were afraid to come too near, but as they didn’t seem inclined to go away, I thought it would be a good idea to go out and see what effect a shot might produce amongst them.
I drew on my coat and trousers, took my rifle, and went out into the darkness, where nothing was visible except the hideous yellow eyes of the hyenas gleaming among the forest trees.
The silence of the night was strangely oppressive – so much so, in fact, that I thought of going across to Morkel’s hut and asking him to come out and have a shot with me. I changed my mind, however, as he was not a keen sportsman, and went noiselessly over to my hut, when I fastened the door up again and then slipped into bed.
I couldn’t have been there long before I was to have such a ghastly awakening. It was – as near as possible – two o’clock in the morning, when I suddenly became conscious of something moving backwards and forwards, and up and down underneath my bed.
Just as consciousness was growing clearer and stronger, a loud, long and indescribable sniff, sniff, broke the stillness of the night. Though my experience of Africa was not extensive, I instantly realized that my death was at hand and that a man-eating lion was under my bed!
No other animal, as I knew perfectly well, would be bold enough to come right into my hut in this manner. Now, everyone will ask what were my feelings in this dreadful situation? Well, all I can say is, that every one of my faculties seemed to be utterly paralysed with horror. Though perfectly conscious of everything that was going on, I was unable to utter a sound. My heat beat as though it would burst and its tremendous throbbings almost suffocated me. I was almost fainting with terror at the thought of so fearful a fate.
After a moment or two I became aware that the lion had got out from under the bed and was sniffing his way along the edge, perhaps a little puzzled by the mosquito curtains. I then seemed to realise that I must do something and instinctively, yet as noiselessly as possible, I huddled all the pillows and bed clothes up over my head and face – actuated by the same instinct perhaps, which prompts little boys and girls to dive under the bedclothes when afraid of the bogey man.
No sooner had I done this, than the lion, with a terrible purr, purr, grabbed me by the right shoulder and dragged me out onto the floor, bed-clothes and all. The brute immediately commenced licking the blood that streamed down my neck and chest, and every time I moved he bit down more savagely.
As I raised my knees to get into a crouching, protective position, he gave me a little pat with his paws which nearly broke my leg and inflicted a terrible wound. After a moment or two of this awful experience on the floor of the hut the monster dropped me out of his mouth, placed one proud and massive paw on my chest and then, throwing back his noble head, he gave one, two, three, four terrific roars of triumph and defiance.
As these mighty, reverberating sounds died away in deep, hoarse growls I could hear the devil’s own uproar outside. The natives were firing off their guns like mad – the wonder is they never killed each other. I afterwards learned that the first thing each of them did was to swarm up the nearest tree to get out of harm’s way. It is necessary to bear in mind that a darkness prevailed in the clearing, which might, in homely language have been “felt”.
It seems Morkel was awakened at the first roar, and, without a moment’s delay, he got out of bed, put on his trousers and hat, and then sailed forth with his rifle, thinking that the lion must at least be very close to the camp, judging from the loudness of the roar he himself had heard.
He made his way, or rather felt his way over to my hut, doubtless wondering why I had not come out to meet him. He was guided partly by the excited cries of the natives and partly by the loud purrs of the fearful brute that had got me.
When Morkel got to the door he cried out, “Brockman, where are you? Speak to me for God’s sake!” I heard him, as indeed I had heard everything else, but was absolutely unable to utter a sound, though I was fully aware that my life depended on it.
Morkel must have worked round my hut and seen the hole made by the lion, who had simply pushed the poles on one side and crawled in under my bed. Then, of course, poor Dan realised what had happened and he ran round to the other side and kicked the door down.
All this time, the only thing I seemed to take an interest in was the loud sipping suck suck, made by the lion as he drew my lifeblood into his reeking jaws. I remembered, with a pang of regret, that I had not lived a model life recently, and I began to pray as I had never prayed before. As I prayed, I thought how curious it was that I should be lying there without the slightest sense of pain, with a man-eating lion chewing my flesh and drinking my blood.
I could not realise the full horror of the thing. I had been lying on my back on the floor of the hut with my neck and head resting against the side when Morkel kicked in the door. As he did so, the lion drove his terrible fangs into my right groin, and the next moment, with another loud purr-purr, he leapt out of the hut into the darkness – almost into Morkel’s face. As he ran with me, he seemed to be twisting and jerking me round sideways, as though striving to get me on his back.
You may imagine Dan Morkel’s feelings as he groped around in the inky darkness, screaming out first to one native and then to another to bring lighted bunched of grass, for God’s sake. He found the way into my hut, and on feeling in the bed he placed his hand in a large pool of blood, which had unmistakable information as to what had happened.
The lion ran across the clearing with me for about thirty yards and put me down under a big baobab tree. He ran with a springy leap, purring loudly as he went, for all the world like a contented cat. Even as he ran he was sucking violently, and as the flesh became dry in one place he let me half drop out of jaws and then bit savagely in another place and commenced to suck again. The brute seemed to resent the slightest movement of my body. If I moved an arm he bit it viciously and an uneasy jerk of my leg would be punished by a terrible scrape of the claws.
I lay on my back at the base of the tree with the lion on top of me, occasionally gazing at me with his great luminous, greenish-yellow eyes, which seemed to fill me with unutterable loathing and horror, so expressionless and cold were they, yet so diabolical in their ruthless cruelty.
I ought to tell you that from the very first I had not ceased to wonder how it was that the lion didn’t kill me outright – either by biting my head or tearing me to pieces with his terrible claws. I had seen lions kill oxen by driving their heads down between their necks and so breaking their necks, and I knew that if the monster who was drawing my blood in streams into his mouth only chose to kill me, he need only give me one little tap with his all-powerful paw.
But, the lion seemed perfectly content and quiet with his prey. I felt his long, rough tongue scraping up my thighs and abdomen, and as it crept higher and higher I felt little gusts of his horrible, stinking breath, which was so utterly loathsome that I thought I should faint, so intense was the disgust that filled me, I half turned my head away, but still the long, greedy tongue rose higher and higher towards my throat.
Up to this time I had been reflecting, in a strangely calm manner, on the curious aspects of this frightful affair, precisely as though I were a disinterested outsider, instead of the dying victim of the man-eater. As I felt the lion’s carrion-soiled jaws near my face and throat, however, I was seized with terror and instinctively I threw up both arms and thrust them far in between his jaws and, indeed, almost down his throat. As I did so, the monster snapped off three fingers of my right hand, and, horrible as it may seem to the reader, I actually left my arms and hands lying idly in the lion’s jaws.
“Thank God,” I thought, “He is satisfied with sucking the bleeding fingers he has bitten off, and as long as I can keep him at arm’s length with my hands in his mouth, I will have yet a few more moments of life left for earnest prayer.” And I prayed – God! How I prayed.
Sometimes it seemed to me that it was a little hard to die in this way, and I felt I didn’t want to leave my bones in that horrible place. My life, however, was fast ebbing away, and later on I didn’t seem to mind it so much. I grew fainter and fainter, and – so I am told – I kept moaning feebly, “Dan, Dan, Oh, why can’t you shoot him, or do something? Oh, Dan, Dan, Dan.”
Constantly, my thoughts reverted to my people at home, and I felt bitterly sorry on their account, for I knew how horrified and shocked they would be at my terrible end. After thinking of these things for a few moments, I would resign myself to death with a feeling of complacency, and then next moment, perhaps, I would have some vague idea that I should be saved after all.
I could distinctly feel each bite, because, although it caused not the slightest pain, yet, as the fearful fangs were driven into a fresh place in my thighs – the monster only chose the more fleshy parts – I was conscious of a strange numbness in that particular part.
I kept murmuring to myself, gently, “Perhaps he won’t kill me after all – perhaps he will, though, the moment he has sucked that place dry. I wonder when he will commence eating me”; and then I reflected, quite in a serious sort of way, “He will find me very dry eating, after all the blood-sucking he has done.”
During all this time the boys kept screaming, “Nkanga, Nkanga!” (the lion, the lion), just as if they themselves were in any danger in the lofty trees up which they had swarmed.
Poor Dan Morkel was simply waltzing along the clearing in utter bewilderment and agony of mind. The appalling blackness of the night added a horror to the things which no pen could describe. At last, my friend did induce two of the natives to make a couple of torches of dry grass, and by the lurid and uncertain light of these, Morkel was enabled, though very indistinctly, to see the lion standing over my prostrate body.
He was an enormous, gaunt brute, over 10ft in length and with a luxuriant tawny mane that imparted to him a most majestic appearance. Dan told me afterwards that, as he approached with his gun, I was moaning or crooning softly to myself. Up to this time, my unfortunate companion was afraid to shoot, lest he should kill me instead of the lion. He screamed out, “Keep cool, Brockman” – a funny admonition, this – “Only keep cool and I will do what I can for you!”
As he approached, the lion took his fangs out of my groin, which was by this time a mere pulp, and he faced about, growling and snarling horribly, and with one big paw on my chest. How Morkel kept his head I don’t know, but, anyhow, he levelled his rifle and fired.
The lion immediately staggered back a few paces, clear of my body, for he had been hit fairly in the eye, and the ball, after touching his brain, had come out through the lower jaw, which it had broken badly.
Morkel instantly proceeded to reload, but he was in such a desperate hurt that the lever of his rifle jammed and he found himself practically helpless. Will it be believed that this desperate man, now fairly at his wits’ end, rushed forward towards the lion and dealt him a terrific blow on the head with the stock of the rifle? This did the lion no harm, whereas Morkel’s gun was literally crumpled up.
My friend, however, ran over to the hut and got my rifle and with this he killed the lion in two other shots.
It may be asked, what did I do when I felt myself free?
It is important to remember that when Morkel’s first shot rang out in the night air, the lion had been worrying, biting and sucking from me for about thirteen minutes. Well, the moment the brute retreated from me, I actually got up on to my legs and ran for twenty or thirty yards!
Then I fell like a stone to the earth and I remember no more until the next day, when I found myself in a warm bath, that had been prepared by Morkel to wash my wounds – of which I had one-and-twenty!
My poor friend tells me that my naked body presenting so shocking, so revolting a spectacle, my hands, groins and thighs being chewed and bloodless like paper pulp, that he nearly lost his reason and became delirious.
All that night, however, my heroic companion had sat by my bedside until daybreak and well do I remember that with awakened consciousness came the first poignant shock of agony from my wounds. For many days and nights I suffered the torments of the accursed, taking not one atom of solid food, but only enormous draughts of brandy and champagne.
Now, comes the horrible sequel of my story.
Remember, at this stage, I am hundreds, if not thousands, of miles from civilization and even the nearest missionary doctor is far away from this remote spot. Without wishing to harrow you with unnecessary details, I may say that every one of my wounds mortified – no doubt owing to the poisonous filth that encrusted the man-eater’s fangs.
As I was rapidly growing more and more feverish, Morkel resolved to send me by lake steamer to Bandawe, where I could be attended by Dr. Prentice, of the Livingstone Mission at that place. This steamer was due to make its monthly call the following day at Domara, only a few miles from our camp. A messenger was therefore sent to intercept the captain, and ask him to call a little farther down the lake in order that I might be put on board.
I was wrapped in blankets and laid on a plank, which in turn was placed transversely on a canoe. Just after we had started for the steamer, however, quite a “sea” arose on the lake and the plank shifted to one side, so that if I had not been grabbed by one of the men in the boat, I should have drowned! Is it not pitiful?
It took a day and a half to reach Bandawe, the weather being boisterous and the water very choppy. A little hut was rigged up for me on deck, but I had a shocking time of it.
When Dr. Prentice saw me at the mission station, he told me that my case was utterly hopeless. My right leg, I was told, would have to go, but owing to my condition, it was deemed inadvisable to amputate it immediately on my arrival. Then, there was no chloroform at the mission station and the ether had gone wrong through the climate and therefore would not act.
Thus, I had to lie, conscious and screaming in agony, while the doctor was cutting and carving away the mortified flesh from all parts of my tortured body. It is perfectly clear that my day had not come, for all the bites in the thigh had missed the artery by about an eighth of a inch!
And night after night, I went through the whole fearful business again. Ghastly, horrible nightmares took possession of me, and I would have gone raving mad were it not for the powerful opiates that were administered. A slamming door, the sudden appearance of a man before me, anything and everything, threw me into a perfect agony of terror, pitiful to witness. My mind and reason were all but gone, and I, who had been a giant of strength, was like a timid little child, a mere wreck of a man in mind and body.
The British South Africa Company have been very kind to me, for, of course, it isn’t as though I had gone out hunting, when, naturally, I should have had to take the risks incidental to sport of that kind.
I still hobble about on sticks, and I often wake up in a cold perspiration thinking I can hear the sniff-sniff of the man-eating lion beneath my bed.
Published in The Wide World Magazine Vol 1: April to September 1898