by Larry Teren
John Henry Patterson was the real lion king. No one else came anywhere close to his exploits Yes, there were others who bagged more lions. Colonel Patterson, however, went after and killed two nine feet long, three and. one half feet high feline animals who were taking turns digesting close to one hundred fifty humans in 1898. But this was not his life-changing moment. That would come more than fifteen years later.
Lions usually only go after what they can when their normal menu is not available or are sickly and cannot outrun a more spirited animal. Once these two particular lions developed a taste for humans they did not make an effort to go back to other animal species. This was obviously a scary situation and disrupted the building of bridges over the Tsavo River area in East Africa.
Being so powerful these lions were not afraid of humans. They would attack a camp and drag away whichever poor soul they focused on. Often they would not saunter far away from the place they attacked and would munch away content for another twenty-four hours. Patterson was not afraid. He was an engineer by trade and not necessarily a crack shot with a carbine or other type of rifle. What he had was ice in his veins and was not deterred from tracking their moves, learn their habits and be ready for action upon sighting them.
His superiors in the British Foreign Office were grateful and promoted him to the rank of an officer. By 1902, he was asked to lead a battalion against the Boers in South Africa, this time as a Lieutenant Colonel. He was successful in helping rout the Dutch Boers, who outnumbered the British soldiers more than two to one.
Despite his battle-ready achievements and that he had developed a reputation with knowing how to make peace with the locals, he was ignored when World War One became a reality in 1914. By then he was over forty-five and the military superiors didn’t want him anywhere near the heavy fighting in the Argonne Forest or the no-man’s-lands of Belgium. As far as they were concerned he had done his duty and maybe a little too often in unconventional ways. But now, poison gas and aerial battles were a reality and required other type of military leaders.
All of his fantastic accomplishments meant nothing. He had fight left in him and wanted to prove it. At his own expense, he traveled to Cairo, Egypt and begged to put together a battalion that would push the Turks out of Mid-East, from the Holy Land and Levantine areas of Lebanon, Syria, and Transjordan back to Turkey. In effect, he wanted to help destroy the Ottoman Empire.
By religion, he was a practicing Protestant. But he had a sense of fairness and believed that the Jews had a right to live in Palestine under self-rule. Through a series of accidental meetings, he was introduced to Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky and Joseph Trumpeldor. They pushed him to use his influence with the British Parliament to overrule Foreign Office and British military chain of command who were anti-semitic. Through perseverance he was able to put together a Zion Mule Corp and later a Jewish Legion that did more than their share of dangerous assignments in bringing arms replenishment to the battle at Gallipoli. Patterson argued that his men did much more than Colonel Lawrence and his Arab marauders to push the Turks back to their own borders and end their empire. He insisted that even Lawrence admitted that whatever cooperation they received from the local Arab chieftains was only because they were bribed with a lot of gold.
When the British took control of Palestine, Patterson worked diligently to get the Balfour declaration put in writing. Unfortunately, British authorities kept on reneging on agreements to which they had promised. He felt that they were doing subterfuge no different than the Nazis in Germany. The British preferred a Palestine that was under control of the Arabs with Jews living subserviently but protected from harm. Patterson kmew that it would never work but that there needed to be two countries.
What didn’t help was that there were competing factions of those trying to establish a safe Jewish Homeland. Patterson did not care for the Labor Zionists such as David Ben Gurion and Chaim Weizmann. He felt that they were making too many compromises including giving up territory promised to the Jews east of the Jordan River by the Balfour Declaration. He threw his lot in with Menachem Begin and others who put together the Mapai Party which morphed into the present Likud. Along the way he became good friends with Benzion Netanyahu, the father of the current Prime Minister. Patterson was chosen to be the godfather of their first child, a son named in his honor- Jonathan. This is the same Yonatan (Jonathan in Hebrew) who was killed rescuing the hostages at the Entebbe Airport in July 4, 1976.
In his later years, Colonel Patterson was a weakened individual. He couldn’t travel much anymore and lived with a Jewish family in the San Diego area. He was destitute and the family had befriended him and as gratitude for all he had done for the Jewish People, they gave him food, shelter and clothing.
Ironically, he passed away in June 1947 at the age of 79, almost a year before the State of Israel was born as a homeland for Jews. Patterson was a lion king in more ways than one. You can visit the Field Museum in Chicago and see the two stuffed lions he killed. You can also visit Israel and see the Land of Milk and Honey for which this Christian Zionist worked so hard to help come to fruition.