Imperial Railways #I


The Rhodes Colossus: Cape to Cairo

Africa presented a rather different set of obstacles which ultimately proved insuperable, and the rather insane ambition to create transcontinental railways on different axes by the two big imperial powers of the day – north–south for the British, east-west by the French – nearly precipitated them into a war. There was also a tense face-off between Britain and the Portuguese, who together with the Transvaal Republic, wanted to build an east–west route linking the two Portuguese colonies of Angola on the Atlantic Ocean and Mozambique on the Indian Ocean.

The neatly alliterative but overambitious Cape to Cairo railway, stretching 6,000 miles, was an empire-building project promulgated largely by that great imperialist Cecil Rhodes who had established Britain’s dominance in southern Africa. His dream was for a continuous line of pink from one end of Africa to the other and a railway was perceived as the means of establishing that dream and maintaining control over the continent. As the biographer of the Cape to Cairo railway argues, ‘the history of the railways is the history of the British in Africa. Everywhere that the Union Jack flew, railways appeared as the primary means of communication and imperial expansion.’ The railways were the British Empire’s equivalent of the roads built in lands conquered by the Romans, not least in Britain itself.

A railway between the Cape and Cairo was first suggested in a Daily Telegraph leader in 1876, following Henry Stanley’s exploration, but the British government was never in a position even to contemplate funding it. Instead Rhodes, who had made a fortune by creating the de Beers mining company and who in 1890 became the prime minister of the Cape Colony – South Africa was yet to be united – instigated the scheme as a way of extending British interests northwards. As with the other transcontinentals, the concept for the project was not that many people would travel from on end of Africa to the other but rather, as he wrote, ‘the object is to cut Africa through the centre, and the railway will pick up trade all the way along the route’.

It is a complex story of a project that was diverted by discoveries of minerals which led to other railways being constructed, delayed by lack of government support, gravely damaged by the loss of its main protagonist, Rhodes, in 1902, and ultimately stymied by the arcane politics of Africa and the sheer scale of the scheme. Despite its failure, the Cape to Cairo idea left a legacy of a string of railways throughout the continent, many of which would never have been built without the grandiose scheme to cross Africa. The story of the project is, therefore, in many ways the history of the railways in what was then known as the ‘Dark Continent’.

The first railway in the Cape Colony was completed in 1863 and the line was gradually extended northwards over the next couple of decades, reaching Kimberley, the centre of the diamond mining industry, in 1885, thanks to a bridge over the Orange river which Rhodes persuaded the British government to fund. There was something of a railway boom in Southern Africa in the final fifteen years of the nineteenth century, stimulated by the discovery of various minerals but also by the outbreak of rinderpest, a disease of cattle, which wiped out 90 per cent of the herd in South Africa. The consequent shortage of oxen to pull carts made the need for railways even more pressing.

Several of the lines spreading across what is now the Republic of South Africa were built by George Pauling, who, together with his brother Harry, and later his cousin Harold, formed the most successful railway contracting company in Africa. Pauling was one of the great characters of African railway development, a fat man who professed that the only way to resist the local disease was through vast consumption of food and, especially, alcohol. Famously, on one two-day trip along the Beira Railway with its manager Alfred Lawley and chief engineer, A.M. Moore, the three consumed 300 bottles of German beer. Breakfast for three, a few days later, consisted of 1,000 oysters washed down with a modest eight bottles of champagne. The Pauling brothers were largely responsible, too, for building up the network of railways inside what was later Rhodesia. The drive northwards was distracted by the discovery of gold in the Transvaal and the resulting construction of a line to the east which was not really part of the Cape to Cairo project and diverted resources from it.

Proposals were drawn up for another railway, running east–west to provide the fast-growing Fort Salisbury (later Salisbury and now Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe), where there had been a gold rush, with an outlet to the sea and a connection with the partly constructed main Cape to Cairo line. Rhodes had his eye on the nascent colony where the British flag had only been recently raised and where the white presence in 1890 amounted to little more than a few hunters, prospectors and chancers, supported by the odd administrator. Fort Salisbury was 1,000 miles from Kimberley, the nearest railhead, and the road up from South Africa was made almost impassable by the rebellious local tribespeople. A railway to the nearest navigable point, fifty miles up the Pungwe river from Beira in Mozambique, was clearly the answer but the Portuguese, the colonial rulers, were reluctant to cooperate. It was only after the British deliberately provoked an incident with a Portuguese gunboat that a treaty led to the start of the construction of the railway and Pauling, fresh from building a line between Pretoria in South Africa and Lourenço Marques (now Maputo) in southern Mozambique, was soon appointed as contractor.

The line, which was the longest narrow gauge railway in the world at the time used the tiny 2ft gauge. It was also one of those projects with a claim, like the Panama and the Indian railway up the Ghats, to being the deadliest in terms of the toll on its workforce. During the first two years of construction which started in 1892, George Tabor, the historian of the Cape to Cairo, reckons that ‘60 per cent of the white men – about 400 [out of a total of about 650] – died of fever [and] the 500 Indian employees almost all succumbed’. The Africans fared only marginally better, with a death rate of around 30 per cent since they were slightly more immune to the malarial mosquitoes. Malaria was, indeed, the main killer as the benefits of quinine were only just being understood, but dysentery, cholera and sleeping sickness also contributed to the high mortality rate, as well as the shortage of fresh food because of the lack of transport which the putative railway was intended to solve. There was, too, the ever present danger from the wildlife, particularly crocodiles and hippopotamuses in the river and lions on the land who quickly realized there were easy pickings at night since the workers mostly slept in the open where they were easy prey: ‘In one month lions scoffed two of our white employees’, Pauling is reported as saying, omitting to mention the numerous native victims of the feline predators.

The first fifty miles of construction, in particular, were a nightmare since conditions were little different from those on the murderous Panama Railway built half a century before. There was even the same problem of dispensing with bodies as coffins were in short supply, so the dead were unceremoniously dumped in the river weighed down with stones: ‘Sometimes at night strange gurgling sounds were heard and bubbles appeared, as gas escaped from the fast decomposing corpses. They also had a nasty habit of being washed up after heavy rains on to people’s verandahs.’ It was ‘a monumental few months of misery in the worst fever country in the world’.

The railway had to be built on embankments because of the regular flooding of the Pungwe and Zambezi rivers, which turns the whole area into a lake, and thus progress was slow. All materials had to be brought in from Great Britain by tug up the Pungwe river from Beira with the result that the railway could only be built from that end, since there was no construction material or, labour available in Salisbury. But despite this difficulty and the terrible conditions, the line reached its halfway point to the Mozambique frontier, seventy-five miles from the river, in October 1893, eighteen months after work had started. This hastily assembled railway, built to very low standards on its tiny gauge, was immediately put to use and was deemed a great success. Its little engines carried passengers in open-topped wagons rather like those on a fairground ride with, if they were lucky, a tarpaulin to protect them from sparks, at speeds rarely exceeding 10 mph. The male passengers had to be willing both to help lift carriages back on the track after the frequent derailments and push the train up the zigzags and spurs when a second engine was not available. By 1894, when the line reached Chimoio, nearly 120 miles from the riverhead at Fontesvilla, the rail journey would take anything between fourteen and thirty-six hours depending on the number of delays, in addition to the two-day cart ride to or from Salisbury. At Chimoio, the usual financial difficulties and the obstacle of a mountain range, which had to be crossed at Umtali on the border between Mozambique and Rhodesia nearly 4,000 feet above sea level, brought construction to a halt. Eventually, with a workforce numbering up to 12,000, the line was completed to Salisbury, 200 miles from Umtali, in 1899 and, as befitted such an important railway, its gauge was widened to a far more manageable 3ft 6ins. Salisbury was soon reached from the south, too, which meant there was a through line to South Africa from the Mozambique coast.

As with all such railways that establish a basic transport link where none existed before, the line utterly transformed the economic situation of the country it served. The line created a supply route for both goods, especially vital mining equipment, and passengers that connected Salisbury, hitherto an isolated almost wild backwater, with the modern world. The power of the railway was such that Umtali, a small town before the arrival of the iron road, had to be moved in its entirety when it was found that its location was inaccessible to the line because of a steep hill where the old wagon route crossed the range at Christmas Pass. If the railway could not get to the town, then the town had to get to the railway. Identical plots of land on the new site were allocated to householders and the ramshackle buildings were transported down the hill by the railway company. With the arrival of the railway, it became ‘a trim little town with flamboyant trees and parks [and] run by that old school of landladies that took the strain while their husbands took the back seat, often behind the bar’. The Beira Railway, although going east–west, was very much seen as part of the Cape to Cairo project. When the first train from Beira reached Umtali in February 1898, the locomotive was not only decorated with flowers but it also sported the colloquial and ultimately misguided message: ‘Now we shan’t be long to Cairo’.

In 1898, Rhodes brought the main line of the Cape to Cairo up through Bechuanaland to Bulawayo in southern Rhodesia having persuaded Pauling to build the railway at great speed across the vast Kalahari Desert. While the weather conditions were very different from those in the Mozambique forests, they were equally harsh with high temperatures and a shortage of water, but the target of a mile per day was achieved. It was an efficient operation over relatively easy territory, redolent of the last stages of the first transcontinental across the USA. At one stage the surveying parties were just a day ahead of the platelayers and the division of labour was Fordian with every man carrying out a specific task efficiently, from laying out the sleepers and rails, to spreading the ballast and banging in the spikes to secure the rails. Bridges were often crude temporary affairs that would have to be improved later but speed was of the essence as Rhodes was rightly concerned about the unstable political situation, which would eventually lead to the outbreak of the Boer War in October 1899 and, as he foresaw, put a halt to further progress.

Rhodes’s achievement in bringing the line 1,400 miles up from the Cape was recognized by Queen Victoria who sent her congratulations during ten days of riotous celebrations that greeted the railway, which the great man himself missed as he was convalescing from a bout of malaria. The question on reaching Bulawayo was where would the railway go next? Rhodes, confident that he could now achieve his goal, wanted to take the shortest route up to Lake Tanganyika, about 800 miles through Rhodesia, where the coaches and trucks would be carried 400 miles north on ferries. The route would have veered east between the borders of the Congo Free State and Portuguese-controlled Mozambique, north up to Lake Tanganyika, and then on ferries through three other lakes, Kivu, Edward and Albert, with rail connections to cover the short land gaps between them. The route would have continued through Uganda along to the White Nile, and up to Cairo, again with long sections being covered by ships along the river.

These railways in central Africa were built to exploit resources, rather than bring in development. They were not, in contrast to the other transcontinental lines, seen as a way of opening up the area for immigrants who would create self-sustaining communities. Nor did they stimulate local economic development for the existing inhabitants. The Africans were pushed aside in the same way as the Indians in the USA, but the climate and conditions were too harsh for permanent settlement by whites. Instead, the minerals, which were signed away by local chiefs either by subterfuge or force, were removed at a minimum cost with the help of the railways. While these lines inevitably created a few local jobs in the mines and on the railways themselves, their primary purpose was the extraction of minerals and other primary resources through a process that provided little benefit to local people and their communities. Their purpose, indeed, was the same as that of the original wagonways built in Britain and elsewhere in Europe from the seventeenth century onwards, the linking of mines with the nearest navigable waterway, except, of course, they were considerably longer.


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