Posted by: Khepera | Friday, 18 July 2008

Railroads & Colonialism: Conjuring Confusion & Control Through Gauge Variance


The role of railroads in the colonizing of Africa has been sort of a pet interest of mine for several years…well, make that a peripheral interest. As anyone who knows me — or who has explored this blog to any depth — realizes, I have more ‘pet’ interests than Noah had animals on the ark.

Anyway, some time back, an elder mentioned in an off-hand way how broad-based the deliberate undermining of Africa was in its perpetration under the guise of colonialism. One of the key components of any effective exploitation of the lands resources would be founded on transportation — its reach, efficiency, reliability, etc. However, the internecine squabbles with the EU of the time precluded any cooperative vision or effort. Once the living carcass of the continent had been carved up — with the adjacent juxtaposition of feuding factions another deliberate act — each group sought to consolidate their position, there clutch on their regions resources by making it difficult for their neighbors to get traffic/cargo through their area. This was done, it was shown to me, by the colonial powers designating differing rail gauges for their territories — sometimes even within the same colony.

This is clearly short-sighted, if not blatantly stupid.It meant that to get cargo from one country to another, a de-training station(unloading from one train, carting the cargo across the border and reloading it on the other train) was required at every border crossing. It also meant that additional manpower as well as increased risk of loss due to damage in transfer, etc. were introduced. As this became clear, in areas critical to their interests, the colonial powers attempted to homogenize — note I did not say coordinate — various disparate rail systems. Some of this is detailed in Railroads of Central and Southern Africa, where the author references the railroad effort in southern Africa:

All of the major, global colonial powers each soon found out in their own way just how important the development of a viable railroad system is to the development of their nation or colony. The one major feature that railroads shared all over the world was that they represented the presence of that government in its territories, whether the rail line was built by the government or by private interests at a government’s urging. The railroad became the “permanent way”; it was possibly the fastest and best way to show your presence either to a region’s citizenry or to other nations. This was especially true for the European colonial powers. Great Britain, France, Germany, and The Netherlands all built railways to consolidate their interests in their colonies worldwide. Most of the colonial rail lines were built in Africa during the “scramble for Africa” that took place after the Berlin Conference of 1885. This conference was held among the European powers to settle the “ownership” of Africa. Great Britain came away from the conference holding most of Central and Southern Africa. And if it hadn’t been for Cecil J. Rhodes, Britain’s hold on these regions would not have become as strong as it did. Rhodes became the “Empire Builder” of Southern Africa.

– – – – – – snip – – – – – –

The question of track gauge soon arose. The planners in London felt that a colony should not have standard (4’8-1/2″) gauge track. So when the rail line was built into the South African hinterland, to Kimberly, through Bechuanaland and into Bulawayo in 1897, it was built using 3’6″ gauge. This gauge had been chosen as the “standard” for railways that were to be built in Africa, so that when the Mashonaland Railway was completed from Umtali to Salisbury in May 1899 it was necessary to have a transfer point at Umtali for the transfer of freight from the 3’6″gauge cars to the 2′ gauge cars. As common sense would tell you it soon became obvious that this type of operation just was not going to work. It was decided to re-gauge the entire Beira Railway to the standard of 3’6″ gauge and this work was begun at Umtali in late summer of 1899. By November of that year the conversion work had reached a point about forty miles east of Umtali. The re-gauging of the remainder of the line was completed to the port of Beira by August of 1900 and turned over to the Mashonaland Railway for operation. On the morning of August 1 the inaugural train for the newly re-gauged line steamed into Beira from Umtali. The last sixty miles of the 2′ gauge had been converted by a large force of men spaced along the track during the previous four days. As a side note, the wooden bridges of the entire line were also rebuilt using steel because they were neither strong enough nor wide enough for the new 3’6″ gauge line.

In west & east Africa, the same scenario played out, though not quite as well managed — South Africa had the advantage of being the largest single expanse of land under one rule, whereas east, and certainly west Africa were fractured into splinters, not unlike Europe itself.

So, like Britain flooding Ghanaian gold mines as they were leaving the country after granting its independence — an act still the source of great controversy today — it is not surprising that the colonial powers would leave the railroads in disarray as well. When you recognize that the partitioning of Africa by the Berlin Conference of 1885(as noted above) [PDF] was about more than simply commerce — that there were implicit & explicit steps taken to ensure European hegemony & African destabilization — this sequence of events is more comprehensible. Not only did the partitioning separate families of peoples with no disregard, it also threw together traditional adversaries, intensifying contentions over now even more limited resources.

But, back to the rails… So this process of the ‘de-training station’ became standard operating procedure in the movement of any goods across the land &/or to the sea for export. This of course created situations ripe fore abuse & corruption where personal battles for self-esteem and clamors to recover lost hegemony and respect became epidemic.

So, when contemplating the ‘why’ & ‘how come’ of Africa’s ongoing state of operations, it might be worth factoring the deliberate obstacles created & placed deliberately to achieve that end. Clearly, even the discussion of the role of railroads in the colonial past and the neocolonial present is a vast discussion, at least as vast as Africa itself. Therefore, check back from time to time for updates & follow-on post on this topic. For those seeking more info about the British role in this, see The departmental system of railway construction in British W Africa 1895-1906. Undoubtedly, this issue of rail transit is high on the list of the burgeoning effort of the emerging African Union.

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