As the age of high imperialism began in 1871, British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury (Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, 1830–1903) said, "The great organizations and greater means of locomotion of the present day mark out the future to be one of great empires" (Davis, Wilburn, and Robinson 1991, p. 2). Salisbury believed that the railway of industrialized Europe would extend the imperial power of stronger industrial countries over weaker agrarian ones. By 1907, Salisbury's prediction had come to pass. European imperialists, with the capital investment of some £1.5 billion in railway stocks and bonds, brought much of the world under European rule. The effects of the engine of empire on people in the metropoles (centers of imperial power) and in the periphery (the colonies) proved to be profound.
The idea of nineteenth-century railway imperialism seems simple enough—use railways and the industry and money behind them to gain and maintain control of other people's countries and resources for the primary benefit and security of the imperial country. European economies and investors were to be the primary beneficiaries, not local economies or indigenous populations. Imperial incursions were often wrapped in national flags and humanitarian propaganda, including campaigns to end slavery, extend European civilization, spread Christianity, and encourage economic development throughout the empire. Yet critics have seriously challenged the realities and consequences of such alleged benefits.
Just a glance at railway lines throughout the African continent during the age of high imperialism reveals their intent. Trunk lines (the main railway lines that connect commercial centers with seaports and other commercial areas) were constructed to transport extracted resources from the African interior to the coast, where the raw materials were destined for European factories and markets. In South Africa, for example, trunk railway lines were constructed primarily to connect the diamond and gold fields to the ports. Even the inter-African dream of the Cape-to-Cairo railway of Cecil Rhodes (1853–1902) was understood in the context of imperial interests. The locomotive was used similarly to extend European imperialism in Argentina, Canada, China, India, Iran, Mexico, the Ottoman Empire, and Thailand.
Yet imperialism remains complex; as the Australian historian Keith Hancock (1898–1988) once quipped, "Imperialism is 'no word for scholars'" (Porter 1994, p. 6). Nonetheless, scholars have advanced several theories to explain imperial behavior. The German social philosopher Karl Marx (1818–1883) emphasized economic causes related to oppressed workers and greed inherent in inevitable stages of capitalism.
Others have argued that nineteenth-century imperialism contained far more reluctance. To these historians, imperialists were driven less by economic motivations than by long-standing combinations of factors, including culture, religion, nationalism, military bases, ports, European settlers, and economies, which had previously quite satisfactorily bound together collaborators on the colonial periphery to officials in the imperial metropole. Now that these relationships were breaking down, reluctant imperialists had to react or lose much of their empire. Whether intentional or reluctant, imperialists built railways to repair those relationships, extend territory, and promote economic colonial-imperial bonds of European empire worldwide.
Another way to understand railway imperialism is to examine how railways contributed to formal and informal empire. When colonial railways were used primarily to transport soldiers and supplies, and assist the infrastructure of political rule, the locomotive served formal empire. Yet railways also contributed to informal empire, due to the large amounts of capital necessary to purchase European engines, rolling stock (railroad cars), and rails, and then to construct the lines. Europeans who invested in colonial railway stocks and bonds relied on colonial borrowers to guarantee dividends and keep trade flowing. In such informal ways, partnerships of imperial, financial, and commercial interests converged behind the locomotive to create railway imperialism.
Sometimes railway imperialism was opposed by railway republicanism; that is, when a colony sought its independence, it would use railways to weaken imperial control. The South African statesman Paul Kruger (1825–1904), for example, sought to sever the gold-laden Transvaal with its railway hub in the Witwatersrand from the British Empire by using railway ownership, railway rates, customs duties, and alliances with other European powers to oppose British rule and railways in South Africa. To those at the metropole, such anti-imperial policy put at risk not only the investments of thousands of Europeans, but also British rule worldwide. The challenge of Kruger's railway republicanism contributed to the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902).
Whatever their motivations, empire builders needed the support of local populations to carry out their imperial agendas. Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher (1953) have examined the lynchpin of imperialism—the collaborator, often the European settler with ties to Great Britain. The key to maintaining empire was knowing what colonials wanted, then providing them with that perceived need in return for allegiance. Wealth, security, state loans, economic development, power, and railways were often used to forge collaborators in colonies with officials at the metropole. Without collaborators in the colonies, Great Britain could not have controlled such vast expanses of the planet. In that imperial equation, the railway was crucial.
Robinson poignantly stated, "Europe's high age of imperialism, to a great extent, [was effected] because it was the railway age in other continents…. The grand central stations in cathedral style are the monuments" (Davis, Wilburn, and Robinson 1991, pp. 194-195). Former colonies continue to refine their relationships with European metropoles in the aftermath of nineteenth-century railway imperialism. The imperial foundation of the railway, which helped reduce time and space, along with the steamship and telegraphy, supports today's succeeding technologies of flight, nuclear power, and the information age, with all their ties to international capital and markets. Railway imperialism in this foundational sense remains under construction.
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