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Emergence. The development of railway systems during the nineteenth century had profound cultural and political consequences at a global level as railroads played a key role in industrial production, the development of high-speed mechanized travel, and the creation of colonial economic networks and political structures. The emergence of this new transportation technology relied on two technological innovations: metal rails and the steam-powered locomotive. Primitive railroads emerged in Europe during the sixteenth century, as flanged-wheel carts, propelled by human or animal power along wooden tracks, were used to transport coal from the mine face to storage yards and shipping depots. These wooden tracks imposed limits on the weight and speed of carriages and were prone to warping, resulting in high maintenance costs. In 1789 the English engineer William Jessop developed the first cast-iron rails, which were a great improvement on the capacity and durability of wooden rails. By the early nineteenth century, wrought iron had displaced cast iron, and as the century progressed steel rails became almost universal. Constructing safe and efficient steam locomotives was an even more daunting task. British experiments with steam-powered locomotives in the early nineteenth century culminated in George Stephenson’s construction of the Rocket in 1829. Capable of reaching thirty-six miles per hour, the Rocket was the first steam locomotive that was both powerful and reliable enough to be commercially viable. The Rocket’s success ensured that the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, the thirty-mile line that linked the port of Liverpool with the industrial hinter-land of Lancashire, was the first railway service that relied entirely on steam-powered locomotives when it opened in 1830.

Sinews of Empire. The opening of the Liverpool and Manchester line is generally identified as marking the birth of the “Railway Age,” which saw the rapid dissemination of railway technology in continental Europe, North America, and in European colonies in Africa, Asia, South America, and Australia. Railroads formed the steel “sinews of empire,” the vital lines of communication and transport that allowed European empires to move commodities, people, and troops with a speed and efficiency that was unimaginable in the eighteenth century. In accelerating the pace of transport and reducing the cost of shipping large consignments of cargo, railways were essential in the intensification of the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century and in integrating much of the world into a powerful, if


The following discussion of the impact of rail travel comes from Mohandas Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj> or, Indian Home Rule (1909). Written in the form of a dialogue between a newspaper editor (representing Gandhi) and a reader (representative of the Indian public at large), Hind Swaraj explored the key political and cultural questions that concerned Indian nationalists, offering a distinctive and trenchant critique of modern civilization, including industrial technologies such as railways:

READER: I shall hear you on the railways.

EDITOR: It must be manifest to you, but for the railways, the British would not have such a hold on India as they have. The railways, too, have spread the bubonic plague. Without them, masses could not move from place to place. They are the carriers of plague germs. ... Railways have also increased the frequency of famines, because, owing to facility of means of locomotion, people sell out their grain, and it is sent to the dearest markets. ... They accentuate the evil nature of man. Bad men fulfil their evil designs with greater rapidity. The holy places of India have become unholy. Formerly, people went to these places with very great difficulty. Generally, therefore, only real devotees visited such places. Nowadays, rogues visit them in order to practise their roguery.... So the railways can become a distributing agency for evil. ... It may be a debatable matter whether railways spread famines, but it is beyond dispute that they propagate evil.

Source: Mahatma Gandhi, Hind Swaraj, or, Indian Home Rule (Ahmedabad, India: Navajivan / Weare, N.H.: Greenleaf, 1982).

uneven, system of industrial production, distribution, and consumption.

British India British India was the first colony where large-scale railway construction was undertaken, and railways quickly came to play a central place in that nation’s development. Railways were a key element of the modernizing public-works programs initiated by James Ramsay, Lord Dalhousie, the Governor-General between 1847 and 1856. The East India Company was alive to both the commercial and strategic significance of the rail-ways, realizing that the new technology would both allow goods from rural India to be transported to major cities and ports much more effectively, while also allowing the Company to redistribute its troops and resources at greater speed. In April 1853 the first steam locomotive in South Asia traveled over the newly completed track linking Bombay to Thana. By 1860 some one thousand miles of tracks had been laid. Ten years later more than five thousand miles were in operation, linking Bombay with Delhi and Calcutta and Madras with Bombay, effectively connecting the crucial military and commercial centers of British India. These routes, which opened up the interior of India, were crucial in the reconstruction of British authority after the rebellions of 1857-1858, and they also cemented India’s position in the imperial economy as a producer of raw materials (especially cotton) and as a consumer of manufactured British goods (especially textiles). By 1900 India had the most extensive rail system of any colony in the world, with twenty-four thousand miles of track connecting regional market towns and pilgrimage sites to the main trunk lines of the national network. Despite the fears of conservative religious leaders and the critiques of nationalists (including Gandhi), rail travel quickly became part of South Asian life, and the rail network played a central role in the development of national religious reform movements, stimulated a renaissance in pilgrimage, and underpinned growing political and cultural bonds between regions and communities.

Political Unification Locally based British contractors and Indian capitalists played a central role in the development of South Asia’ ailroads, a pattern that was repeated throughout European empires. In Canada and Australia, local interests rather than administrators and capitalists in distant London dictated the development and location of new rail routes. In the hinterlands of Australia, South Africa, and Canada, railways opened up new land for white settlement and enabled the exploitation of important natural resources, but they also accelerated the transmission of diseases to indigenous communities and created increased conflict between encroaching white settlers and indigenous tribes. These railroads also played a key role in uniting far-flung

regions into a unified political system. The Confederation of Canada in 1867, for example, was enabled by the construction of railroads that linked the maritime areas to Ontario. The completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885 tightened the bonds between British Columbia (which had joined Canada in 1871) and the eastern provinces. In Australia, the promise to construct a railway linking Perth to cities in the east ensured that Western Australia became part of the federal Commonwealth of Australia in 1901 (the transcontinental railway connecting Perth and Kalgoorlie with Adelaide was not completed until 1917).

Symbols of Power While railways played a key role in the political development of colonies, the intensification of the Industrial Revolution, and the acceleration of global trade, they were also central symbols of European power and colonial domination. Cecil Rhodes was the most ardent advocate of the cultural and political power of the railroad in an imperial context. Perhaps the leading advocate of “railway imperialism,” Rhodes envisaged the construction of a complex railroad network that would ultimately link the northern and southern tips of Africa, running from Cape Town in the south to Cairo in the north. Rhodes believed that such a network would demonstrate the superiority of Europe to the natives of Africa while sealing Britain’s imperial paramountcy. Rhodes’s South Africa Company pushed railway lines ahead of the imperial frontier, extending his own private empire of mining interests into central Africa, and in its wake opening up new opportunities for British settlement and commerce. Although Rhodes’s elaborate dream of knitting northern and southern Africa together with British-controlled railways was never fully realized, his career is a powerful testament to the symbolic importance of the railroad in Victorian imperialism and the crucial role it played in Europe’s exploitation of precious commodities found in the non-European world. No technology dramatizes the intersection between industrialization and imperialism so clearly as the railroad.


Clarence B. Davis and Kenneth E. Wilburn Jr., eds., Railway Imperialism (New York: Greenwood Press, 1991).

Michael Freeman and Derek Aldcroft, The Atlas of British Railway History (Londona … Dover, N.H.: Groom Helm, 1985).

Daniel R. Headrick, The Tentacles of Progress: Technology Transfer in the Age of Imperialism, 1850-1940 (Oxford … New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).

Headrick, The Tools of Empire: Technology and European Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century (Oxford 6c New York: Oxford University Press, 1981).

Ian J. Kerr, Building the Railways of the Raj, 1850-1900 (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995).

Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey: Trains and Travel in the 19th Ceantury (New York: Urizen, 1979).

David Norman Smith, The Railway and Its Passengers: A Social History (North Pomfret, Vt.: David … Charles, 1988).

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