Monday, February 17, 2014

The Beat Goes On: The Lunatic Express—Part Two

The “Beat” in this regard involves beating the bushes.  Brave and somewhat loony Englishmen did a lot of that in Africa in the Nineteenth Century.  With gratitude to Michael Sears, I invite you to take a look here at MIE’s previous discussions of that subject. 

You can see from the stories of Livingston, Speke, and Richard Francis Burton that the Uganda Rail Way, whose history I took up last week, had lunacy in the family.  Let me trace its family tree back a generation from when the Brits began constructing it. 

Wanting a more efficient way to move wealth from India to England, Great Britain had dug the Suez Canal.  Then, to make sure the canal remained open and in their hands, they needed to take hegemony over Egypt.  They concluded that to control Egypt, they needed to control the Nile.  And to control the river, they wanted to take control of its source.  Eventually those intrepid and colorful men that Michael so deftly describes went out and found Lake Victoria.

Controlling the lake was not so easy.  To do so the Brits needed to keep administrators and troops there, men who needed supplies and the ability to communicate with the outside world.    Today, in a Mercedes or a lorry one can drive the 840 km (525 miles) between the lake and Mombasa in a day.  But a hundred and twenty years ago, they had to walk and it took months.  To make the trip safer and  much quicker, Great Britain built the railroad that became known as the Lunatic Line—a sobriquet based on facts given in my previous post.  Once the railway was completed, goods and people could make the trip in less than two days.  And they put in telegraph lines along the tracks, making communication all but instantaneous.  Hooray for modern technology.

But that was not the end of their trials.

Having built the railroad, they needed to maintain it.  And they had some special problems to deal with in that regard.

For reasons no one could fathom, rhinos would undermine the tracks, elephants would knock over the telegraph poles, and purloined telegraph wire became the raw material for many a tribesman’s favorite jewelry.  (Not that I blame them for such theft, considering the fact that the British were in the process of stealing their homeland.  But that is much bigger subject, for another post some time in the future.)

The bill for keeping the trains going was causing great consternation on the home front.  The taxpayers were sick of the expense.  What the railroad needed was paying customers.

Though at the equator, the area around a remote station stop called Nairobi, about halfway along the line, was a mile above sea level and had a climate the King’s administrators called “healthful.”  What a perfect area for farms.  Europeans might be enticed to move in and grow coffee and sisal, raise cattle, cut and ship rare woods, and so on and so on.  Then, they and their produce would pay to ride the rails.  What a swell idea.  And so they did.

I fully admit that there were also other forces at work throughout the story given here—from the search for the source of the Nile to the white settlement in the highlands of what is now Kenya.  The motivations I have mentioned so far existed in concert with a worldwide compulsion of “manifest destiny,” in which Europeans saw it as their right, even their duty to take charge of the earth, especially those parts of it that they judged to be savage.  Such as Africa and the American West.

When it came to Africa, there was also the moral imperative to stop the horrors of slavery, which was accompanied by a hope of bringing the pagans of the world to Christianity.

Social change in northern Europe coincided with all this.  Industrialization meant that aristocrats in those countries could no longer remain rich and privileged just by owning land.  But with cheap labor and unexploited resources in Africa, they could have all the servants and entitlements of their former life style.


And in the second half of the Nineteenth Century, there developed an ideal of manhood the proof of which lay in striking off into uncharted territory and conquering it.  Perhaps this happened because Europe had become too manicured and tame for the available testosterone.  That would be my guess.

All these factors, working together, resulted in the colonization of pretty much the last habitable and pristine places on earth.   East Africa was one of the victims.

Annamaria- Monday


  1. I always thought that the main distributor of testosterone in the latter half of the UK's 19th Century wore a skirt.:)

    1. Jeff, I think you'll find -- and I'm sure Caro will back me up here -- that it wasn't a skirt, it was a kilt in a very fetching shade of tartan.

    2. Exactly what I was going to say, Zoe!

    3. Amazing insight your responses offer, Z&A. I'd have bet the railroad that if in the context of a piece on British expansion into Africa, when given the hints "latter half of the 19th Century," "testosterone," and "skirt," you'd have gone for "Victoria." Instead, you both saw "kilt." Hmmm.

    4. Yeah, Jeff. There are those of us who protest when men want to pin the rap on the only woman in the picture. If you want to jail someone for those destructive attitudes, its Prince Albert who belongs in the can.

    5. I never thought that suggesting a woman was tough equated with "pinning a rap" on her. That sort of thinking could get someone kilt.

    6. I always try to keep my testosterone levels under control, Jeff ...

  2. As much as I cannot stand colonialism and what it inflicted, I would not be who I am without it.

  3. I think about that, Stan. We can disapprove of a LOT of history ( and you and I do), but there is hardly a person on this planet who would be who are we are if some group had not committed some atrocity in the past. Sicilians know that. South Africans do too. Elsbeth Huxley said that much as she loved the African wilderness, there would have been no way to isolate a whole continent from what was happening in the rest of the world. For me, that remark is all the more poignant because it is true. And I mightily glad to that you are you.

  4. As ugly as human history has been in many (most) of its history, we are (so far) only one of the more successful organisms living on this planet. ALL life learns from experience, none of it is born to god-like wisdom (and that phrase would make another great post...). Few could have foreseen the industrialization of the world resulting in climate change, nor that the early explorations of Africa by Europeans (after all, they were just "going home again"!) would result in the horrible toll on Africa's indigenous species (human and non-human) that we're seeing today.

    It makes one wonder, what are we doing today that is going to have very unwelcome effects 100 years from now, about which we haven't a CLUE?

  5. You're so right, Everett. Hindsight is easy - foresight impossible. Unless you are George Orwell!

  6. Too right, gentlemen. We don't always remember that Newton's Third Law and the law of entropy and evolution also apply to all human endeavors, including thought.

  7. I'm busy catching up after a rushed trip to the US last week. I loved the post, Annamaria, and the discussion that followed. If you want a window on life in East Africa in those times, you can't do better than reading Annamaria's new Africa series!

  8. Thank you, THANK YOU, Michael. We are all African in our genes, and I am one in my soul.