The Uganda Railway that had death and method to its lunacy
Posted Friday, April 27 2012 at 00:00
Full steam ahead. The Uganda Railway had a dark side to it, with the deaths of thousands of Indian and African labourers but few developments can be said to have changed the region’s history more.
The original plan for the Uganda Railway was to have it cut through the interior all the way to Kampala but it would not be until 1930, three decades after most of it was fully constructed, that it did.
This fact probably helps explain the underlying reason for the construction of the railway. While the British were optimistic about commercial opportunities in the hinterland, their primary interest was to secure their hold on the source of the River Nile and the entire Nile Valley up to Egypt.
“It might have opened Kenya and Uganda to commerce, but that was merely a dividend to the interests of the British military in securing a line of supply to Egypt and the Nile,” writes Reuben Ellis in Vertical Margins: Mountaineering and the Landscapes of Neo-colonialism.
But fate has a funny way of changing history. Could the depot that was set up in Nairobi – which went on to become the biggest city in East Africa – have been built if the railway project had not been delayed by disease, desertions, tough terrain and man-eating lions?
In any case, by the time the railway arrived in Kisumu in 1901, the British had decided to change its route and have it terminate on the shores of Lake Victoria where a steamship would be built instead.
The decision to alter the plans was both political, from a hostile British society, and economic, from early white settlers in Kenya who preferred to have feeder lines built to support their fledging enterprises instead of extending the line to Uganda.
The white settlers, who later joined the Kenya Legislative Assembly, continued to complain about the Uganda extension when it was eventually built despite, according to historian Jan Elmert Jorgensen, that extension helping subsidise the low freight rates they enjoyed and the feeder lines they rode to their farms.
However, the impressive early production of cotton by peasants in Uganda, whose revenues far outstripped those of the white settlers and their plantation farms in Kenya, provided an economic incentive for the line to be extended into Uganda later.
In the interim, tracks were laid from Port Bell in Kampala into the city, allowing, with the help of a steamer ship in between, a train ride all the way to Mombasa.
It was not until the end of the First World War that the original railway line would be completed through Nakuru to Kampala. Extensions would be built from Tororo to Soroti in 1929, Kampala to Kasese in 1956 and Arua in 1964.
While the Uganda Railway cost the British government £5.3 million (about Shs21 billion) to construct, the evidence shows that this was, in reality an export subsidy, rather than a capital investment that wouldn’t look out of place with some donor projects today.
Of the £5.3m, some £2.3m was spent in Britain on rails and locomotives; under £1m in India on rolling stock and recruiting labour; under £0.2m in the United States on locomotives while British firms got the contracts, naturally, to ship in the materials.
The extension of the railway dramatically changed the trade environment in the region. In Mombasa, where the railway had first been built, trade through the Kilindini Harbour grew from £1.6 million in 1908-9 to £3.7 million in 1911-12, according to traveller and historian Norman Maclean.
“And the journey which cost the early missionaries and explorers three or four months of incredible hardships and peril, can now be done in less than forty-eight hours,” he noted.
Apart from Nairobi, other towns where the train had terminals, like Kisumu, Eldoret, Jinja and Nakuru, also saw an overnight growth in trading activity and population on the back of the train.
Trade in and out of Uganda had previously been restricted to high-value items such as ivory owing to the high cost of porterage by caravan and horse-drawn carriage to the coast.