Building Railway Empires: Promises in Space and Time

  • Ben Marsden
  • Crosbie Smith


For some three weeks in 1898 construction stopped on one of the British Empire’s most ambitious railway projects, linking the Indian Ocean port of Mombasa with the eastern shore of Lake Victoria in Uganda. Neither tribal opposition nor engineering problems played any part in this brief pause in the onward march of imperial civilisation. Yet before progress recommenced, ‘twenty-eight Indian coolies and an indefinite number of African natives’ had lost their lives, not as a consequence of any internal labour dispute or as a result of technological failure, but from a cause which spread fear across the workforce and which would feed the insatiable appetite of readers back home for heroic tales of empire-builders. As that most imperial of prime ministers, Lord Salisbury, informed the House of Lords: ‘The whole of the work was put a stop to for three weeks because a party of man-eating lions appeared in the locality and conceived a most unfortunate taste for our porters. … Of course it is difficult to work a railway under these conditions, and until we found an enthusiastic sportsman [Lieutenant-Colonel J.H. Patterson, D.S.O., who commanded the Indian navvies] to get rid of these lions our enterprise was seriously hindered.’2 In such contemporary readings of the episode, placing minimal value on the lives of imperial subjects, the power of the iron horse, aided by the ‘noble’ actions of the gentlemanly officer, triumphed over the king of beasts.


Railway System Steam Engine Steam Power Railway Engineer Mechanical Science 
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Copyright information

© Ben Marsden and Crosbie Smith 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ben Marsden
    • 1
  • Crosbie Smith
    • 2
  1. 1.University of AberdeenUK
  2. 2.University of KentUK

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