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Department of History

Changing Track: redirecting research on colonial railways in Africa, 1880 - 1960

Conference on 9 November 2020

11 November 2020 | Event

Collonial Railway Africa, old Picture

In his influential study The Tools of Empire (1981), Daniel Headrick developed the theory that scientific and technological changes, such as advances in medicine, steam-powered boats, or railways, became key factors in Europe’s massive colonial expansion in the late nineteenth century. In line with his argument, many subsequent studies have tended to depict colonial infrastructure as a guarantor of economic and political exploitation. It was only recently that scholars have begun to challenge this top-down perspective on infrastructure as an omnipotent instrument of colonial rule. In the last decade, a burgeoning research strand has moved beyond diffusionist narratives of railway imperialism and has shed a spotlight on local conditions and actors on the African continent and how they negotiated, contested, and appropriated technological interventions.

Our one-day workshop at the European University Institute (EUI), Florence, aims at bringing together the most recent research studying the conflicting history of railway construction, use, and contestation in colonial Africa. We would like to bring young researchers together with top-notch scholars in the field and discuss ongoing research on colonial infrastructures. Our aim is to debate new concepts on how to write infrastructure history beyond the classical narratives. Understanding infrastructure as sites where colonisers and colonized interacted, we are especially interested in projects that research into the following topics:

  • African everyday uses and appropriation of railways and the question of 'planned and unplanned' uses
  • a longue durée perspective on mobility and the incorporation of railway lines in existing patterns of African movement
  • railways and environmental transformation
  • questions of maintenance and repair
  • disruptions and disconnections in sophisticated logistical networks

Last update: 31 January 2022

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