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Department of History

The many users of imperial infrastructure

In this interview, Friedrich N. Ammermann, PhD Researcher at the EUI History Department, discusses his research on the Cape to Cairo Railway and how this can inform infrastructure studies more broadly.

14 July 2023 | Research

Victoria Falls Zambezi River

Your dissertation focuses on the construction of the Cape to Cairo railway from the late nineteenth century to the 1960s. Can you tell us about this railway, its purposes, and its users? 

The Cape to Cairo Railway was an imperial mega-project par excellence. The birth of the idea must be understood in the context of the 'Scramble for Africa' by several European empires in the nineteenth century. The railway was initially a geostrategic tool for the British Empire to lay claim to Africa from South to North in competition with the French, Portuguese, Belgian, and German empires. By connecting its various colonial possessions on the continent, the United Kingdom hoped to conquer, capitalise, and 'civilise' Africa for its empire.

It was Cecil John Rhodes (#RhodesMustFall) who most strongly advocated the Cape to Cairo Railway and his companies built railways from Mozambique and South Africa into what later became Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and ultimately Congo. The link with Cairo was never established and with the First World War the talk of a Cape to Cairo Railway vanished, but the rails remained. 

In my dissertation, I investigate the various uses of these railways. The colonial administration used the trains for governance; mining companies exported huge amounts of natural resources; white settlers used the railways in their arguments for more autonomy from London; white and Black workers (but never together) struck for better working conditions; and anti-colonial activists cited racist abuses on the trains in their fight for Black majority rule. The railways were a hierarchised platform that facilitated all these different, sometimes conflicting, uses.

The railway was clearly a political and economic instrument, as well as a mirror of a society's divisions. Do you think your work can shed light on contemporary development projects focusing on infrastructure? China's Belt and Road initiative comes to mind.

I think my work shows that infrastructures are more fragile, and their effects and uses are much more heterogenous than what builders of infrastructure tend to expect. The users and uses of infrastructure are many, and these change over time; not all of them can be foreseen.

Infrastructures are built to last, but when the political, cultural, or economic conditions change, infrastructures must be adapted. After 1918, the imperial Cape to Cairo Railway became a regional transport network, after which it gradually disintegrated following Zambian independence. These processes of adaptation happen not only top–down, but through myriad uses. Constant overcrowding and numerous complaints by African passengers about poorly built stations forced the railway company to invest in its waiting rooms. Indian travellers successfully pushed for distinct compartments for themselves. And Joshua Nkomo, later a leading Zimbabwean freedom fighter, started his political career with a job as the first African social worker on the railways (and the first social worker for African employees). These are examples of users shaping and co-creating infrastructure.

Infrastructures are hierarchical, but it is difficult to fully control what is happening on them. That can also mean that the use of an infrastructure turns against its constructors. Infrastructures almost never work exactly the way the constructors planned. And these are also lessons for today's large infrastructure investments. Local users matter.

Last update: 14 July 2023

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