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.
Transport costs drop
The cost of transporting a tonne of goods from Kampala to Mombasa before the railway, had been estimated at between £130 and £300 yet export items like coffee were fetching around £70-90 per tonne on the world markets.
This all changed after the completion. “It was the railway which allowed Uganda to be integrated into the world economy as a producer of staples by cutting the Kisumu-Mombasa transport cost to £2.40 per tonne and the Kampala-Kisumu-Mombasa transport time from three months to six days,” Jorgensen notes.
The railways also allowed for everyday items like clothing, household goods etc to become more widespread and accessible to farmers who were cashing in on the cash crop trade.
The access to the coast and to the rest of the world would, in time, allow for changes in the politics, too.
But the story of the railway had a dark, bloody side. The man-eating lions of Tsavo had, by the time of their being shot dead by Patterson, killed 28 Indian coolies and an estimated 135 African labourers (the Africans were considered not important enough for an accurate count or record to be kept).
When the final count was done, out of the 31,983 Indian workers who had come to East Africa to work on the railway, 2,493 died while 6,454 were invalided back home notes J.S Mangat in ‘A History of the Asians in East Africa.’
It was, however, the 6,724 Indians who took up the offer to stay in East Africa after their work on the railway was done that would go on to change the history of the region and that of Uganda.
They were not the first Indians in the region or in Uganda and they were not the most pioneering or enterprising but they helped create a critical mass that would have long-term social, political and economic consequences.
2.Building of East African Railway
3.current state of Uganda’s railway system