Reluctant Empire

Once upon a time, I worked in the public relations office of Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History for a couple of years. One of my favorite dioramas featured two taxidermied lions -the infamous Man-Eaters of Tsavo. These lions killed and consumed anywhere from 30 to over 100 workers during the construction of the railway bridge over the Tsavo River on the Mombasa/Nairobi/Lake Victoria route built in the late 19th century. Last year, I discovered a book about the building of that railroad.

The Lunatic Express: An Entertainment in Imperialism. , by Charles Miller, is subtitled on the cover as “The Building of an Impossible 600 Mile Railway Across East Africa,” but it is much more than that.

Miller, in order to set the stage for the story of the railroad, takes the reader back to the bare beginnings of British involvement in East Africa, starting in 1824 with British interest in Mombasa and Zanzibar. He is a self-confessed proponent of the British Empire’s positive effect on its colonies in general and on East Africa in particular, although he claims to have contrived to write an objective account. From my limited perspective, I believe he has done what he set out to do.

The story he tells is of an unenthusiastic Britain taking reluctant responsibility for a part of the world in which they had, initially, little interest other than securing safe passage through Zanzibar to India. Who wanted to go traipsing around in the interior anyway?

’Red ants afoot! Look out for a stump, ho! Skewers! A pitfall to right! A burrow to left! Thorns, thorns, ‘ware thorns! Those ants; lo! a tripping creeper! Nettles, ‘ware nettles! A hole! Slippery beneath, beneath! Look out for mud! A root! Red ants! red ants amarch! Look sharp for ants! A log! Skewers below!’

Mere man-eating lions, when they encountered them, must have been a blessed relief!

Frederick Dealtry Lugard was perhaps the first persistent proponent of advancing British interests in Africa. By Miller’s account, he was basically a good man who,

While he never doubted that the Anglo-Saxon was a better man than the African, he never doubted, either, that the African was a man, and while he cannot be called unique in this respect, he was definitely unusual.

Those interests weren’t always regarded with approval at home, where a faction had arisen that called itself “Little Britain,” a term we’ve heard again, recently, then meaning a Britain without empire. One such opponent, Sir William Harcourt, particularly enlightened in view of our current ideas of such things, depicted British actions in Uganda as bordering on felony.

’A sphere of influence confers no right, no authority over the people…. Every act of force you commit against a native within a sphere of influence is an unlawful assault; every acre of land you take is a robbery; every native you kill is a murder.’

Still, there were commercial interests and missionary interests and the perhaps somewhat purer interests of the anti-slavery factions wishing to halt the slave trade carried out by Arabs to Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, and various other sultanates, and these would eventually have their way. The railroad, seen as necessary to “influence” the interior, was finally under construction by 1896, but not without some kvetching from the Home Counties.

What it will cost, no words can express;
What is its object no brain can suppose;
Where it will start from no one can guess;
Where it is going to nobody knows.
What is the use of it none can conjecture;
What it will carry there’s none can define;
And in spite of George Curzon’s superior lecture,
It clearly is naught but a lunatic line

The story of building the railway, which ran from Mombasa on the coast to Lake Victoria, establishing the outpost of Nairobi at about the halfway point, is almost as fascinating as the stories of the Englishmen and the tribes, the chiefs and the sultans, that make up most of the earlier part of the book. When the railway is finished, however, it turned out that it did go somewhere, and it carried settlers in and farm products out. That story takes up the final chapters, ending with the outbreak of the First World War.

The book is, sadly, out of print, and available through Amazon’s 3rd party sellers only. Perhaps you could find a copy in your public or university library. The paperback copy I received was in good condition except for a very brittle spine. I had to turn each page carefully and am rather proud that I finished the entire thing with the book split into only 4 sections. It was a painstaking process, and obviously not entirely successful, but worth every tender page. The story was engrossing, good guys and bad guys and in between guys of all races and religions. I found Miller to be as objective as a good story teller can be, and if you have any interest in the story of East Africa, I highly recommend you take a ride on The Lunatic Express, An Entertainment in Imperialism.