Cape to Cairo: the Railroad that Never Was

IT WAS THE MOST ABSURD, the most ambitious, and the most improbable of all railroad dreams, and it failed—but only just. No continuous line from Cairo to the Cape of Good Hope—which would have linked Britain’s African colonies (colored pink on global political maps of the era)—was ever built. Nevertheless, construction started on a through-rail route in the 1880s, and one did eventually emerge 40 years later, although hundreds of miles of transfers via lakes and rivers were necessary to complete the journey. However, even the project’s most optimistic protagonists had accepted that maritime interruptions would be necessary. Indeed Cecil Rhodes, the godfather of the idea, stated that the project was never for a railroad that depended on traffic all the way through, but one that would “pick up trade all the way along the route,” and, crucially, would run entirely through British Imperial territory.


The idea represented a microcosm of the various impulses behind the British Empire in the late-Victorian era. It combined private megalomania, commercial and financial greed, and military necessity, although it had relatively little support—especially not of the financial kind—from London. Whether the project is viewed as a failure or as a partial success, the motley band of imperialists, contractors, and engineers who worked on it built thousands of miles of railroad that are still vital for the African continent today. The route incorporated separate lines to both the Atlantic and Indian oceans and, as a by-product, created a number of new towns and cities. Lusaka, now the capital of Zambia, was described in railroad historian George Tabor’s The Cape to Cairo Railway as no more than a “lion-infested siding,” and Gaberone, the future capital of Botswana, was a “remote watering hole on the edge of the Kalahari desert.”

The idea of an all-British railroad through Africa was first suggested in 1876 by the explorer H.M. Stanley (of “Dr. Livingstone, I presume” fame), in a letter to the Daily Telegraph newspaper. As Stanley later put it, “the railroad is the answer to Africa’s pressing problems. It is the only answer to the wagon trails, decimated by rinderpest and the tsetse fly; and the one way to defeat slavery by opening up the continent to commerce and communication.” Stanley’s idea became a reality through the unbridled ambition of Cecil Rhodes, an imperial and political megalomaniac who made his fortune from the lucrative diamond trade of southern Africa. Rhodes was supported throughout the project by Charles (later Sir Charles) Metcalfe, an unusual blend of aristocrat and consulting engineer, who had been a friend since the pair were students at Oxford University.


To carry out his ambitions, Rhodes required someone with the engineering skills to build a railroad over thousands of miles of virtually impassable country. He was lucky to find the right man in British railroad engineer George Pauling, head of family-owned engineering contractor Pauling & Co, which already had a decade of experience building railroads overseas when it was established under that name in 1894. The firm also included George’s brother Harry, four cousins—Harold, Henry, Willie, and Percy—and his brother-in-law Alfred Lawley.

In every respect, George was a larger-than-life character. He was a very big man who professed that he was “never able to reduce my weight below 16 stone [220lbs].” This was perhaps not surprising given his enormous appetite—on one occasion he consumed 300 bottles of German beer with two friends while stuck for 48 hours on a railroad line; on another he ate a thousand oysters (“small but of delicate flavor”) in one sitting. As his banker Emile d’Erlanger put it (Pauling relied on the d’Erlangers’ financial backing, as Rhodes depended on the Rothschilds’), he was “endowed with a physique that made light of any feat of strength and enabled him to defy fatigue or illness.”

His stamina was combined with a readiness to build rough-and-ready lines, leaving bridges to wait until later. He knew that his work would prove to be durable, and it was this confidence that ensured his promises of apparently impossible speeds of construction would be kept. His financial success came from his capacity to identify almost at a glance the shortest and cheapest route for a line. Although he based his estimate on an initial outside survey and charged a fixed fee per mile, he profited greatly from his ability to find shortcuts.

The first railroads had opened in the Cape Colony, at Africa’s southern tip, in 1863. To save money, they were built to a narrow gauge of 3ft 6in (1,076mm), which became known as “Cape Gauge.” Development of the lines was limited by financial constraints, and the narrow gauge resulted in speeds that never averaged more than 35mph (56kph). It was the 1872 diamond rush at Kimberley, 600 miles (965km) to the north, that sparked more ambitious railroad-building plans, adding a solid financial rationale to the young Rhodes’ imperial ambitions.


The rails reached Kimberley by 1885 while Rhodes, still only in his thirties, was busy building up a diamond monopoly through his company, De Beers. This first stage of the line was no easy feat, with a climb of more than 3,500ft (1,000m) to the dry, dusty uplands of the Karoo. Pauling ensured that the pace of construction was far faster than the eight years it had taken to lay the first 400 miles (650km) from Cape Town to Worcester. Progress was easier on the plateau of the Karoo, and Pauling’s men could advance as much as half a mile (1km) a day. Pauling pushed ahead despite opposition from the region’s Afrikaner population, who hated the railroad as a symbol of British imperialism and as “an invention of the devil.” But Pauling had an unexpected trump card to play. His family had welcomed in a couple of stranded Afrikaners who had been turned away by English hoteliers, thus ensuring the permanent gratitude and support of President Kruger of the neighboring South African Republic.

By 1890, Rhodes, a politician as well as an entrepreneur, had become Prime Minister of Cape Colony. A year earlier he had founded the British South Africa Company, which was to control the two countries later named after him—Northern and Southern Rhodesia. He planned to lay rails north to the Zambezi River and to the Nile Valley. The first step was Mafeking, 100 miles (160km) to the north of the existing end of the rails at Vryburg; the line was opened to traffic in October 1894. The next step was the 530 miles (850km) to Bulawayo. Pauling made good his promise to build the railroad at an amazing speed—more than a mile a day—and the line arrived at Bulawayo in 1897 to a banner reading “Our two roads to progress: Railroads and Cecil Rhodes.”


The next step was to connect the Cape line from Bulawayo to Salisbury (now Harare in Zimbabwe), the capital of Southern Rhodesia. Two links were required: one connecting Salisbury to Beira on the coast of Portuguese-controlled Mozambique, and another running directly from Salisbury to Bulawayo. Construction was delayed by tension between the British and Portuguese authorities, which culminated in a diplomatic incident involving British forces and a Portuguese gunboat. The discord was resolved by a treaty between the two sides, and construction was permitted to proceed in 1892. Even by 19th-century standards it was a very risky project, crossing both swamp and forest terrain. In the first two years of construction more than half the white men died of fever, as did virtually all of the 500 Indian immigrant workers, who had less immunity to the local diseases. However, this did not deter Pauling & Co’s project manager, Alfred Lawley, himself an excellent engineer, from achieving what Tabor describes as an “amazingly successful 2-feet [60cm] gauge miniature line, almost ‘thrown together’… on the rough and ready earthworks,” even though “at times it ran like a fairground switchback.” The line would be improved a year later in 1899, when it was widened to the “Cape Gauge.” The first train reached the Rhodesian frontier in February 1898 carrying the slogan “Now we shan’t be long to Cairo.” By 1902, the Bulawayo stretch of line was connected to Beira on the Indian Ocean, creating a continuous link of more than 2,000 miles (3,200km) to Cape Town on the Atlantic.

Meanwhile, there was considerable progress on the northern section of the railroad, which stretched south from the Mediterranean coast of Egypt. There had been railroad lines in Egypt since the mid-1850s, but financial and political problems ensured that they did not stretch into Sudan, the country’s southern neighbor. In 1898, a major breakthrough took place when Major General Sir Herbert Kitchener, commander-in-chief of the British-controlled Egyptian army, arrived with an army to retake Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. The city had been captured 15 years earlier by the Mahdists, a rebellious local militia who had murdered General Charles Gordon and all the British inhabitants. To reach Khartoum from Egypt, Kitchener needed a railroad to convey the troops south from Wadi Halfa on the Nile, in order to bypass hundreds of miles of unnavigable sections of the river. Experts dismissed the idea as impossible, but Kitchener found his equivalent of Pauling in a much more orthodox character—a brilliant and experienced young French-Canadian railroad engineer called Percy Girouard.

Girouard identified a route that included a 250-mile (400-km) shortcut across the desert to Abu Hamed instead of following the winding river Nile, which took nearly 600 miles (1,000km) to reach the same point. It was not easy terrain, as the young Winston Churchill—who combined the roles of journalist and officer in Kitchener’s army—explained: “it is scarcely within the power of words to describe the savage desolation of the regions into which the lines and its constructors plunged.” Kitchener took the long view and decided that the line should be built using the “Cape Gauge,” in view of the possible link up with Rhodes’ line. Girouard established a veritable “railway town” at Wadi Halfa on the Nile, as well as a railhead—a mobile town complete with a station, stores, and a canteen—and reached half-way to Khartoum in a mere six months, on the same day that Pauling reached Bulawayo.

The line reached Atbara near Khartoum nine months later, in time to enable Kitchener to avenge Gordon at the Battle of Omdurman in September 1898. The battle was a virtual massacre that cost only 50 British lives, while several thousand Mahdi followers perished. As Churchill pointed out, such a war “was primarily a matter of transport. The Khalifa [the Mahdi’s official title] was conquered on the railway.” The conquest had a major political repercussion for the British Empire. Joseph Chamberlain, the imperialist Colonial Secretary, later told a reporter: “you will live to see the time when a railroad will be built through that country to the Great Lakes, the Transvaal, and the Cape.”

Back in the south of the African continent, just before the Boer War broke out in 1899, Pauling had promised to fulfil Rhodes’ dream to build a yet-more-ambitious line. He committed to extending the tracks from Salisbury to the Zambezi River at Victoria Falls, and then on to the Congo border at Likasi—more than 1,000 miles (1,600km) of track. It was projected that this track would take 14 years to lay. However, plans were delayed for three years by the war.


The railroads, commanded by the ubiquitous Girouard, proved to be vital for British communications during the conflict, but required a high proportion of British troops in order to guard the lines against attack. The first stretch of the new line was relatively simple, and the 300 miles (480km) of track across open savannah countryside arrived at the Zambezi in 1904. Soon the Zambezi Express from Cape Town was providing a regular service to the north. The seemingly impossible task of crossing the 650-ft (200-m) span of the Victoria Falls was achieved when the Cleveland Bridge & Engineering Company of Darlington in northeast England built a bridge to specifications set out by the British engineer George Hobson. It took five months to build, and was then shipped to the heart of Africa, where it was constructed on site.


The next extension of the line had a sound economic object: the enormous reserves of coal at Wankie, and the equally staggering riches of copper in the so-called Copper Belt at Broken Hill. Both areas were in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), and the route to reach them required a bridge even longer than that at Victoria Falls. Designed by Hobson, the structure that crossed the Kafue river had 13 steel spans and was completed in 1906 in a mere five months. Pauling and his colleagues had become even more adept at managing these huge construction projects, and completed the 281 miles (450km) from Kalomo, the existing railhead 50 miles (80km) north of the Zambezi, to Broken Hill (now Kabwe) in just 277 working days. The impetus behind the project, however, had been greatly reduced following the death of Rhodes in 1902 at the age of just 48. His successor was Robert Williams, a Scottish mining engineer who lacked Rhodes’ British imperial vision. However, after three years of negotiations, Williams obtained concessions from the Belgian authorities to continue the railroad into the recently annexed Belgian Congo. The line finally left British-controlled territory in 1909 on its way north to the Katanga region—which had even bigger deposits of copper and other minerals than Northern Rhodesia—rather than east to Tanganyika, which was a colony of German East Africa at the time. It eventually reached Bukama, 450 miles (725km) further along the Congo River, in 1918, the year before a defeated Germany was divested of all of its East African territories.

By the end of World War I, the idea of a grand imperial railroad all the way down the spine of Africa was abandoned. Instead, efforts were concentrated on building the shortest route to export the Congo’s minerals to Europe; to this end, the Benguela railroad in Angola was extended to Lobito Bay on the Atlantic. However, this appallingly difficult route of more than 800 miles (1,200km) would not be complete until 1929. Until then, a tenuous—and somewhat roundabout—rail link did indeed run from the Cape to Cairo, also using ferries to cross lakes and the River Nile. A few hardy travelers succeeded in traveling along the entire route—that, surely, could count as a success for Rhodes’ vision, given the monumental scale of the task of crossing the continent.

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