The Shiny Irons on the Dark Continent

The Shiny Irons on the Dark Continent

The coming of the railroad was, in every place it appeared, a paradigm shift in the ability to transport tonnage over land. Before the Irons, people carried goods on their backs (or on their heads). A person could carry pounds, or tens of pounds. A team of horses or oxen could carry tens or even hundreds of pounds. With a large, well constructed wagon, hundreds of pounds or even many hundreds of pounds could be moved. Carrying tons, let alone many or hundreds of tons, was simply out of the realm of possibility. Even when the carriage was up to the task, in many cases the road was not. Loads measured in tons were the exclusive provence of the boats, barges and seagoing ships – indeed, that’s why we call it “shipping”. The shipper was left to transport the cargo piecemeal to the docks where a proper shipment could be assembled.

Almost overnight, that changed. The construction of a roadbed of two strips of metal, and of cars which could reliably traverse such a road, made the overland transport of tonnage a reality. Even when drawn by animals, loads an order of magnitude heavier could be moved easily, and the addition of powered locomotives revolutionized even that. In one of the very first applications of the Irons, 5 railroad cars were used to transport ten tons of iron and 70 men.

In addition to the fundamental change in the ability to move loads, the railroads had an equally significant effect on almost every other aspect of life, especially in areas where there was limited communication. Professor James W. King writes in “Railroads of Central and Southern Africa”:

In the subject of understanding world history, railroads have always been an integral part. Whether the subject is the economic history, the political history, or the social history of any one particular country or region, one must also have at least a small understanding of the role that railroads played.

As the rails brought trade and transport to Appalachia, to Siberia, to the vast expanse of Central Asia, they brought outside culture, economic expansion and social change to these areas as well. In the mid-19th Century, European colonial powers were beginning to covet the mineral and natural resources of the interior of Africa. European states, particularly Britain and France, had colonial holdings on the continent, Britain on the southern tip of the continent and France in the west, but large-scale movement into the interior would be driven by the industrial revolution. It had long been known that gold and diamonds were abundant in sub-saharan Africa, but the nearly complete lack of development, the dearth of maps, guides or other directional information, the sheer immensity and distance, made a “California, here I come” type gold rush unlikely. The discovery of industrial resources such as manganese, chromium and copper brought large-scale colonization and with it, the railroads.

Though the Irons were primarily laid for the mundane purpose of transporting goods, there were, as always, those whose dreams were larger.

The Shiny Irons on the Cape: The first railroad in the Cape area of southern Africa was in the Natal, now Durban. The fine harbor at The Point needed upgrading to allow ships to cross the sand bar at the mouth of the harbor, and a couple of marshy areas in town made transport from the harbor to the town difficult. In 1860 the first stretch of Irons was laid, a 3.2Km stretch running from Natal Harbor to Durban. Many more miles… er, kilometers of rail would follow.

In 1866, 15-year-old Erasmus Jacobs found a curious transparent stone on his father’s

farm. A family friend sent it to another friend for comment. After a series of unremarkable journeys, the stone was determined to be the Eureka Diamond, the first diamond to find it’s way out of Africa in modern times. The worth of these gemstones is driven by their relative rarity, and this was much more pronounced at the time. Some geological inspection determined that there were more diamonds in the area – a lot more. This wealth was worth building a railroad for, and in 1885 a rail line was completed between Cape Town and Kimberly. Notably, the planning for this railroad initiated a new gauge (gauge refers to the distance between the rails) more suitable for the mountainous terrain of the southern African interior. The standard British gauge measured 1435mm (4′-8 1/2”) which worked fine, however it was thought that narrowing the gauge would make the track more friendly to the tight curves which would be found in the mountains. A gauge of 1065mm (3′-6”) was agreed upon and the name “Cape Gauge” soon found usage.

Gemstone magnates soon realized that diamonds were everywhere in the cape region, and soon the Shiny Irons were also everywhere.

The Shiny Irons in the Rift: A huge scar mars the east of Africa, a deep gash as if an irresistible force were trying to tear the horn off the beast. This is the Great Rift Valley and, indeed, that is what is happening. Three huge plates of the Earth’s crust are struggling for dominance here, and the valley is the result of two of them separating. One of the noted explorers of the 19th century British Royal Geographic Society, Sir Richard Francis Burton, (from whom the late American actor took his stage name) found his calling here. After the requisite stint in the Army, in Burton’s case in India, Burton traveled the world for the Geographic Society. A noted scholar and linguist, gifted with a zest for discovery, Burton was a natural for a quest to find the “Holy Grail” of Europeans involved in the dangerous business of geographic exploration: the source of the White Nile River. Arab chronicles told of an “inland sea” west and south of the horn of Africa, and in 1857, Burton and fellow geography buff John Speke set off to determine if this was, indeed, the long-sought fountainhead. What they found was the African Great Lakes, formed as part of the Great Rift Valley in East Africa. By the 1880s, trade goods flowed out of the areas west of the Lakes, making their way to the coast. The larger of the lakes, Lake Victoria and Lake Tanganyika were being used as conduits for a portion of the trip, providing brief respite from the tortuous equatorial climate, jungle and hardscrabble ground. Enough wealth was being transported to entice the Imperial British East Africa Company to lay Irons at Kilindini Harbor in Mombasa and stretch them into the interior towards Lake Victoria. Construction began in 1895 and around 1900 the rails reached what is now Nairobi, and in 1903, after skirting the northern shore of the Lake, reached Kampala, (now) Uganda. The construction of this line provided history (and filmmaking with a particularly grisly tale, that of the “Tsavo Man-Eaters“.

In 1898, two lions terrorized crews constructing a railroad bridge over the Tsavo River, killing—according to some estimates—135 people. “Hundreds of men fell victims to these savage creatures, whose very jaws were steeped in blood,” wrote a worker on the railway, a project of the British colonial government. “Bones, flesh, skin and blood, they devoured all, and left not a trace behind them.”


This event was the basis for the 1996 movie “The Ghost and the Darkness”, and while there are many tales of horror and of intrigue which history has magnified… this is not one of them. In 1889, Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson was contracted by the Uganda Railway Committee to oversee the construction of a railway bridge over the Tsavo River in present-day Kenya. The river bisects the path of the Kenya-Uganda Railroad about halfway between Mombasa and Nairobi. The area is home to the Tsavo lions, a large cat species infamous for attacks on humans. After the project fell behind as a result of the lion attacks, Patterson and indigenous hunters stalked and killed the lions. For the kingly sum of $5000, Patterson sold the carcasses to the Field Museum in Chicago where they work to this day greeting visitors and reminding them who really runs things in the Rift.

The Shiny Irons go West: Much as in southern and eastern Africa, the construction of the rail lines was done to connect the coastal harbors with the resources in the interior. In modern-day Ghana, the Irons were first laid in 1903. Running from the port city of Sekondi (now the Sekondi-Takoradi metro area), the railroad reached into the jungle to the mining area around Kumasi. Gold and exotic hardwoods rode the rails to the coast. This site offers a wonderfully detailed description of the construction of this line. An example of the rigors of construction a railroad through the East African jungle:

The surveyors had a superhuman task. The forest was so dense and overgrown with brushwood that it was seldom that a clear view of a hundred feet ahead could be obtained. The surveyor-explorers found the country to be gently undulating. Most of the depressions were swamps or contained stagnant, fetid pools concealed from sight by the overgrowing scrub, so that the surveyor frequently found himself immersed to the thighs or waist, and any disturbance of the pools aroused swarms of mosquitoes to attack and plague the invader.


In Sierra Leone, the Irons were laid to serve passengers rather than to haul freight. Founded in 1792 by 1200 former slaves from the U.S. and Canada, Sierra Leone had become a diverse, cosmopolitan nation by the late 19th century. The British Royal Navy’s West African Squadron, based in Sierra Leone, was tasked with intercepting and boarding slave ships illegally operating out of East Africa. Freed slaves from the ships were repatriated to Sierra Leone, and as a result, the country became the destination for a large number of British and American abolitionists and missionaries as well. Railroads to move all these diverse groups were needed, and a consortium of merchants from Liverpool financed and constructed some 350 miles of Irons linking the nation.

A stretch of the Irons in Nigeria was laid to serve a political purpose, opening up the interior of the country and connecting it with the coast:

In the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, colonial railways became distinguishing marks of British colonial development policy.  A basic assumption of British officials concerned with colonial development was that rapid, efficient, and inexpensive transportation was necessary if economic progress was to be made in the “undeveloped estates”.


After much debate, it was agreed that a short line of Irons from Lagos to Otta would be built. Construction began in 1895 and, as the railroad proceeded, the political climate began to change. By the turn of the 20th Century, the Crown felt that the minimum extent of the line should be from “a port city” on the coast, running northeast to the northern city of Kano, some 1000 miles away. Beyond this, there was no agreement at all. There were varying schemes, some of which began in Lagos, and some of which began elsewhere. The latter risked sacrificing the expenditure which had been made building a terminus in Lagos, and on improving the harbor there. In a comically piecemeal approach, debate on the basic route continued even as the Irons stretched into the interior. In December of 1900, they reached Ibadan, and shortly thereafter a survey was commissioned to find a crossing point on the Niger River and survey backwards from there to Ilorin. Still, no policy was in place, indeed, there was still no consensus on a route. Events (many of them involving long sections of rail, thousands of ties and countless spikes) had transpired to make the debate pointless, and in 1902 the Colonial Office decided to hold a full-scale review of the situation and establish a general policy. This would include a decision as to the route, which was literally half-done. The pathway from the Niger to Kano was, for practical purposes, already decided as well, as the railroad was currently pointing directly at the center of the Kaduna Valley, so the route to Kano was a foregone conclusion.

Nestled on their ties, the Shiny Irons moved their charges through rich deposits of resources; oil and gas, coal, timber and stone. Gold, iron ore, precious and semi-precious stones of every type, copper, lead, zinc, even marble were along the route. Though the planning and execution were more than haphazard, the rail line reached Kano in 1912. At this point, the overly optimistic planners began discussing extensions of the line, to Lake Chad, and even on to link with the Nile River at Khartoum, Sudan… 3200 miles away. Such optimism was not to be rewarded, however.

The Shiny Irons in the Congo: In the late 19th Century, the major colonial powers operating in Africa were few… and all bickering. Britain and France, Germany and Italy, Spain and Portugal had all carved a slice of the continent. Belgium’s King Leopold had territorial ambitions in the region as well, and in a private venture, established the Congo Free State to extract resources from the Congo region of Central Africa. A part of this adventure was the construction of the Matadi-Kinshasa Railroad. The transportation plan for Leopold’s colony was to use the Congo River network, however the river is not navigable for approximately 190 miles between Kinshasa and Matadi due to the Livingstone Falls and its associated cataracts.

During this same period, French colonial administration constructed the Congo-Ocean Railway to link the city of Brazzaville on the Congo River (across the river from Kinshasa) with the Atlantic Ocean port of Pointe-Noire. The 502-mile stretch of Irons was built between 1921 and 1934 and includes the 1690 meter Bamba tunnel and 14 reinforced concrete viaducts. Both the Matadi-Kinshasa Railroad and the Congo-Ocean Railroad are still in service, and a proposal is being floated to join the railroads with a bridge across the Congo River.

It should be noted that both the Congo-Ocean Railroad and the Matadi-Kinshasa railroad were built using forced labor. Working under very primitive conditions, the loss of life during construction was staggering, even by the brutal standards of the colonial powers. An estimated 7000 workers died on the Matadi-Kinshasa Railroad, while 17,000 died building the Congo-Ocean Railroad. These two rail lines had to run a long time before their rails were shiny.

The Shiny Irons from Cape to Cairo: In the late 19th Century, the Europeans were locked in a continual struggle for domination of their particular slice of Africa.

A Cape Colony politician, Cecil Rhodes, had a dream for Britain’s future in that free-for-all… a railway, through British Controlled territory, all the way from the Cape to the Mediterranean Sea. Interestingly, in this same period, the French were planning a rail line to connect their eastern and western colonies by a line running across the continent, from Senegal to Djibouti or “from the bulge of Africa to the horn of Africa” as it were. Both schemes had very serious technical and geographic challenges to overcome, as well as having to work around the continual imperial intrigue presented by the other competing European powers in Africa. The French rail plan came to naught after a confrontation on and near the Nile river in 1898. A British gunboat flotilla confronted the French railroad construction effort as it was preparing a rail crossing of the Nile near the town of Fashoda. With the British force outnumbering the French about 10-1, the French considered the better part of valor and withdrew. The incident ended the French plan for a cross-continent railway. The British plan continued to be discussed, and by the time WW1 began, they had good rail service from the cape to the southern edge of the rift valley, and from Cairo to the southern edge of the Sudan. In the way at that point was the German colony of German East Africa. The political settlement after WW1 made this point moot, offering this territory to Britain as well, but then the Great Depression intervened, followed by WW2 and the plan went the way of history.

Much of the Cape to Cairo Irons are still in use today, and one of the wonders of Africa can be seen from the train as it crosses one of the wonders of the Shiny Irons! The Victoria Falls Bridge spans the Zambezi River at the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe. From Zambia Tourism:

Originally referred to as the Zambezi Bridge, the parabolic arch design of the Victoria Falls Bridge is credited to George Hobson. It was constructed in England by the Cleveland Bridge and Engineering Company, and shipped to the Mozambique port of Beira, and then railed up to Victoria Falls. In a feat of Victorian engineering, the Bridge took just 14 months to build. It was opened by Charles Darwin’s son, Professor George Darwin, President of the British Association (now the Royal Society) on 12 September 1905. The American Society of Civil Engineers lists the Victoria Falls Bridge as an historic civil engineering landmark.


The Victoria Falls bridge under construction, and today:






The Shiny Irons in Africa today: Today, the continent of Africa has the lowest number of miles of Irons per square mile of territory in the world. The resource base which first brought the European Irons to Africa is still there, and still enticing. Much infrastructure work is being funded by China, including a network of lines connecting the east coast to the Great Lakes area. A line connecting Djibouti City, Djibouti on the coast with Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, opened in January of this year. Chinese financial and technical aid is making possible the completion of a $4b run of the Irons from the Kenyan capital of Nairobi and the Indian Ocean port of Mombasa.

Given this new financial infusion, the Irons in Africa will continue to expand and modernize, bringing new opportunity and growth to what we once referred to as the “Dark Continent”. Perhaps the colonial powers’ dream of a Cape to Cairo railroad and a Bulge to Horn railroad will become reality! That would sure…

keep the rails shiny!! Thank you for joining us!!


The Luxury Irons on the Dark Continent

Today, you can journey down the same Irons that Cecil Rhodes did, and do so in the lap of Luxury! Rovos Rail is a private railway company operating out of Pretoria, South Africa.

Rovos offers luxury train service to several destinations in southern Africa, as well as a tourist run across that Victoria Falls Bridge we talked about earlier!

Rovos and other private ventures also offer rail journeys in several other places around the globe. Check out their web site, as well as these articles from Style Magazine’s web site.


Play a Train Song

Rock’n’roll from a bygone era, singing about the Shiny Irons from an even more bygone era, The Kinks perform “Last of the Steam Powered Trains”

from a 1969 appearance on the Julie Felix Show.

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