Connect with Kenyan history

Construction of the Kenya-Uganda Railway

The Kenya-Uganda railway, as it is known today, is a railway system linking the interiors of Uganda and Kenya to the Indian Ocean at Mombasa in Kenya. During and after its construction its detractors such as British parliamentarian Henry Labouchere called it “the Lunatic express” while some locals called it “the iron snake”.

The railway was built by the British government under the foreign office at the start of the period when Britain maintained direct administrative control of the region known as British East Africa-a region stretching from the eastern coast of Africa to the kingdom of Buganda, on the north-western shore of Lake Victoria. Construction started at the Kenyan port city of Mombasa in 1896 and reached Kisumu (then called-Port Florence) on the eastern shore of Lake Victoria in 1901. The second stretch of the railway into Kampala, Uganda started in 1901 and was completed in 1903.

Prior to the construction of the Kenya-Uganda railway, the first operational railway line in East Africa was a two-foot gauge trolley line at the port of Mombasa, operated by hand-propelled wagons. The Kenya-Uganda railway line is a 1,000 mm (3 ft 3 3⁄8 in) gauge, virtually all single-track whose first services started in 1903.

The British government was more interested in controlling Uganda. Exploitation of River Nile whose source is Lake Victoria was one of the major development plans laid down by European powers:Britain, France and Germany at the Berlin Conference of 1886. Uganda being a landlocked region made it a difficult territory to administer. The British government needed a ‘modern’ means of transportation link to carry raw materials out of Uganda, manufactured goods for Britain back in, and generally ease access to this territory. The strategic reason behind construction of the railway was a means for the British to link Mombasa with her protectorate of Uganda.

The railway followed a route similar to the Mackinnon-Sclater road from Mombasa to Busia, a 1000km ox-cart track, started by the Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEAC) and completed by the British government after the collapse of IBEAC. From the main rail line several branch lines have been built to date. These branch lines include: branch line built to Thika in 1913, Lake Magadi in 1915, Kitale in 1926, Naro Moro in 1927, from Tororo to Soroti in 1929 and finally Mount Kenya in 1931. The mainline was extended from Nakuru towards Uganda reaching Kampala in 1931. Another went to Kasese in western Uganda in 1956. It was extended to Arua near the border with Zaire in 1964. Sir Percy Girouard, governor of Kenya at the time, was instrumental in initiating railway extension policy that led to construction of the Nairobi-Thika and Konza-Magadi railways.

Impact of the construction of the Kenya-Uganda railway

The British government had succeeded in having slave trade in the open seas banned by 1873, however, in the interior parts of Africa it was still practised. In British East Africa slaves were used to provide human transport for goods for trade to and from the East African coast. The construction of the railway proved useful in suppression of slavery by removing the need for human transport of goods.
The railway allowed for heavy equipment to be transported with relative ease. Up until that time the main form of transport in the interior was ox-drawn wagon and human transport. The British government could transport raw materials to the East African coast for shipping and Finished goods into the interior. The railway served the purpose for which it was intended-to provide an access route to landlocked Uganda.
During the construction of the railway the British government imported more than 32,000  labourers from British India to offer manual labour. When construction of the railway was completed many labourers, Indian coolies, traders and small businessmen stayed on in the region to create the substantial Indian minority communities in Kenya and Uganda. These Indians worked as “dukawallas” (shopkeepers), artisans, traders, clerks, and, finally, lower-level administrators. Excluded from the middle and senior ranks of the colonial government and from farming, they became a commercial middleman and professional community.
To make the railway sustainable in terms of revenue the British government encouraged European settlement in the region for farming and other types of commerce. The British government encouraged the white settlers to carry out large scale farming of coffee and tea since the railway provided ease of transport of the produce to East African for shipping to European countries for processing and sale. This white settlement would shape the development of Kenya for many years to come. From African resistance against land alienation to colonisation and struggle for independence.
White settlers engaging in agriculture increased in number and so did their produce. As a result small stations were developed for ease of transportation of agricultural produce among them. These stations include: Nakuru, Naivasha, Tigoni, Kijabe and Sigona all which settlers took for themselves.
Urbanisation. Many of today’s interior towns and ports developed along the railway line junctions and depots during and after the construction of the railway. They include:

  • Mombasa-though this town had been in existence since the Portuguese and Arab eras it was further developed by the onset of the railway construction.
  • Nairobi, started as a rail depot. It is today the capital city of Kenya.
  • Kikuyu
  • Naivasha
  • Nakuru, where the main line splits, one branch going to Kisumu and the other to Uganda
  • Nanyuki
  • Eldoret, originally called “64″ its distance, in miles, from the railhead at the time
  • Kitale, a small farming community in the foothills of Mount Elgon
  • Kisumu (then called port Florence), a city and port on Lake Victoria allowing ferry transport between Kenya, Tanganyika (modern Tanzania) and Uganda
  • Port Bell, a rail-linked port, near to Kampala, on Lake Victoria allowing ferry transport between Kenya, Tanganyika and Uganda
  • Jinja, a city and port close to the outlet of Lake Victoria, the source of the River Nile

Tourism. The railway provided a ‘modern’ means of transport from the East African coast to the higher plateaus of the interior. US president Theodore Roosevelt is one of the notable people who had safari adventures aboard a train in the early days of the use of the Kenya-Uganda railway.

Nairobi slowly evolved into a business hub with the railway line initially running across town from Kenya Railway station to George Whitehouse Road (now Haile Selassie Avenue) through Parliament Road to Lord Delamare Avenue (Kenyatta Avenue). The Norfolk hotel, one of the major hotels in Nairobi today, built in 1904 was initially a railway station where the railway then passed heading to Port Florence (Kisumu).

The railway opened up the interior, not only to the European farmers, missionaries, and administrators, but also to systematic government programs to attack slavery, witchcraft, disease, and famine.

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