Laying The Lunatic Line



Old Port in the southern Kenyan city of Mombasa is a calming sight on a balmy evening, with azure waters surrounding the looming silhouette of Fort Jesus, built by the Portuguese between 1593 and 1596 to secure their interests on the East Africa Coast and protect the lucrative trade routes to India.

Cut to about 300 years later, 1896, when the ancestors of the current-day Indian community in Kenya, first landed on its sandy shores.


Indians were brought to Kenya to build a railway line. So tragic were the consequences of building it, that it was famously named the ‘lunatic line.’

They were brought in to build a railway line, one of the most difficult to be built in the history of the railways. So tragic were the consequences of building it, with loss of life and limb, that the railway line started on 30th May, 1896 and built on the backs of Indian labor, was famously named the ‘lunatic line.’

Fort Jesus, Mombasa
Fort Jesus, Mombasa|Wikimedia Commons|Danish Dhamani 

Politician and arch critic Henry Labouchère coined the term, seeing it as imperial hubris by the British, tending towards madness, and memorably quipping,

‘Where it is going, nobody knows, what is the use of it, none can conjecture ... It is clearly naught but a lunatic line.’

It could therefore only be an unsound mind that would think to endure the high cost and the treacherous terrain to construct it. The 'Iron Snake,' as it was also called, slithered on the soil towards Uganda in the years that followed, and the Indians were part of it.

First day of work on the Kenya-Uganda Railway, 30th May 1896
First day of work on the Kenya-Uganda Railway, 30th May 1896|Wikimedia Commons

Lions in the Fight

As if the long hours in the oppressive African heat, hostile locals and disease-ridden swamps weren't enough, the railway workers had a uniquely dangerous obstacle to deal with yet. Lieutenant-Colonel John Henry Patterson was commissioned in 1898 by the Uganda Railway committee in London to oversee the construction of a bridge over the Tsavo River, a difficult section between Mombassa and Nairobi. He had under his command a Sikh Jemadar named Ungan Singh, responsible for his well-being.

On one particular day, close to midnight, Singh was dragged out of his tent by unseen forces, which were first rumored to be restless spirits of the dead locals manifest. This was the latest in a series of disappearances that had earlier also been attributed to men deserting the camps. It turned out to be a little more gruesome than that.

Construction of the Tsavo River Bridge 
Construction of the Tsavo River Bridge |National Archives, London  

The following morning, Patterson scoured the area to find a spot covered with blood, flesh and bones. The Jemadar’s head was left intact. Upon further investigation, Singh’s death was determined to be at the hands of the man-eaters of Tsavo, a pair of lions that killed anywhere between 28 and more than 100 workers during the building of the railway, before being rounded up and shot.

The journey to Kenya was itself perilous and perhaps ominous.


The Man-eaters of Tsavo were a pair of lions that killed around 100 workers during the building of the railway

Press-ganged onto ships and rickety Arabian dhows, not of their own free will, Indian workers were brought in by the British as indentured, or bonded, labor. This was just another way of circumventing the obvious connotations of outright slavery to the British colonial cause in East Africa, by the clever captors.

After the abolition of slavery, the British devised an alternative to exploit the Indians for cheap labor. They had their 'workers' sign a contract enabling them to work overseas for a period of 5 years or more. Only, this was less a contract and more a sentence. In reality, they never received the wages they were due and were denied their right to a safe return passage once their contract was over. They were misled and abused, many to their ultimate deaths.

In clockwise direction: Paying the workers at the Railhead; Laying Railhead Mile 14 1/2; Tsavo Bridge; Laying a pile down using earth auger
In clockwise direction: Paying the workers at the Railhead; Laying Railhead Mile 14 1/2; Tsavo Bridge; Laying a pile down using earth auger|National Archives, London

The project also met with stiff resistance from the locals at various stages, particularly from the Maasai and Nandi people

About 6,500 workers were badly wounded and rendered invalids, while 2,500 died mainly from disease by the end of it all. The project also met with stiff resistance from the locals at various stages, particularly from the Maasai and Nandi people, whom the workers had fatal altercations with. Add to this, huddling in makeshift tents in the desert-like conditions, where they were entirely dependent on water supply by water trains that were often late or derailed, the workers sometimes went for days without ration, making it a hard haul. But they pressed on.

Scramble For Africa

In 1895, the British had consolidated control in Kenya, a region then known as British East Africa, spanning the eastern coast of Africa through to the kingdom of Buganda, on the north-western shore of Lake Victoria.

At the same time, Germany too had begun expanding on its imperial ambitions overseas in the late 19th century, in its quest to emulate the British. Germany was successful in establishing the colony of German East Africa (present-day Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi) in 1891.

Map of Kenya-Uganda Railway Line 
Map of Kenya-Uganda Railway Line |Wikimedia Commons 

So it was really in the scramble for power in East Africa, and to thwart the rising German influence, that the British conceived of this railway project.

The British government was more interested in controlling the headwaters of the Nile, with its source in Lake Victoria, and with it the easy movement of its resources through Uganda, along with further control of Egypt and the Suez Canal trade route. A modern means of transportation to carry raw materials out of Uganda, and also for manufactured goods from Britain back in, was the primary need of the hour.

Towards the end of 1891, under the directions of the British government, the possibility of having a passage to connect Mombasa with the Victoria Nyanza (as Lake Victoria was called then) was discussed.

 Statue of Alibhai Mulla Jeevanjee, Kenya
Statue of Alibhai Mulla Jeevanjee, Kenya|Wikimedia Commons 

A government committee for the project was formed, and post a ‘yes’ vote in Parliament and approval of funds, a three man supervisory team made up of Sir Percy Anderson, Sir Mongatu Ommanney and Sir GL Ryder was set up. Having successfully constructed railway lines about 50 years prior in India, with the same objectives, the British sought to replicate the effort in their newly acquired colony.


The first batch of 350 laborers arrived in Mombasa from India on January 24th, 1896 and in all, about 32,000 Indians were recruited to build the railway

Alibhai Mulla Jeevanjee, an Indian merchant, later to change the face of Nairobi, was awarded the contract to supply the British with labor for the project. He facilitated the immigration of the first laborers and went on to cater to the project for over six years.

The first batch of 350 laborers arrived in Mombasa from India on January 24th, 1896 and by March of 1897, numbered close to 4000. In all, about 32,000 Indians were recruited to build the railway. They were mainly Sikhs from the Punjab region in India. In terms of skills, they were both professional engineers and apprentice labor.

Kenya-Uganda railway bridge, 1910
Kenya-Uganda railway bridge, 1910|Wikimedia Commons

The Indians were best suited to the task due to their proven reliability, natural aptitude for mechanics and because famine in the region had made native labor scarce. Also, due to their numbers, and the fact that the colonies shared the rupee as currency, they could be hired on the cheap.

By 20th December, 1901, when work had finished on the other end of the line at Port Florence (present-day Kisumu) on the banks of Lake Victoria, about 625 miles from Mombasa, a third of them had died. Every mile took four lives!

The final extension of the original railway line connecting to Kampala, Uganda was started in 1901 and was completed in 1903. Many of the older workers stayed on to become senior officers on the railways, while the successive generations became successful entrepreneurs and small business owners.

 Sana Aiyar book: Indians in Kenya: The Politics of Diaspora
Sana Aiyar book: Indians in Kenya: The Politics of Diaspora|www.amazon.co.in

These Indians worked as ‘dukawallas’ (shopkeepers), artisans, traders, clerks, and, lower-level administrators. Excluded from the senior ranks of the colonial government and from the agricultural industry, they became independent commercial middlemen and evolved into a flourishing professional community.

It’s their story that remained untold, according to Sana Aiyar, Assistant Professor of History at MIT and author of ‘Indians in Kenya: The Politics of Diaspora, who writes:

‘Within five years they went from being someone exploring their options, to setting up these big firms. They were very successful, very quickly.’

The Indian railway workers helped set in motion a movement of people that would have long-term socio-political and economic consequences in East Africa. Unfortunately, while the stories of the second and third generations of these workers take center-stage in the globalized world, few seem to remember the hands that built two nations.

It’s time we uncovered their tracks.


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