I am reading a fascinating article about colonial engineering. Canay Ozden’s fabulous “Pontifex Minimus” is about the British engineer of the Low (or old) Aswan Dam, and the article just drips with all sorts of wonderful quotable sections. For example, this:
The exportation of engineering practices from the metropole to the colony relied on a rhetoric of universal engineering and social principles. In fact, some of the more severe failures of the British in flood control and land utilisation may be explained by the emergence of a universalist perspective in British engineering in the second half of the nineteenth century. Historian Benjamin Weil argues that the generalist paradigm in British irrigation engineering, which emphasized qualitative observation and interactions with locals, was gradually replaced by the specialist paradigm, which assumed that geographic formations exhibited universal features. Engineers born and trained in England were sent to the colonies to apply lessons learned in Europe, often with little success. As Weil shows, the newly trained British engineers’ resistance to engaging with anecdotal data precluded sound explanations of past floods in the Indus Basin and appropriate measures to prevent further floods. (p. 188)
But the bit that really interested me was this:
Although the terms and logistics of Willcocks’ visit to Mesopotamia are unclear, it is unlikely that the visit had ‘nothing to do with’ politics. In the last years of the nineteenth century, several European powers were pressing the Ottoman Empire for concessions to construct a railway to Baghdad. Willcocks arrived in the region shortly after the Germans received the concession and the well-developed British plans had fallen through. Willcocks was certainly aware of the significance of the sought-after railways. It is because the railway was advancing steadily from the West, he wrote, that the increase in the agricultural wealth of the region had become more important than ever. The railway would also decrease the burden of ship traffic on the Euphrates and the Tigris and ensure that they were exploited for irrigation purposes only. Willcocks argued that his technical consideration of the irrigation potential of the region was sufficient evidence for the companies involved in the railway construction to conduct hydraulic surveys:
As always, I turn to Egypt for an example. In Egypt the railways and canals are designed together; the canals preceding the railways and settling their locations. If such a course be followed in Chaldea, the railways will aid the prosperity of the canals, and the canals of the railways; the canals will be able to devote themselves entirely to the development of agricultural wealth, and the railway will transport the agricultural produce by the cheapest and most favorable route. (p.198)
What is fascinating about this is that just earlier this afternoon I was reading an article from 1913 in the American Review of Reviews that was arguing for the importance of railways. In fact the article’s title is “Are Railroads Neutralizing Sea Power?” The article has a few examples, but the striking one is this:
When the Deutsche Bank, with a concession from the Turkish government, opened the first section of the Bagdad Railway, from Constantinople to Sabandja in Asia Minor, it was well understood that this was only the first link in a great trunk line to the Persian Gulf, with branches toward the Caucasus and the northwest frontier of Persia; to Alexandretta on the Eastern Mediterranean; to the holy cities of Islam, Medina and Mecca, with a terminal on the Red Sea at Jiddah; and into south western Persia from Bagdad. A glance at the map will show that troops coming from any part of continental Europe could be thrown into any part of Asiatic Turkey and Persia right up to the Russian Caucasus and Trans-Caspian frontiers, the border of Afghanistan and the western boundary of British India, whenever the supplementary fines were constructed, without at any point coming under the guns of British or other warships.
The Bagdad Railway was intended to be the main line of a military system of interior lines against exterior sea-power. The German government, which is behind the Bagdad Railway enterprise, selected Koweit on the Persian Gulf as the sea terminal, but the British government intervened and took the Sheik of Koweit, which is an integral part of Turkish Arabia, under its “protection.” Great Britain then claimed the right to joint participation with Germany in the construction and administration of the Bagdad-Koweit section. But the Germans and the Turkish government arranged for its construction by a purely Ottoman syndicate. There the matter stands at present, the construction of the main line through Mesopotamia being pushed as rapidly as possible. (p. 607)
The British engineer mentions the economic uses of the canal/rail system, while the American journal sees it as a grand strategic technology.