The Multivalence of Infrastructures II – Rail

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.

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The Multivalence of Infrastructure I – Roads

As always Paul Rabinow’s French Modern is an extraordinary reminder of how transport infrastructures serve functions at once military and commercial – and in fact “war, commerce, and transit” (in Paul Nizan’s memorable phrase) cannot be prised apart. Here is Rabinow about Gallieni’s pacification of Indochina:

There were only the most casual asides about more standard ethnographic realities-such as that the Mans didn’t like villages-Gallieni’s interest was infrastructural and instrumental. In village after village, he covetously and proudly noted every new bridge and road built; the French were spinning a growing spider’s web of installations-and Gallieni was the spider.

Roads were the key; without them there could be no movement of troops, no commerce, and ultimately no society. Gallieni was adamant that posts be constructed in durable materials, to demonstrate that the French intended to remain permanently. He ordered a masonry blockhouse built on a high outcropping overlooking the Chinese border. The post served a triple function: to observe both sides of the border, to provide solid military security, and to function as a representation of France’s enduring presence. All of these measures fell within a coherent if rather limited conception of conquest, human motivation, and social organization. Describing a meeting with one of the pirate-rebel leaders, Gallieni argued that signing a peace treaty was in everyone’s self-interest, as it was good for commerce. Although Gallieni basically distrusted the “feudal” warlords, he was pleasantly surprised to meet a Chinese warlord with whom he could drink (mediocre) champagne and discuss the need for peace and markets. (p. 148)

Definitely useful to remember that the roads were military conduits were commercial routes.  Those functions were never separable because the separation of economic and coercive force is just an abstract heuristic we impose today on imperial infrastructures.

I have written a little bit about the function of these roads in counterinsurgency as well – in an article which unfortunately is behind a paywall.

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Logistic Routes and the Détente

Reading an interesting article on the alignment of USSE with Siad Barré’s regime in Somalia from 1969 onwards and it has some interesting tidbits having to do with military logistics and transport.  The article by Gary Payton is standard Cold War era analysis, but this bit was of interest to me:

Throughout the I960s, three major logistic routes existed for trans- porting weaponry from the industrial centres in the western U.S.S.R. to South-East Asia. By the first route, arms loaded in ports of the Black Sea transited the Suez Canal, travelled through the Strait of Bab el Mandeb, across the Indian Ocean, and finally arrived at the ports of Sihanoukville, Cambodia, or Haiphong. With the closure of the Suez Canal in June 1967, merchant vessels were forced to steam around the African continent before entering the waters of the Indian Ocean. On the second route, weapons departed from the Siberian port complex of Vladivostok and Nakhodka and were transported south through the China Sea to the awaiting Communist armies. Finally, Vietnam-bound war material travelled along the Trans-Siberian Railway and was routed across China’s Xinjang (Sinkiang) Province for entry into the North Vietnamese rail and road system. Thus, any actions taken by the United States or China to impede the arms flow, directly challenged the Soviet strategy of entrapping the U.S. in Vietnam and forcing China to take a more conciliatory approach towards Sino-Soviet relations. (p. 496).

What I find interesting about this is that Nixon’s visit to China and the Détente could have been as much about cutting off supply lines to Vietnam as it was about China’s role itself in Vietnam.

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Labour and Capital

From Walter Rodney’s wonderful How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, this passage on the making of infrastructures in Africa:

The combination of being oppressed, being exploited, and being disregarded is best illustrated by the pattern of the economic infrastructure of African colonies : notably, their roads and railways. These had a clear geographical distribution according to the extent to which particular regions needed to be opened up to import-export activities. Where exports were not available, roads and railways had no place. The only slight exception is that certain roads and railways were built to move troops and make conquest and oppression easier. Means of communication were not constructed in the colonial period so that Africans could visit their friends. More important still, they were not laid down to facilitate internal trade in African commodities. There were no roads connecting different colonies and different parts of the same colony in a manner that made sense with regard to Africa’s needs and development. All roads and railways led down to the sea. They were built to extract gold or manganese or coffee or cotton. They were built to make business possible for the timber companies, trading companies, and agricultural concession firms, and for white settlers. Any catering to African interests was purely coincidental. Yet in Africa, labor, rather than capital, took the lion’s share in getting things done. With the minimum investment of capital, the colonial powers could mobilize thousands upon thousands of workers . Salaries were paid to the police officers and officials, and labor came into existence because of the colonial laws, the threat of force, and the use of force. Take, for instance, the building of railways. In Europe and America, railway building required huge inputs of capital. Great wage bills were incurred during construction, and added bonus payments were made to workers to get the job done as quickly as possible. In most parts of Africa, the Europeans who wanted to see a railroad built offered lashes as the ordinary wage and more lashes for extra effort.

Reference was earlier made to the great cost in African life of the ( French ) Congo railroad from Brazzaville to Pointe-Noire. Most of the intolerable conditions arc explained by the non-availability of capital in the form of equipment. Therefore, sheer manpower had to take the place of earth-moving machinery, cranes, and so on. A comparable situation was provided by the construction of the Embakasi airport of Nairobi. Because it was built during the colonial era (starting in 1 953) and with United States loans, it is customary to credit the imperialists for its existence. But it would be much more accurate to say that the people of Kenya built it with their own hands under European supervision. Embakasi, which initially covered seven square miles and had four runways, was described as “the world’s first handmade international airport.” Mau Mau suspects numbering several thousand were to be found there “laboring under armed guard at a million-ton excavation job, filling in craters, laying a half million tons of stone with nothing but shovels, stone hammers and their bare hands.” (p. 209)

And after decolonisation:

The high proportion of the “development” funds went into the colonies in the form of loans for ports, railways , electric power plants, water works , engineering works.hops, warehouses , which were necessary for more efficient exploitation in the long run. In the short run, such construction works provided outlets for European steel, concrete, electrical machinery, and railroad rolling stock. One-fifth of FIDES funds were spent on prestigious public works in Dakar, which suited French industry and employed large numbers of expatriates. Even the schools built under FIDES funds were of unnecessary high cost per unit, because they had to be of the requisite standard to provide job outlets for white expatriates . Incidentally, loans were “tied” in such a way that the money had to be spent on buying materials manufactured in the relevant metropole. The “development” funds were raised on the European money market by the governments concerned, and in effect the national metropolitan governments were providing their own bankers and financiers with guaranteed profitable outlets for their capital. In 1 956, the French government started a scheme which was a blatant form of promoting their own private capitalists while paying lip service to African development and welfare. The scheme involved the creation of an institution called SDOM (Financial Societies for the Development of Overseas Territories ). SDOM was nothing but an association of private capitalists interested primarily in the oil of North Africa, and having large government subventions to achieve their goals.  (pp. 214-215)


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Malta-Dubai; 27 August 2016 – Day 18, Arrival



@Jabal Ali at Dawn.JPG




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Malta-Dubai; 26 August 2016 – Day 17, Steaming towards Hormuz

26 August

09.25 (GMT +4)

Steaming towards Hormuz Straits

The only thing that lightened the monotony yesterday was the alarm at around 10 last night. And the ridiculous conversations between the Iranian ship’s captains on channel 16 (which is supposed to be reserved for emergencies).


22.00 (GMT +4)

The air outside is at last bearable. Just warm, not furnace hot. It was at some stage 41 degrees outside and the water temperature was 33 degrees!

The port-side horizon is red with light pollution and the lights of Ras al Khayma and Sharjah twinkle in the distance as we make our way towards the pilot station of Jabal Ali, where we are to be met at 23.00. I have stayed up as we are apparently going to steam through the harbour to the back of Jabal Ali (a different terminal than before) which is very exciting. The captain said something about a private berth, but I am not sure what that means.


The Milky Way is glorious, once your eyes get used to the dark. The Indian Ocean was too grey and overcast and hazy for a nighttime perusal of the sky, and before that, I was too ensconced in my routines of going to sleep at 9 to actually think about going out there to look at the sky.


Strange how much more jaded I am this time around. I have just looked at my notes from last year and Corte Real and I was so much more attentive to all the details. I suppose my writing time this trip was spent on love-emails and book proposals, so a slightly different experience.

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Malta-Dubai; 24-25 August 2016 – Day 15-16, The Indian Ocean

24 August

09.15 (GMT+4)

Steaming in the Indian Ocean

The “rough seas” promised by the weather bulletin appeared somewhere close to 21.00 last night. It really wasn’t all that rough in any case and the rolling was more like being in a hammock. Strangely the vibrations and the rolling bring on dreams and I dream of things so intensely.

It is southwest monsoon and there is a tropical depression to the east of us. The wind is blowing from our stern and the waves are 2-3 metres high. But the ship seems quite steady as it goes.


18.55 (GMT+4)

One of the things that I have noticed on this trip is that the seafarers all have access to internet now on their phones. I think they pay something for this, but now, can have instantaneous contact via their mobile and laptops which is different than what I remember from Corte Real (where I think their emails were sent home once a day via a satellite link). I wonder if this access to mobile phone is why the Filipino crew seem not o do karaoke parties anymore.

25 August

11.15 (GMT +4)

Steaming past Masirah Islands towards Ras al-Hadd

Sunny outside and the sea still covered with white horses, but the ship not rolling as much as before. It is still hazy outside, but not grey and the visibility further than yesterday.

Utter monotony as we steam towards Ras al-Hadd, and Hormuz Strait (where we will arrive, I think, tomorrow at 7).

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