Along with steamships, the telegraph, advances in military hardware, and improvements in tropical medicine, railways were critical vehicles for the advancement of European empires, both formal and informal. From their initial development in Great Britain and the United States in the early part of the nineteenth century, railways became the key element of modern industrial infrastructure. They served to tie new areas of the world into the developing global marketplace of the nineteenth century, represented the power of the European imperial state, and often times became the focus of or intensified rivalries of the European powers themselves for influence or control of the non-European world.
   As early as 1830, a British parliamentary committee had authorized an expedition under the command of Colonel Francis Chesney to explore the possibility of establishing a combined railway-steamer route from Ottoman Syria through the Euphrates Valley for the purposes of improving communication with India. As events proved, this expedition was ahead of its time; however, the notion of railway development through the ancient routes of the Fertile Crescent remained alive. In 1888, Sultan Abdulhamid II of the Ottoman Empire began granting concessions to a German-backed consortium for a rail line that would link Constantinople to the Persian Gulf. Capital shortfalls and international tensions, particularly with the British and French who both viewed German railway construction in the Ottoman Empire with suspicion, long delayed this project, which became known as the Berlin-Baghdad line. On the eve of World War I, significant stretches of the line in what are modern-day Syria and Iraq were not completed, and it was only after the war, when the Ottoman Empire had ceased to exist and Germany’s imperial pretensions were at a nadir, that the line was completed.
   In colonies of white settlement, support for railways was often highly desired because it helped get the crops of colonial subjects to market quicker. British financial support was often critical in the development of these lines. In the case of Canada, financial support for the Canadian Pacific Railway was used as a lever to encourage Canadian federation as a means of binding what were otherwise ethnically diverse provinces together. The Canadian Pacific line helped cement the union between Quebec and Ontario on the one hand and the prairie provinces and British Columbia on the other. This example is one of the most clear-cut cases of economics rationale and strategic imperative - the British government encouraged the federation of Canada in no small part so that the territories would not be swallowed up by the United States - combining together in the construction of an imperial rail line.
   The expansion of Russian military railways into Central Asia in the 1880s was essential to the conquest of the khanates of Bukhara, Khiva, Samarkand, and Merv. British concern over Russian expansion into Central Asia, particularly regarding the security of India, helped spur the Great Game, a struggle for influence that would eventually stretch from Istanbul to Tibet. The British responded in part to this threat from Russian railway imperialism by extending their own strategic rail system up into the Northwest frontier, including a line to Quetta in modern Pakistan. The ambitious project for a Trans-Siberian Railway, begun under the direction of the Russian Minister of Finance Sergei Witte in 1891, also served to tie Russia’s semi-colonial holdings in Siberia and the Far East closer to Russia.
   Railway development came late to the Qing empire, where conservative bureaucrats and members of the Manchu dynasty long resisted the intrusiveness of the railroad and feared - perhaps rightfully so - the degree of influence it would give European powers in their empire. After China ’s defeat by the Japanese in the Sino-Japanese War, the Russians took advantage of Chinese weakness to secure a concession for the extension of their own Trans-Siberian across Chinese Manchuria. This line, known as the Chinese Eastern Railway, considerably shortened Russian access to Vladivostok, their warm-water port on the Pacific. After the “Scramble for Concessions” in China in 1898, a spur line was added to Port Arthur. The Chinese Eastern Railway was an important focus of the imperial rivalries of Russia and Japan in East Asia. Only after the Qing court belatedly and disastrously threw its lot in with the Boxer Insurrection in 1900 did it turn its attention to granting lucrative railway concessions to foreign consortiums. This was seen as a method of securing funds to help pay off the large indemnity that China was forced to pay after the Boxer Insurrection. European railway development in China and belated Qing attempts to assert centralized control over them, however, were responsible for a huge groundswell of Chinese indignation at these foreign intrusions. Resistance, often focused on the provincial level, lead to widespread “railway recovery” movements. These played an important role in the rebellions of 1911 that toppled the Qing government.
   In Africa, too, European imperialism was often abetted by railway development. In many cases the gunboat and quinine were more fundamental to successful European penetration of the continental interior, but railways, too, played their role. Rival Anglo-French visions for empire in Africa - often more the product of imperial adventurers on the spot than home governments themselves - resulted in the race to Fashoda in 1898. The French were looking to build an empire in North Africa that would be bound by a trans-continental railway stretching from west to east. The British moved to Fashoda to block French access to the headwaters of the Nile, but subimperialists like Cecil Rhodes dreamed of a British-controlled line stretching from the Cape to Cairo. Although Rhodes’s vision remain unrealized, more modest lines such as the Kenya-Uganda Railroad opened East Africa to commerce and began the process of white settlement in the temperate highlands of Kenya.
   Railway development was also critical to the opening up of the Americas. British capital was heavily involved in financing railway development in the United States and Latin America. The invention of refrigerator cars allowed the Argentinian Pampas to become a key supplier of beef for the British world, and helped tie that country into the global economy. Although railway imperialism, the extension of European influence, and sometimes control through the construction of railway lines certainly did exist, it is a complicated and amorphous enough subject that it deserves to be studied specifically case by case. Often railways could serve as means of resistance for indigenous people as they did for the assertion of European control. Considerable work remains to be done studying the complex dynamic of dominance and resistance and the role played by elements of technology, especially railways, in this process.
   See also <>; <>.
    Adas, Michael. Machines as the Measures of Men: Science, Technology, and Ideologies of Western Dominance. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989;
    Davis, Clarence B., and Kenneth E. Wilburn, Jr., eds. Railway Imperialism. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1991;
    Huenemann, Ralph. The Dragon and the Iron Horse: The Economics of Railroads in China, 1876–1937 . Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984;
    Karkar, Yaqub. Railway Development in the Ottoman Empire. New York: Vantage Press, 1972;
    Kerr, Ian J. Building the Railways of the Raj, 1850–1900. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995;
    Marks, Steven G. Road to Power: The Trans-Siberian Railroad and the Colonization of Asian Russia 1850–1917. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991;
    McMurray, Jonathan S. Distant Ties: Germany, the Ottoman Empire, and the Construction of the Baghdad Railway. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2001;
    Showalter, Denis. Railroads and Rifles: Soldiers, Technology, and the Unification of Germany. Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1975.

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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