During the period known as the “Scramble for Africa,” in which rival European powers colonized much of Africa during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the idea of a north-south, continent-spanning railroad took shape among British journalists and business elites. A completed railway line would have spanned over ten thousand kilometers from Cape Town, South Africa to Cairo, Egypt. From the idea’s inception, however, the “Cape to Cairo railway” was envisioned, and partially built, not as a transportation link to serve African people and their interests, but as a monumental infrastructure project serving British colonial interests in accelerating resource extraction, commerce, and imperial expansion.
The “Daily Mail” Commercial Map of Africa: the Cape-Town to Cairo route is a clear document of Africa’s transportation and political geography at the turn of the 20th century from a European perspective. This 1898 map, published in the popular Daily Mail newspaper in London, outlines not only the geography of the planned railway route, but also the state of colonial possessions across the continent and the interest of the colonizing powers in exploiting Africa’s natural resources.
The Daily Telegraph editor Edwin Arnold is generally credited with first proposing the idea for the Cape to Cairo railroad in 1874, but in the decades to follow, the project would become most associated with controversial British businessman and politician in southern Africa Cecil Rhodes. By the 1880s, Rhodes had become extremely wealthy by dominating the diamond mining industry in the British Cape Colony in present-day South Africa. In 1889, Rhodes led the British South Africa Company, a chartered company which moved to economically and militarily control areas to the north (present-day Zimbabwe and Zambia) for British interests. This region, and subsequent political entities, became known as “Rhodesia,” named after Rhodes. Rhodes became Prime Minister of the Cape Colony from 1890 to 1896, and died in 1902. Throughout his adult life, Rhodes strongly supported a growing British Empire, including continuous British possessions across Africa. Rhodes devoted much of his vast economic resources and political power towards planning and building the Cape to Cairo railway project that would link the growing empire.
Returning to the Daily Mail map, we can see where this ambitious project stood in 1898, beginning in southern Africa. A railroad was complete between Cape Town and Bulawayo, connecting the Cape Colony to Rhodesia and skirting the Boer Republics of the Orange Free State and the South African Republic. This map was published in between the First and Second Boer Wars, after which these regions became part of the British Empire. East of Bulawayo, we can see an in-progress railway segment to the major port city of Beira in Portuguese East Africa, or present-day Mozambique.
Interestingly, the map also shows railroad construction due north from Bulawayo, but the main route actually travels northwest, famously crossing Victoria Falls on what was the highest railway bridge in the world at the time of its 1904-1905 construction. An unofficial pencil marking of unknown origin and date on our copy of the map shows this change of course.
Towards central Africa, political and geographic obstacles to future building along the proposed route are evident. The map indicates “dense forests with abundant rainfall” in this region, illustrating just one of the many challenging natural environments through which the railroad was slated to traverse. Politically, continuous British control was interrupted by possessions of its colonial rivals: the Congo Free State (under Belgian control) and German East Africa, spanning present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo and Tanzania, respectively.
Further north, the proposed railway route passes through British-held Uganda and British East Africa (generally present-day Kenya), on to Khartoum and finally Cairo. At this time, the British military controlled Egypt, but to the south, in present-day Sudan, they were fighting the Mahdist War, a brutal conflict with the Mahdist State for control of the region. In 2020 for Worlds Revealed, Mike Klein wrote extensively on the colonial contestations happening in this region at this time.
Taken as a whole, a striking detail throughout the map are text labels (in red) for natural resources specific to those areas, from cotton and date palm in Egypt, to ivory in German East Africa and Rhodesia, to diamonds, gold, and even ostrich in southern Africa. While the map’s stated purpose is documenting “commercial” activities, these labels speak to the overarching motivations of resource extraction embedded in the colonial expansions during the “Scramble for Africa,” a process a colonizer-sponsored railway would support.
Rhodes’s imperial, colonial-era vision for the Cape to Cairo railway, while outliving Rhodes himself, would not be realized in the 20th century. World War 1, followed by the Great Depression, had devastated the European powers. Despite the transfer of German East Africa to British control (among other nations), thereby creating a continuous north-south zone of British possessions in Africa, the tumult of Europe closed the opportunities for organizing and funding the massive infrastructure project. World War 2 and the following decolonization of Africa further relegated the project as originally conceived, as well as its original imperialist motivations, to history.