Edges of Empire

KNW 2399: Edges of Empire

An Examination of Colonial Worksites


Building railroads in India was a massive project undertaken by the British and performed mostly by Indian workers. Wide paths needed to be cut out of hills and areas of uneven terrain, a dangerous and difficult task. Indian workers, both men and women, are pictured carrying large stones on their heads out of the ravine to make way for the railroad. Rather than using advanced tools or machinery to clear the way, the British utilized large numbers of cheap Indian laborers. There is one worker carrying a cubical box, perhaps containing an explosive to widen the ravine. However, it looks like most of the work is done through shoveling and carrying away dirt and rocks by hand. There seems to be little regard for the Indian workers’ safety as many workers are seen perched perilously on the left edge of the ravine. These workers are widening the ravine from the top down and are shoveling away dirt and rocks with other workers almost directly below them. Some flimsy looking supports have been put in place to stop the right side of the ravine from collapsing. There seems to be a lack of proper management and organization of the workers as we can see ladders lying around unused and blocking the area around the dirt pile.

Clearing out this path for the railroad has clearly taken a long time. The left side of the photograph shows two huts constructed for the workers to live and sleep in. There is a well-worn path leading up to these huts from the bottom of the ravine. At the top of the ravine there are men looking down at the workers below, perhaps Indian workers on break or British overseers trying to manage the mass of workers. In the center background of the photo there appears to be another building of a different shape that is likely where the British are staying. The terrain looks dry, rocky, and barren and would be difficult to pave a path through. The lack of many lush trees and the presence of rocky terrain indicates this region’s climate is probably quite hot, dry, and taxing on the workers’ stamina. The British do not seem worried as much about the safety of the Indian workers as they do about the potential profits to be gained from completing the railroad as quickly as possible.

The next photograph, taken in the Coahuila mining region, depicts an ore sorting facility. The Mexican workers seem to be dividing the rocks into different piles based on the rock type. One worker is seen carrying a large bag of ore on his back to a trolley cart. Everyone is wearing a hat in the photo, which tells us that the weather is likely very sunny and hot. The Mexican workers are also mostly wearing lighter colored clothing to ward off heat from the sun. All the workers appear to have shoes and fair clothing so they are likely paid a decent wage for their work. The many piles of rocks indicate that there is still much work for the Mexican laborers to do. On the right a white man, who is dressed as a worker, watches two Mexicans shovel rocks into a wheelbarrow, but doesn’t pitch in to help. Two men in the background, likely the managers or accountants of the mining facility, are pictured conversing and writing on a notepad. They are likely recording the inventory of ore as it is bagged. These two men are dressed in distinctly finer clothing than the others and wear different styled hats; they are certainly not laborers.

The building itself is reflective of typical Mexican architecture with flat roofs, and open windows and doorways to let out the heat. However, the decorated archway in the center of the picture seems to lean more towards the elegance of Spanish architecture, telling us that the cultures have blended together rather than dominated each other here. Behind this archway there are many bags of ore piled up, likely waiting to be transported and sold elsewhere. Although the Mexicans seem to be doing most of the work in this picture, they are not as well dressed as the white men and are likely being paid considerably less. The company is probably not on a super tight schedule, unless some of the workers are taking a break, because many of the men seem to be standing around rather than working. The photograph leaves us to question what type of ore is being bagged.




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