Edges of Empire

KNW 2399: Edges of Empire

Industrializing Trade Routes


The development of photography has maintained its strong impact on culture well through today. Just as we often “filter” our pictures today to show our world and/or points of view, so too did peoples back when photography was initially developed. Today, our technology and access to historical photography allows us to transcend time and learn evermore with visual analysis. The photographs below depict vivid historical picture documentation of the immense railroad (construction) projects in India and the Americas. Through the photographs we will delve into a key economic component of the world hundreds of years ago, the transportation of and access to goods and resources.


Above is the 1890 picture Bengal-Nagpur Railway Construction by Townshend, J.C. It depicts the massive undertaking of terraforming the Indian subcontinent’s landscape by the British to fit their needs, in this case for the Nagpur Railway. In it you can hardly make out the three millimeters tall figures in the middle that give scale to this project.  In the foreground you see the deforestation of the woods you see in the background. The focus of the picture is on the bend in the rail line, showing the incredible amount of construction required. It makes you think about attitude the British had for the wildlife and natural landscape of India. The enormity of this project only hints to the perils faced by the laborers while avoiding depicting the horrendous treatment and living conditions captured in other photographs. It shows how the British would move heaven and earth for the sake of economic gains and “civilizing” other cultures. Like most rail lines in India, the primary use was for hastening transportation of goods and resources, with a minor focus on moving the peoples. Also, like nearly all railways, it was likely financed by investors in Britain, who were able to bear great returns on this kind of investment since it was build with cheap-to-free labor, subsidized by the British Empire, and in the heart of the cotton empire.


This is a photograph of the Acueducto de Queretaro F.C. Central, also known as the Central Railroad Aqueduct at Queretaro, taken in 1875-99 (Creator Unknown). It depicts a railroad line passing though an aqueduct system reminiscent of European architecture. The desert environment of Queretaro is captured by the arid looking soil in the foreground and sparsely vegetated rolling hill in the back ground. The juxtaposition of the water above and rail below beautifully illustrate several essential elements for the new Mexican government; natural necessities (water), economic gains (the railroad), and technological innovations (the electrical power lines). The aqueduct spans diagonally across the picture, showing its grandeur and massiveness while the railroad intersects it in an X formation. This makes the railroad appear to be endless in both directions. As was the case for many railways, this was multifunctional.  It served as an economic tool to increase access to and transportation of goods, recourse, and people. The scale of the project is not as dramatically portrayed as other photographs, instead this one makes a certain type of elegance and ease in its grandeur. Unlike many other photographs, there are no laborers in this because this line is complete. We therefore are unable to see the conditions born from this project; however, we can assume it resembled the trends of other contemporary railway projects.

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.

Skip to toolbar