Edges of Empire 2399
Railroads of Change in Mexico and India
Through the second half of the nineteenth century to the early twentieth century, railway construction in Mexico and India was pivotal in connecting different regions across the countries, and in the subsequent popular movements against the status quo in government and social classes. The creation of railway networks in India helped link a previously fragmented, divided country together, allowing ideas of nationalism and independence to ferment. In Mexico, the railroads indirectly and unintentionally helped fund and foster support for the rebellion beginning in 1910. In both countries, the railroads were closely tied to the legacies of colonialism, with London being the primary driving force behind construction in India, while American, French, and British foreign investments provided the bulk of financing to Mexican railways, giving foreign powers disproportionate control in domestic infrastructure. Just as these European powers controlled large swaths of the railroad industry, they also controlled much of the archival records this period. Photographs, once analyzed correctly, help to give us a much different perspective on the very same events that written, European and American documents cover with their perspective.
Roughly halfway through the 19th century, Britain still held a firm grasp on the “jewel in the crown” of her Empire. London was determined to use the relatively new technology of railroads to further exploit the economic resources of India. In India, in 1853, there was not a kilometer of railroad laid, yet, by 1929, there was over 66,000 kilometers of railway serving most major cities and provinces in the country (see Figures 1 and 2 below)(Sandes, p.74).
Previous to the construction of railways, transportation infrastructure was incredibly poor in India. Roads were few and poorly maintained, and many were completely unusable during monsoon season. This meant international imports were limited primarily to coastal urban centers, with very few goods making it very farinland due to logistical issues (Hurd II, p.263). Thus, merchants in London began to see the construction of a comprehensive rail network as a potentially high-profit venture by increasing manufactured goods’ penetration into Indian markets, while also allowing raw resources like cotton to be more easily shipped out of the subcontinent. This idea took hold, and, by 1875, British companies had invested roughly £95 million (£117 billion today) into Indian railways (Rungta, p. 214). Further adding to colonial control of the new mode of transport, of the ten initial directors of Great Indian Peninsula Railway, the first national railroad enterprise whose first contract was with the British East India Company, only two were Indian (Sutton, p.27).
The laborers, as one would expect, were completely Indian, with the occasional British engineer overseeing sites, shown by Figure 3. This photo also helps the reader fully understand the magnitude of the project to bring a national network of railroads to India. In this small microcosm, one can see the incredible amount of earthmoving and forest clearing that had to be completed before the first rail could be laid, all without modern machinery. Of course, this hard, manual labor was a solely Indian duty – further demonstrating the colonial subjugation the British exercised in the subcontinent. Below, in Figure 4, one can see an Indian labor camp, set up to hasten the construction of the railways. There are Indian women, children, and young men all clad in varying degrees of simple cotton clothing,
indicating they’re all laborers or support staff. Yet, one cannot see a single British worker or engineer present. The huts in the background are small, and crudely built, further indicating the level of squalor that inevitably existed in such camps. Even further in the background, one can see further evidence of the massive deforestation that had to be carried out for this rail project to function.
Figure 4, on the left, helps further illustrate the destitution and harsh labor conditions many Indians were forced to work with. On the hill in the background, one can see hastily constructed huts and cabins for the workers, seemingly made only out of a few wood logs with thatched roofs. In the foreground, one can see the workers literally carving out huge canyons on earth, one small bucket at a time. There is no evidence of any sort of modern machinery or tools. Not even steam-powered shovels and tractors, which had become commonplace in much of the industrialized West at the time, are being utilized. The photographer seems to be trying to represent the backbreaking, menial nature of the work, and one can clearly see the stark effects of colonialism in the scene. No British hands are helping move the earth, nor are there adequate auxiliary support staff or facilities for the hundreds of Indian laborers. Trying duties, whether it is military boot camp, or backbreaking manual labor for a railroad, help bring people together, and many Indian nationals, who had few if any interactions with those outside their rural villages, are suddenly living and working alongside one another. This created an opportune environment for a sense of unity and national identity to rise up from the dirt and sweat of these laborers.
It is interesting to note, though, how the photographer consciously chose not to show any British figures in either photograph. The photographer, who in all likelihood was European himself, was aware how a photograph with hundreds of native laborers toiling away under the watchful eye of neatly dressed colonialists would look to many, both inside and outside of India, and purposely left out the ruling figures. This fit with the larger narrative of British command in India at the time, who wanted the appearance of a railroad for India, not for Britain’s exploitive purposes.
Railroads in India were not solely an economic venture. As previously mentioned, there was little nation-wide infrastructure in terms of transportation. The vast majority of the country existed in a state of disconnectedness, with culture, language, and degree of government control varying greatly province to province. With the construction of a rail network in the country, remote villages previously disconnected with any larger, national identity now could quickly and reliably engage in discourse with other regions of India. This increased unity, helped to foster feelings of national identity, and, consequently, nationalism and its inherent conflict with the British Raj. The increased level and permeation of trade further made Indians aware of their economic inequality and exploitation by the British rulers. This knowledge, combined with the increased level of communication and sense of national identity by many Indians, created an environment ripe for nationalism and discontent with the status quo to fester, coming to a head decades later with Gandhi’s and others’ nationalist movements.
In Mexico, the first signs of a national railroad began with the French invasion of the country in 1861. Previous to this, Mexico has undergone a succession of 49 administrations ruled during the 34-year period ending in 1857, creating an environment of uncertainty that scared off any potential foreign investors in railroads. The French invasion, led by Napoleon III, was carried out with the implicit support of other European powers, further demonstrating the legacies of colonial rule over former colonies. Napoleon III installed Maximilian I of Mexico to rule, and one of his first actions was the attempted construction of a railroad between Veracruz, on the Gulf, and Mexico City, the capital and most important city in the country. This segment of rail would have allowed European trade and military forces to rapidly disembark from trans-Atlantic voyages and reach the political and economic capital of Mexico. However, the planned railroad went bankrupt before the first train ever ran.
With the exception of small, isolated projects between Veracruz and Mexico City, railway production stalled in Mexico until José de la Cruz Porfirio Díaz Mori, the President/dictator of Mexico from 1876-1911, came to power. Díaz was a staunch industrialist, with many of his policies prioritizing foreign investment, domestic stability, and economic growth and modernization over political transparency, social welfare, and economic equality (Skidmore, p.57). He voraciously pursued the strengthening of a powerful central government, as opposed to a federal system of semi-independent Mexican states that many of his political rivals favored. His consolidation of power through a strong central government was the primary fuel feeding the flames of discontent that finally came to a head in 1910 with the beginning of the Mexican Revolution.
When Porfirio Díaz entered office, Mexico possessed only about four hundred miles of railway, and, by the time he was forced from office in 1911, there were more than fifteen thousand miles (Meyer, p. 245). Railways, in his mind, were the lynchpin in his wider plan to modernize Mexico and bring to it a level of economic success that would rival even the European powers of the time. To help finance the construction of a vast expansion of railroads, Díaz enlisted the help of foreign investment from European powers like Great Britain, France, and the US. As the rail network was rapidly constructed, economic growth in industries like textiles and mining flourished, a direct result of the new infrastructure in place, connecting most major provinces and cities in Mexico (Coatsworth, p.398). Díaz’s plan for modernization and industrial economic growth was a success, with Crow stating, “It was the golden age of Mexican economics, 3.2 dollars per peso. Mexico was compared economically to economic powers of the time such as France, Great Britain, and Germany.” (Crow, p.203). However, this economic achievement came at a price.
Just as in India, railroads in Mexico did not only bring about an economic departure from the status quo. As the physical tracks of the railroad were being laid, so too were the metaphorical tracks of communication across the country. There was growing discontent with the tyrannical, repressive central government led by Díaz, and railroads provided a new avenue of discourse for revolutionaries, separated by distance, to organize and collaborate against the national government. This discontent, combined with the influx of foreign investment and workers, did not sit well with many Mexicans, who saw it as yet another inexcusable infraction purported by the dictator Díaz. Railroads allowed for the creation of far-flung economic and political centers, which, due to their location, were very difficult for a central government to maintain full control of. A comprehensive rail network, it seemed, was indeed having the intended consequences of unparalleled economic growth, yet the construction also carried with it the unintended benefits for anti-Díaz, federalist rebels. For example, Díaz’s nemesis, the revolutionary Francisco Madero, was famous for campaigning, nationwide, from the back of Díaz’s beloved iron horses. Not only did the railroads help with the communication of potential revolutionaries, but also helped directly finance the rebels. Pancho Villa, the famous revolutionary general and leader of the “social banditry” movement, repeatedly robbed and commandeered government trains to help finance the revolutionaries (Scalise, p.1).
In Figure 5 to the left, one can see a newly constructed Mexican train station, clearly showing how isolated and vulnerable these outposts are that, to many rebels, represented the overstepping of power by the central government. There is no foliage to speak of, nor other auxiliary buildings around. As geographically expansive as Mexico was, these small outposts stood little chance against raids and robberies from bandits like Pancho Villa and others, and there was little Díaz’s government could do about it. The photographer chose to frame the few small, low buildings with the expansive, untouched mountain range in the background, further emphasizing the isolation of the station. There are a few men standing around on the platform, as well as what appears to be telegraph poles, another sign of Díaz’s industrialization, the only other linkage to civilization in sight.
In addition to the increase in collaboration, and the financing opportunity robbing trains provided to rebels, the railways also helped foster widespread support for the rebels cause ideologically. Suddenly, with the new economic growth, many rural Mexicans were, for the first time, seeing the results of economic success. Trains represented an elite, exclusive mode of transportation that few could imagine just a couple of decades ago. Now, the window was opening for a more equitable society – and the rebels’ messages of social welfare and a federal government chimed with this vision.
For example, in Figure 6 to the right, there is a photograph of a Mexican railroad traversing a gorge of some sort. Previous to this, most Mexicans, especially those is formerly isolated regions in the country, had never seen such a behemoth example of modern industrial and technological achievement. A bridge like this helped illustrate and represent the rapidly changing economic fate of the country. The bridge also helped show the swift industrialization of the nation. There stands a towering steel structure, upon which which loud, metal horses barrel down, cutting through an otherwise pristine, untouched environment. This rapid industrialization stood out against the previously primarily agricultural economy of Mexico, just as starkly as the bridge stands out from the forest in the background. With such achievements like this, many now felt newfound hope for the new working class. This demographic was incredibly valuable to Pancho Villa and other revolutionaries; the revolutionaries found widespread support among Mexico’s newly created working class, made up of millworkers, miners, railroad workers, and other industrial sector employees. All in all, the creation and existence of a national rail network was imperative to the eventual success of the Mexican revolutionaries in 1920.
Railways proved to be one of the most important infrastructural developments in both countries. On the surface, they helped spur former European colonies into the industrial era, helping them compete economically on the global market. However, the influence of railways does not end there. It provided a stable, reliable foundation for the emergence of nationalism in India, and was a crucial factor in the success of the Mexican Rebellion from 1910-1920, both in terms of resources and popular support. Ironically, it was the incumbent ruling powers that helped initially fund and construct the very railroads that led to their respective downfalls in both countries.
 Lt Col E.W.C. Sandes, “The Military Engineer in India,” Chatham: The Institution of Royal Engineers Vol. II (1935): 74.
 John Hurd II, “Railways and the Expansion of Markets in India 1861-1921,” Explorations in Economic History, Vol. 12 (1975): 263-288.
 Radhe Shyam Rungta, The Rise of Business Corporations in India, 1851-1900, (Cambridge University Press, December, 2007) 214.
 Ann Sutton, Indian Railways, (Emereo Publishers, November, 2014) 27-28.
 Thomas Skidmore, Peter H. Smith, Modern Latin America, (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1989) 57.
 Michael C. Meyer, William L. Sherman & Susan M. Deeds, The Course of Mexican History, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003) 425.
 John H. Coatsworth, Growth Against Development: The Economic Impact of Railroads in Porfirian Mexico, (Northern Illinois University Press, 1981) 397.
 John A. Crow, The Epic of Latin America, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1992) 203.
 Kathleen Scalise, “Surprising New Information on Pancho Villa,” University of California Berkeley News Release, 5/3/1999, p. 1.
Coatsworth, John H. Growth Against Development: The Economic Impact of
Railroads in Porfirian Mexico. Northern Illinois University Press, 1981.
Crow, John A. The Epic of Latin America, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press,
Hurd II, John. “Railways and the Expansion of Markets in India 1861-1921,”
Explorations in Economic History, Vol. 12 (1975).
Meyer, Michael C. and William L. Sherman and Susan M. Deeds, The Course of
Mexican History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Rungta, Radhe Shyam. The Rise of Business Corporations in India, 1851-1900.
New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Sandes , Lt Col E.W.C. “The Military Engineer in India,” Chatham: The Institution of
Royal Engineers Vol. II (1935).
Scalise, Kathleen. “Surprising New Information on Pancho Villa,” 5/3/1999.
University of California Berkeley News Release. Accessed 4/26/15.
Skidmore, Thomas and Peter H. Smith. Modern Latin America. Oxford, UK: Oxford
University Press, 1989.
Sutton, Ann. Indian Railways. Emereo Publishers, 2014.