Today we often take photographs without thinking anything about their importance. They fill our phones, flash by us on our TV’s, and are plastered on billboards across the country. However, the photograph has changed history. Photography has transformed the old maxim that the conqueror exclusively writes history; a photograph shows a moment in time more clearly than a painting or a piece of literature can. A photograph can of course be staged, and will always be biased by the photographer’s viewpoint, but many photographs cannot hide certain truths of history. The colonization of India by the British and the colonization of Mexico of Spain, are much clearer because of the 19th century photographs. These photographs tell us about India’s colonial period after and during the Sepoy Rebellion, and tell us about life in Mexico’s post-colonial period. These photographs cover all aspects of society, from horrific and graphic violence to traditional clothing and ceremonies. They also give us a glimpse into a quickly modernizing world, based on massive technological and infrastructural improvements. Analyzing each of these photographs, from the two colonized nations on opposites sides of the globe, gives us a glimpse into colonial and postcolonial life that reveals some of colonial modernizations’ negative effects on both nations’ peoples and the environments.
The first photo from India we will examine comes from the making of the Bengal Nagpur Railway in India. There are no very distinguishable people in this photo. However, we can tell that many of the people appear to be workers, due to their clothing and how they are carrying containers on their heads. Managers do not tend to do this. However, among the apparent workers we can see men dressed in white standing alone on the periphery. Are these managers? Are they British? We are left to wonder. Outside of the people, we can see a marred landscape. There appears to be extensive levels of excavation, and the landscape seems unrecognizable compared to a natural state. Then on very edge of the picture in the distance we start seeing what appears to be the edge of the forest. This allows for us to be able assume that the excavated land formerly was forested. This then allows us to come onto the conclusion that the building of the railway has caused deforestation in India.
This photo conveys a sense of how major the railroad construction was in India during the rule of the British Raj. The Indian Railway system by 1901 was in fact so large that it had the 4th most laid track in the entire world (Kerr 2014 114). This fact accentuates how much environmental damage must have been done in the area. This photograph shows just one little swath, it is hard to imagine how much was done in the along all 24,000 miles (Kerr 2014 114).
The second photo from India we will analyze, like the first photo from India, comes from the construction of the Bengal Nagpur Railway. There are nine Indian workers in the photo, who have stopped to pose for the picture being taken. They are all surrounding what appears to be the opening of a tunnel being built into the side of a mountain for the railway. The scene appears, at least to modern eyes as very unsafe. The mouth of the tunnel seems to be held up by rough-hewn and unstable wood framing. Workers then access the top of the frame and the tunnel by way of a tall and what appears to be a very unstable ladder.
Drilling through mountains for rail lines is common, and can be frequently seen from the Appalachians to the Alps, but why do it in what appears to be such a haphazard way as the British Raj did? Modern analysis shows that post-1861, the increase in grain demand in Britain was driven by and helped drive the construction of railroads (Andrabi, Tahir, Kuehlwein 2010 351-377) Therefore it seems that economics may have been the drive behind such hazardous working conditions.
The third photo of India we are looking at is also from the creation of the Bengal Nagpur railway. The people who appear in this photo are the hundreds of Indian workers who are resting while employed on the building the railroad. The central object that draws the eye in the photo is the rickety bridge and the large man-made gorge beneath it, and from this photo a pair of deductions can be made. The first is that the British relied heavily on native labor to make the railroads and other facets of infrastructure. The second is that the working conditions for these workers were incredibly poor. I am not an engineer, but even I know that bridge is not safe. What is also extremely interesting about this photo is tha we, as viewers, continue to see large-scale deforestation and environmental change from the building of this railroad. The photograph in many ways looks like it could be taken from another view on the same location as the first photograph from India we have examined.
Modern analyst of soil throughout India has shown that throughout the past 150 years there has been considerable deforestation, with much of the harm coming in the 19th century (Prokop 2014). Examining this photo it is easy to imagine the vast scale of this deforestation at the hands of the British Raj The photo provides evidence to this harm being done by the colonizers to the natural landscape and environment of the colonized.
What we have gotten from examining these photos of India is a picture of a nation that was quickly being modernized by the British Raj. This at first seems like a good thing. However, there are other aspects of infrastructure improvement to consider. Yes, building India’s infrastructure was probably in the long run a good thing, but the photographs reveal that building the rushed building of railways for economic benefit put the workers in unsafe working conditions. The building of the railroads also had effects on the natural landscape of India that can still be seen today.
The first photograph from Mexico is instantly striking due to the symmetry. The two-fronted train lends to this along with the symmetrical posing of the three men in the picture. The train itself is incredibly interesting in design and appears designed to go in both directions. What is interesting about the men is they appear Caucasian in skin color and not at all Indian. The writing at the bottom of the photo tells us a little about the background of the photo. Apparently it was taken around Vera Cruz, and considering, that the type is in English, we can assume the photographer is American.
Research reveals that there is a possibility that the men who appear in the picture, who run the train, may also be American. There are various examples of large sums of foreign investment in railroads during this period, such as the Mexican Central Railroad (Wasserman 19 and work for one of the foreign investors. There is also the interesting fact that outside nations were still investing in post-colonial Mexico’s infrastructure. This shows a sense that Mexico may have been free from colonial rule, but it was still controlled by foreign colonial powers.
The second photograph of Mexico we are examining is of the San Luis Potosi train station. The center of the picture is a 19th century locomotive. The appearance of the locomotive is not out of the ordinary, considering it is a train station, but it is interesting that the locomotives number appears to have been blurred out. There is only one person in the picture, a man who seems to be dressed in some sort of official capacity, maybe a policeman, soldier, or a conductor. What is also noticeable about the photograph is the train station building itself. It is two stories and appears to be made of stone. The crenlons on top give it an appearance of being a fort. The well-cultivated garden appears in interesting contrast with the environmental devastation apparent in the pictures of India.
San Luis Potosi is well known for it’s mining industry, which has been a cornerstone of its’ economy for centuries (Encyclopedia Britannica 2015). This would explain the railway stopping there and the presence of such a large and distinguished train station. Considering what we know about foreign investment in the railroads, it makes sense that foreign investors would build rail lines toward areas of high foreign investment, like mines. This proves another example of a free Mexico still being manipulated by foreign power.
The third photograph from Mexico we are examining is of an un-specified Mexican harbor. There are no people visible in this picture. However, there are many ships of various shapes sizes and types present. The ships seem to vary in age from old schooner rigs to more modern steamers. The appearance of so many ships allows for the deductions that this port is either a bustling economic hub or home to a naval squadron. This opens the question then of what are these ships for? Are they freighters, military ships, or something else? There is also the question of what are the ships nationalities? There is also the presence of a substantial town in the picture on the other side of the harbor. There is also most importantly what appears to be a shipyard, representing investment in infrastructure.
Unlike Mexico, India has a rich seafaring history that dates back to the earliest days of maritime trade (Paine 2013 160-166). Mexico is different in that large-scale maritime operations did not arise until Spanish colonization. (Paine 2013 34-35). Knowing this gives an impression of how much colonization changed Mexico. What was once a non-seafaring nation by the time of independence from Spain hosted harbors full of large modern ships. However, considering the earlier mentioned control wielded by foreign investors on the railways, it can be inferred they held a similar control over maritime infrastructure, especially when one considers how much the United States interfered with Central American maritime affairs with the building of Panama Canal (Paine 3013 562-563).
The photographs of Mexico show a nation in its post-colonial phase, where many facets of modernization were apparent. This may all seem like a sign that Mexico came out the role of colony and into post-colonial life independent and strong from former colonizers. However, the apparent massive role of foreign investors seems to show something different. Even as Mexico was free, the hand of foreign colonizers in their economy was still forcing running the many aspects of the nation, such as infrastructure development.
When looking at both of the photographs of Mexico and India there are interesting contrasts in the pictures. The photographs of India we examined are taken during the rule of the British Raj, when the railroads are being built. The photographs of Mexico are different in that they are taken post-colonialism, when infrastructure is done and Mexico is no longer directly controlled by Spain. However, there are also similarities apparent in the pictures from both countries. India’s pictures tell the story of modernization as the result of colonization, but also the unfortunate side effects of this forced modernization. Mexico’s photographs tell the story of a nation that is technically free, but still is in many ways influenced and partially controlled by foreign investors. The beauty of photographs is that these hidden negative side effects of colonial rule are more readily seen, whether it is a photograph of vast environmental destruction or a photograph of a train controlled by foreign investors.
Paine, Lincoln. “The Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the World”
Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 2013
Prokop, P., and D. PAoskonka. “Natural and human impact on the land use and soil properties of the Sikkim Himalayas piedmont in India.” Journal of Environmental Management 138 (2014): 15+.Academic OneFile. Web. 30 Apr. 2015.
Wasserman, Mark. “Empresa extranjera y mercado interno: el ferrocaril Central Mexicano, 1880-1907.” Americas: A Quarterly Review of Inter-American Cultural History 54.2 (1997): 305+. Academic OneFile. Web. 29 Apr. 2015.