With his railroad, Cecil Rhodes pushed to make “Cape to Cairo” a reality for Great Britain

Tijana Radeska
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The unfulfilled dream of the controversial imperialist and entrepreneur Cecil Rhodes was to connect Cairo in the far north of Africa to the southernmost point of the continent, Cape Town. The idea was proposed in 1874 by the editor of the Daily Telegraph, Edwin Arnold. Rhodes embraced the idea as a great contribution to the British Empire since it was meant to connect the British dominions.

But not all territory in between belonged to the British Empire.

Although Rhodes virtually ruled southern Africa, in the north there were other forces at work. Other countries, including France, Portugal, Germany, and Belgium, strove to expand their own empires in Africa.

Cecil Rhodes

This meant potential conflict for the British over construction in certain regions. For example, in 1889, Portugal, which had a controlling power over territory on the coasts of Angola and Mozambique, announced an intent to connect the two countries by a railroad.

Sketch of Rhodes by Violet Manners

However, even though over the years the Portuguese influence in the region expanded, the country proved powerless against the British Empire. While Portugal prepared “The Pink Map,” a 1885 document claiming sovereignty over the territory based on historical discovery and recent exploration, the British Ultimatum in 1890 ended those claims.

The Rhodes Colossus: Caricature of Cecil John Rhodes, after he announced plans for a telegraph line and railroad from Cape Town to Cairo.

In the late 1890s the French envisioned a similar project that would connect Senegal in the east with Djibouti in the west. Rhodes hurried to set the first rails on the way starting in the south, and while he managed to see the first segment of the rail done by 1892, France established a protectorate in Southern Sudan and was preparing to do the same in Ethiopia.

Cecil Rhodes (Sketch by Mortimer Menpes)

Nonetheless, after the Fashoda Incident in 1898, when a French expedition on the White Nile intended to exclude Britain from Sudan but ended with a retreat of the French, that territory was secured for Rhodes. The first part of the railroad was from Cape Town to Johannesburg, which is the best maintained and most used section of the entire route and hasn’t stopped operating ever since 1892.

Rhodes and the Ndebele izinDuna make peace in the Matopos Hills, as depicted by Robert Baden-Powell, 1896

However, the realization of Rhodes’ vision still didn’t advance smoothly. In 1891, Germany secured a very strategic territory in the east of Africa that today belongs to Tanzania, parts of Kenya, Burundi, Rwanda, and Mozambique. From the west, there was the Belgian Congo, so the whole tropic was secured from the British Empire and prevented the further construction of the railway.

Overview of routes discussed. Not all links displayed were finished. Author: Classical geographer CC BY-SA 3.0

In the meantime, the second segment continued from Johannesburg through Botswana, then known as Bechuanaland Protectorate, to the city of Mafeking. At the time, the city was the capital of the protectorate but today is part of South Africa.

Crossing at Victoria Falls

From Mafeking, the railroad continued to Botswana’s capital city, Gaborone, and from there to the northeast of the country, to the city of Francistown. That’s the last part of the railroad that was constructed before Cecil Rhodes’ death in 1902.

French caricature of Rhodes, showing him trapped in Kimberley during the Second Boer War, seen emerging from tower clutching papers with champagne bottle behind his collar.

After his death, Britain was still willing to complete the project. During World War I, officials won the Tanganyika Territory, which released all parts that were secured by the Germans. But then the Great Depression hit in the 1930s, and the country lacked the finances to finish the railway. And after World War II, the countries of Africa established independence as they were decolonized, which made the ending of the project very difficult.

Funeral of Rhodes in Adderley St, Cape Town on April 3, 1902

Today, there is almost a railroad stretching all the way from Cairo to Cape Town. However, there are parts that are out of function. For example, there is a railway system from Cairo to Wau in South Sudan, but due to political unrest, a large part of the Sudanese network is destroyed.

Rhodes’ tomb. Author: Sputniktilt CC BY 3.0

From Cape Town, the railroad went northern most to the Uganda Railway. The two networks were linked, so today there is a connection between Kampala, the capital of Uganda, to Mombasa, on the Kenyan coast, and to the capital of Tanzania, Dar es Salaam.

A portrait bust of Rhodes on the first floor of No. 6 King Edward Street marks the place of his residence while in Oxford. CC BY-SA 3.0

In 1976, with Chinese funding, the missing link between Dar es Salaam and Kapiri Mposhi in Zambia was constructed, which is known as TAZARA (Tanzania-Zambia-Railway).

Read another story from us: When it comes to the roads of Ancient Rome, think subway–this statistics student did

Although it was originally intended to open the landlocked Zambia to a port on the Indian Ocean, the railroad also filled the missing critical link of the Cape to Cairo railroad.