I just have to share this little gem of a find. Not my usual, I admit, but relevant for a forthcoming book. Thanks to members of the Specialist Research Group which meets at The National Archives, Kew, every few months, I was introduced to John who has a specialist interest in railways not least because he worked on numerous in Africa and Asia. He had a book which might be of use – and it most definitely has been, but there’s more to it than what I was looking for, hence sharing its find with you.
Sudan’s First Railway: The Gordon Relief Expedition and The Dongola Campaign, by Derek A Welsby was published in 2011 by the Sudan Archeological Research Society, as Publication Number 19.
Now, to be absolutely honest, the book did not directly answer my questions but in the succinct overview of the origins of the railways in Egypt and Sudan, I was able to follow references which filled in gaps we (my SA railway expert Sandy and I) were still struggling with. Derek has distilled from the copious autobiographies and other histories of the area, the development of the railway in a manner easily digestible and with some explanatory footnotes directing the intrepid researcher to other sources.
What makes this book special though are the photographs – of then and now. Derek has actually travelled the lines giving us a vision of what it looked like at the time from photographs and illustrations and how it compared in 2010. Apart from rolling stock, there are some clear maps and tables further explaining details for those particularly interested. Descriptions are given of camps and bases as well as the challenges faced in constructing particular parts of the line.
It’s absolutely fascinating to see how the desert has retained the ‘wounds’ of yester year – not dissimilar to the aged markings we saw through the Namib desert dating to WW1 and before. Welsby takes these photos, translates them into sketches and then explains them – there were recently similar explanations of WW1 training trench discoveries in southern England and Time Team as in the past ‘drawn’ over the image to show the pattern. Welsby’s are separate which allows for a clarity and clearness. He discusses ritual deposits, ticket offices, floor coverings, wells, redoubts, war memorials and more. This is then followed by 70 pages of ‘finds’ – photos and descriptions – of all sorts, railway materials, camp items and war related. One could spend hours pouring over the detail – not unlike visiting some museums. In fact, the book can best be described as a museum in print – at least with this museum you don’t have to get info overload before leaving, you can dip in as desired.
In addition to the texts mentioned by Welsby, for the UK railway specialist, The National Archives in Kew has a fascinating collection of pamphlets and booklets at reference ZSPC 11 and then for Cape to Cairo info, there’s Leo Weinthal’s epic publication in 4 volumes.
The railways of Africa provide a fascinating insight into the development of the continent, the economics and politics of the day. I’ve had to stop myself being diverted into all sorts of new imperialist explorations – but it won’t be for long, there are too many names from WW1 who are linked with African railway dicussions and surveys over the turn of the previous century.