The Power Behind The Empire
Jan Morris recounts how, for the British Raj, the train was conqueror, employer and unifier all rolled into one



Dead and gone is the British Raj in India, that most glittering jewel in the diadem of Queen Victoria. But close your eyes and think of that lost dominion, and what do you see?

Behind the lances, the cummerbunds and the pompous vice consuls, you see the billowing black smoke of the Punjab Mail, speeding across the Indian plains with its engineers in their cab as swanky as Emperors. You see the immense stations, battlemented like castles or stately as universities. You see the agitated crowds inside, the legless or faceless beggars, the families sitting hour after hour on their piles of string-tied baggage, the hawkers crying, the porters hurrying, the memsahibs clutching their skirts and parasols as they are hastened through the mob toward the first-class carriages. You see the armies of clerks slaving away beneath their twirling fans in the labyrinthine offices of the railway companies. Perhaps you even see young Mr. Kipling, gazing distractedly out of his carriage window as he dreams up another tale for publication in Wheeler's Indian Railway Library. And everywhere, the steam. Fundamental to the Raj's often colorful, often savage, often preposterous, often honorable, often disgraceful mythology (as ambiguous as the heroic-barbaric epics of the Greeks) stands ... the train.

Part of this vision is no more than the truth. The British Empire was founded upon the power of steam, and nowhere more absolutely than in India, where for the first time all the vast spaces of the subcontinent could be mastered by the agents of a central power. Steamships brought the imperialists swiftly to Bombay or Calcutta; steam trains hastened the administrators and the armies to offices and cantonments from Quetta to Darjeeling. The Indian railways were the single greatest practical achievement of the Empire, and in their heyday they were the biggest network on earth. A railway map of British India in the middle of the 19th century shows a mesh of black lines, thick and thin, penetrating almost every last corner of the place—even reaching, with tough, little narrow-gauge tank engines, the remotest hill towns of the north. As Murray's Handbook to India loyally remarked, "the Railway Companies do much for the comfort of travellers throughout the country." If, for example, you wanted to book a camel to meet you at Jungshahi Sstation, you had only to send a telegram to the stationmaster.

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Part of the myth, though, is allegorical—and always was. The Indian railways served tremendous functional purposes, but even at the time they had symbolic meanings too. They were an ever-visible token of British supremacy, and of the benefits the Empire brought to its subjects. When that braided official waited with the camel to meet your train, he was demonstrating an imperial discipline over Asia's endemic chaos; and those multitudes of railway clerks, drawing up timetables, devising "Instructions for Travellers," were a reflection of the general order which the British saw themselves as bestowing upon the huddled Indian masses.

The more important of the railway stations signified the omnipotence of the Raj as explicitly as any viceroy's mansion. They proclaimed not only the majesty of steam, but the presence of good government—even, in an allusive way, the benevolent omnipotence of the Crown far away. The most monumental of them all, the headquarters of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway in Bombay, was actually named for the Queen-Empress, and its overwhelming allegories suggested a full range of imperial motifs: it was like a cathedral with its gargoyles and stained glass windows; it was like a palace behind its wrought-iron gates and railings; it was like a university beneath its collegiate tower; and above all it was a tribute to the achievements and aspirations of the Empire and its age—for crowning the whole building, far above the trains, a figure of Progress raised one triumphant arm toward the future.

Other stations carried other messages, and since the Indian railways were arteries of command as well as means of public transport, they were often warlike structures. Some were actually designed to be defensible, fortresslike buildings into which the empire -builders could retreat if their subjects ever decided to reject them. Stern were the symbolisms of these militant depots, fierce with castle towers, turrets, gun -slits, high walls and flagstaffs of defiance. This railway is ours, such structures seemed to say in their clipped Sandhurst English—this country, too!

More generally the metaphors of the railways were benign. Although they were built and run by different private companies, they were a declaration of unity. They were the greatest private employers in India. They employed men and women of all castes, with a large proportion of Eurasians. They had their own hospitals and educational institutes, and they built whole workshop towns for the maintenance of track and equipment, with boarding schools for apprentices and company housing for all. The most famous of them, the East Indian Railway's Jamalpur, had its own uniformed militia, brass band, swimming pools, tennis courts and Masonic lLodge, and its main highway was majestically called Steam Road.

So there was high prestige to Queen Victoria's Indian railways. To 19th century Indians they were a marvel, and they were invariably included in the list of "Blessings of the British Raj" upon which Indian schoolchildren were examined. They bound the country together as never before, and made many of its people realize for the first time the immensity of their inheritance. They distributed food in time of famine, provided help during catastrophes. They opened up trade, they gave employment to entire families—a job on the railways was generally thought to be second only in status to a job in government. Rich and poor appreciated the trains. The Maharaja of Gwalior not only built a mausoleum in his palace garden for a favorite locomotive, but had a toy train trundling around his dinner table conveying brandy and cigars.

As for the British themselves, they viewed the railway network as Romans might. They had brought this colossus into being, and the tracks, the stations, the tunnels and bridges and workshops were exhibitions of their own merit. Railway managers were men of stature, living in palatial company houses. Drivers of expresses and stationmasters of terminals were proud Britons every one, and if ever the private train of the company chairman flashed through Jungshahi, why, it was almost like the passing of the Raj itself.

So it all slipped into legend, and then into mythology. The railways of India remain to this day a marvellous memorial of the Raj—perhaps the grandest of its memorials, as they offer one of the most persuasive arguments for the practice of imperialism. Few of us can now accept the fundamental principle of empire, the right of one people forcibly to rule another. But few would deny that the railway system of British India, now split into the systems of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, truly was, as those schoolboys were taught so long ago, one of the blessings of the Raj.

It is a wonder and a triumph still, and is now not just part of the myth of the Empire, but part of the myth of India too. India'sThe country's population has doubled since the imperial engineers began to lay their tracks, and the old India has struggled through partition and factional enmity to become one of the great political forces of the world, containing within the historic frontiers of the Raj three major nations. Yet through the years those very same tracks, those very same stations, even on occasions the very same locomotives have faithfully conveyed their millions of passengers, their countless tons of freight and food, across the vast territories from the ocean to the Himalayas.

Close your eyes again, and think of the subcontinent today. Behind Bollywood, behind the parading armies, the politicians on their TV screens, the powerful industries and the endless multitudes, we are still likely to see ... the railway trains. The engines rumble now, rather than hiss—no streaming smoke plumes trail the Punjab Mail—but still beneath the echoing vaults of the Victoria Terminus the timeless thousands swarm and fluster, the hawkers cry, the whistles sound and somewhere out of sight those myriad clerks sit now before their computers. Beggars still piteously whine at carriage windows, patient families with their children still wait among their mounds of baggage.

It is the same myth, 150 years on. Only the memsahibs are missing, and young Mr. Kipling at his window seat.