The Lunatic Express is the saga of the turbulent international race for the mastery and development of an immense region of East Africa that all but visionaries thought worthless. It is the narrative of the building of the Mombasa-Nairobi-Lake Victoria Railway itself - the colossal six-year enterprise that was to cost #5,000,000 and countless lives, from derailments, collisions, disease, tribal raids and the assaults of wild animals. It is a diorama of an earlier Africa of slave and ivory empires, of sultans and tribal monarchs and the vast lands that they ruled. Above all, it is the story of the white intruders whose combination of avarice, honour and tenacious courage made them a breed apart.
Once upon a time, I worked in the public relations office of Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History for a couple of years. One of my favorite dioramas featured two taxidermied lions -the infamous Man-Eaters of Tsavo. These lions killed and consumed anywhere from 30 to over 100 workers during the construction of the railway bridge over the Tsavo River on the Mombasa/Nairobi/Lake Victoria route built in the late 19th century. Last year, I discovered a book about the building of that railroad.
The Lunatic Express: An Entertainment in Imperialism. , by Charles Miller, is subtitled on the cover as “The Building of an Impossible 600 Mile Railway Across East Africa,” but it is much more than that.
Miller, in order to set the stage for the story of the railroad, takes the reader back to the bare beginnings of British involvement in East Africa, starting in 1824 with British interest in Mombasa and Zanzibar. He is a self-confessed proponent of the British Empire’s positive effect on its colonies in general and on East Africa in particular, although he claims to have contrived to write an objective account. From my limited perspective, I believe he has done what he set out to do.
The story he tells is of an unenthusiastic Britain taking reluctant responsibility for a part of the world in which they had, initially, little interest other than securing safe passage through Zanzibar to India. Who wanted to go traipsing around in the interior anyway?
’Red ants afoot! Look out for a stump, ho! Skewers! A pitfall to right! A burrow to left! Thorns, thorns, ‘ware thorns! Those ants; lo! a tripping creeper! Nettles, ‘ware nettles! A hole! Slippery beneath, beneath! Look out for mud! A root! Red ants! red ants amarch! Look sharp for ants! A log! Skewers below!’
Mere man-eating lions, when they encountered them, must have been a blessed relief!
Frederick Dealtry Lugard was perhaps the first persistent proponent of advancing British interests in Africa. By Miller’s account, he was basically a good man who,
"While he never doubted that the Anglo-Saxon was a better man than the African, he never doubted, either, that the African was a man, and while he cannot be called unique in this respect, he was definitely unusual."
Those interests weren’t always regarded with approval at home, where a faction had arisen that called itself “Little Britain,” a term we’ve heard again, recently, then meaning a Britain without empire. One such opponent, Sir William Harcourt, particularly enlightened in view of our current ideas of such things, depicted British actions in Uganda as bordering on felony.
"A sphere of influence confers no right, no authority over the people…. Every act of force you commit against a native within a sphere of influence is an unlawful assault; every acre of land you take is a robbery; every native you kill is a murder."
Still, there were commercial interests and missionary interests and the perhaps somewhat purer interests of the anti-slavery factions wishing to halt the slave trade carried out by Arabs to Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, and various other sultanates, and these would eventually have their way. The railroad, seen as necessary to “influence” the interior, was finally under construction by 1896, but not without some kvetching from the Home Counties.
What it will cost, no words can express; What is its object no brain can suppose; Where it will start from no one can guess; Where it is going to nobody knows. What is the use of it none can conjecture; What it will carry there’s none can define; And in spite of George Curzon’s superior lecture, It clearly is naught but a lunatic line.
The story of building the railway, which ran from Mombasa on the coast to Lake Victoria, establishing the outpost of Nairobi at about the halfway point, is almost as fascinating as the stories of the Englishmen and the tribes, the chiefs and the sultans, that make up most of the earlier part of the book. When the railway is finished, however, it turned out that it did go somewhere, and it carried settlers in and farm products out. That story takes up the final chapters, ending with the outbreak of the First World War.
The book is, sadly, out of print, and available through Amazon’s 3rd party sellers only. Perhaps you could find a copy in your public or university library. The paperback copy I received was in good condition except for a very brittle spine. I had to turn each page carefully and am rather proud that I finished the entire thing with the book split into only 4 sections. It was a painstaking process, and obviously not entirely successful, but worth every tender page. The story was engrossing, good guys and bad guys and in between guys of all races and religions. I found Miller to be as objective as a good story teller can be, and if you have any interest in the story of East Africa, I highly recommend you take a ride on The Lunatic Express, An Entertainment in Imperialism.
The lunatic express of the title is a railroad in Kenya that was built to transport British upper-class twits to the highlands ("vacationland of aristocrats"). But you can't read the book without coming to think that the entire colonial effort in Africa was a kind of lunatic express.
In laying bare the ideas and emotions of generations on the topics of race, The Lunatic Express takes you on a journey into the dark side of a century. Forget the landscape. In this tome the reader will journey through the dark dank corners of the human prejudice. In the title of this book, I am transported almost four decades to my Political Science classes, where I learned about the MAD Doctrine. As the MAD Doctrine was towards understanding the political philosophy of nuclear armament, this book is somewhat instructional in the insanity that infects race relations.
All of us are basically prejudiced to some extent. Some of that is the product of the generations in which we have lived. Over time, races have become more familiar with different cultures because of an increased geographic proximity, and we learn to recognize more of the similarities in ourselves. This book though was published in 1971. And, it covers the written statements and diaries and books of a generation 60-75 years earlier than that. It contains degrees of prejudice within prejudice. It is rather difficult to parse how many of these prejudicial ideas the author subscribed to himself, and how many he was just passing along for posterity.
The book is huge. And, it is very slow reading. It is entirely about the Lunatic Express. But, in sharing the story of the railroad, the author delves into the politics of the Colonial period and the Scramble for Africa. The author doesn't even get to the beginning of construction until way past the half way mark of the book. But, it is all very good information on that time period. I already have the even bigger book on The Scramble for Africa by Thomas Pakenham, which I intend to read when I stop on my reading journey in Lesotho. So, I stuck with it and discovered much that I did not know.
The biggest problem that I have with the book, and the reason that I can not recommend it, is the fact that it seems to be a proof-text for colonialism. The author seems to indemnify British colonialism. He even ends with a claim, which he has supported throughout, that after the colony finally reached a point of solvency, Britain had all of 49 years to benefit financially for their substantial investment in East Africa. He makes many arguments that Africans benefited from colonization, and Britain was forced into the position of protectorate and Crown.
It is very late in the book when he finally admits that the idea of building a railroad to stamp out the slave trade by the introduction of 'legitimate trade' was an unworkable strategy, not likely to ever produce the desired result. He argues that that was the goal of the British and that their motivations were humanitarian. Of course, by the time you read the last three or so chapters after the railroad is finished, you see the human tragedy that is reaped from the Lunatic Line. I thought that it was ironic that the first thing transported on the partially built first portions of the line was troops.
He also reveals that a big part of the British concern was in protecting what they saw as their interest in the Nile, by establishing a colony in Uganda. But, simply looking at a map (go ahead and google that) of the British colonies in Africa reveals that they were interested in much more than the Nile.
Charles Miller goes into great detail about the politics of the day. But, he also covers important personages, lion hunts, diseases, weather and climate issues, and major rebellions and massacres. He also reveals much about the Indians who were brought in to build the railroad, and the African tribes who were not used in labor. The railway was shown to be very important in the subsequent development of the then practically non-existent city of Nairobi. Kenya grew up from a wasteland to... well... its there. But, can you argue that it is better? There, to me, is the lunacy. But, Uganda never really seemed to benefit from the railway, per se.
I read this book in the kindle format for my stop in Uganda on my journey Around the World in 80 books for 2019. My next stop is Rwanda, where I will be reading Gorillas in the Mist by Dian Fossey. I marked this as a classic, even though it won't be for another 2-3 years, since the ideas in it are classic... or shall we say dusty.
A very interesting and historical account of the early colonization of East Africa, now Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. At times, it gets a bit slow but overall, an enjoyable read for those interested in the development of these countries.
This is one of the most unfortunately titled books I have ever read. It's not just that I have no idea what the subtitle means ("an entertainment in imperialism"?). The main title, "Lunatic Express," had led me to believe that this book offers the history of the Uganda Railway, the main part of which was constructed in the 1890s and early 1900s. It would be more accurate to describe this book as a history of East Africa (Tanganyika, Kenya, Uganda, and Zanzibar) from the first arrival of Europeans in the late 15th century to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. The reader is barely even introduced to the railway that decorates the cover of the book until nearly 300 pages into the book.
This is hardly a complaint. The book reads gracefully and is generally well researched, bearing all the hallmarks of a skilled journalist's foray into the telling of a popular history. Much of the material covered in Miller's book is germane to my own research and I have read innumerable books and articles that tell many of the same stories. Miller has an instinctive ability to sift through the massive "Africana" literature to tell the stories clearly and interestingly, dappled with all the best and most revealing quotations. Ranked against the many other accounts of early East African history, this book stands near the top. In many cases I was pleased to discover that Miller uses many of the same quotes as my own work and describes things in similar ways. In other cases I am now scrambling to track down the superior quotes and passages that found their way into his pages. In the commentary on sources at the end, Miller says that he makes no pretense to have written a scholarly work, but his book comes very near to scholarly standards, except for the footnotes, which are largely absent.
In general, I would say The Lunatic Express represents an excellent, highly readable synopsis of all the memoirs, reminisces, and popular literature that tells the early history of the European (mostly British) experience in East Africa. This accounts for the book's strengths as well as its shortcomings. The many stories and accounts are interesting and revealing, and contain all the famous vignettes that armchair enthusiasts adore. At the same time, I think Miller often allows himself to be carried away by the old-fashioned white settler interpretations, which saw British colonization as benign and benevolent, the earnest work of hardy pioneers striving to make a great country under difficult conditions. He lets white settlers, British administrators, and even adventurers off too easy for the many atrocities and misdeeds they committed and the racist ideologies they held. But provided the reader enters this 500-page journey critically and realizes that this is largely the British colonial interpretation of East African history (with a few modern-day liberal sentiments sprinkled in for good measure), it is a very good read indeed.
I couldn’t get past even the first 30 or so pages!!!! Too heavy into ancient history about the different tribes and the countries trying to get a foothold in Africa. I kept thinking...when am I going to see the names of some of the, supposedly, main characters of the story?! I paged through the book from beginning to end and decided it was too “bogged down” for my taste. The author gets too carried away and “off track” (pun, very much intended!). Only read this if you are a history-buff who loves details!
Scary, funny, exciting, inspiring, disgusting, intriguing, and entertaining stories about how British colonialism forged East Africa, and built a railroad that was deemed impossible. The time-line is quite long, however, which can be pretty distracting.
I found this book at a used bookstore, and it sort of presents itself as a rollicking pro-imperialism tale, and I expected to find portions of it deeply outdated, but it actually contains three different books.
Part one is a history of European engagement in East Africa, which, while colorfully written, is pretty straightforward.
Part two is a look at the building of the railroad, the "Lunatic Express" of the title.
Part three, the part a modern reader would likely find most objectionable for its fairly paternalistic tone, focuses on the estabishment of the British Empire in East Africa.
Overall, a very worthwhile read which covers some lesser known periods of history with verve, although the modern reader will occasionally find its tone a bit jarring.
In some ways, this is a hard book to rate. I think it is important to point out that it was published in 1971. In certain ways, the book and the author's attitudes have not aged well. The most glaring of those are his attitudes toward empire and race, they reflect the accepted ideas of the 1970s but time has moved on and these things have shifted for the most part. The author did do a thorough job of research so there is a lot in this book in terms of an overview of history. It was a bit of a slog to get through, but worth it.
This book is the one that has taken longest in my life to finish! I normally devour books but although this was well written, the dense type in my paperback and long pre-history into the railway's birth was a bit off-putting. Nonetheless when I got to the actual construction, it flew through and I would recommend it for anyone wanting to understand more of history in the region.
The truth is stranger than fiction. In this case, it's the story of how the British Empire expanded into East Africa - almost by accident - and caused the construction of a railway line between Mombasa on the coast and Lake Victoria. If you've seen the film The Ghost And The Darkness, in which Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer go lion hunting, then you already know something about one of the most famous incidents that interrupted the construction. The rest of it is even more eye-opening.
This book is old and out of print. The author readily admits a bias towards the Auld Empire in his preface, but he does not shy from showing bureaucrats and officers in less than flattering lights. Despite the fact that it was written in 1972 and is therefore as old as I am, The Lunatic Express is eminently readable and an excellent - and probably the only available - source for this lesser known history. It would be even more available if I dared take it back to the library from which I borrowed it - the fine is going to be quite painful.
A fantastic, well-investigated study of the East African railway and the East African slave trade that spurrned it on. The stuff on Zanzibar in the beginning of the book was fascinating stuff, as you can sense much of that still on the island. The book is exhaustive in detail, but it was gloriously rich and at now point did I feel intimidated by the sheer immensity of the novel. Good stuff, one of the best historical African books I've ever read.