Motor Transportation and the Infrastructure of Colonialism in Africa

AHA Session 287
Sunday, January 9, 2011: 11:00 AM-1:00 PM
Grand Ballroom Salon B (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Jennifer A. Hart, Indiana University
Libbie Freed, Potsdam (State University of New York)

Session Abstract

Africans have always been moving. Before the colonial period, carrier paths cut through the countryside connecting villages and towns in networks of trade. In the mid to late-19th century when European colonial powers began to strengthen their presence on the African continent, they brought with them the quintessentially Victorian technology—the railroad. Scholars have highlighted the heavy investments by the colonial government in the railway. Colonial railways were intended to link production centers to ports that shipped primary commodities to colonial metropoles to feed industrial production. Far from serving the interests of passenger transit and internal communications, colonial railways were explicitly built to service a colonial extraction economy. The arrival of automobiles in Africa as early as the 1910s introduced an autonomy and speed of movement to Africans who had previously been constrained by the limits of foot and carrier paths, bicycles or the colonial railway. Motor transportation facilitated the creation of new forms of accumulation, occupations, cultures of transportation, infrastructure, and patterns of trade. As automobiles transformed from objects of elite preoccupation to objects of quotidian concern, they became symbols of mobility, authority, and prosperity. At the same time, the freedom of movement and long-distance travel made possible by the introduction of the automobile also spawned a number of associated colonial cultures of exploration and travel as well as the emergence of new cities. This session discusses the various ways in which motor transportation contributed to the development of infrastructure in colonial Africa. The papers in this panel contribute to a sparse but growing historical literature on the history of motor transportation in Africa. Far from being an elite technology that was inaccessible and marginal to the lives of most Africans, motor transportation served a primary role in shaping 20th century Africa. The papers in this panel highlight the interaction between individual Africans and automobiles in Zambia (Gewald), the role of indigenous enterprise in the emergence of motor transportation infrastructure in the Gold Coast (Hart), the impact of road construction on the emergence of colonial towns in the Gold Coast (Soeters), and the role of road-mapping, motor transportation, and photography in shaping the emergence of safari culture in colonial Tanzania (Hays). Collectively, these papers provide an overview of some of the major issues associated with African transport history. Furthermore, these papers challenge assumptions about the role of the colonial state in controlling technology and development in Africa. This session speaks to scholars of colonialism, the British empire, technology, transportation, and African history.

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