Railroad Colonialism

Saturday, January 4, 2020: 10:30 AM
Gramercy East (New York Hilton)
Manu Karuka, Barnard College, Columbia University
The United States of America is profoundly unexceptional. North American railroads linked with railroads elsewhere in the colonized world. Imperialists across the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Australia built railroads as infrastructures of reaction, as attempts to control the future. Infrastructure, in other words, played a police function. The internationalization of the cotton industry drove railroad construction in North America and South Asia in the years before the U.S. Civil War and in British East Africa in the early twentieth century. In addition to cotton, railroad colonialism facilitated the development of South African gold, Malayan tin, Central African copper, and Indian iron and steel, each organized under imperial control. In North and South America, railroad colonialism transformed bountiful prairie lands into massive monocrop areas for beef, pork, and grain production. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, railroad colonialism turned decisively away from any entrepreneurial pretense and toward active colonial state planning, heightening inter-imperial competition and destabilizing British domination of the world economy. In North America, corporations built railroads along the U.S.-Canada border, and U.S. corporate control over railways in Mexico resulted in a continental railway network largely conforming to U.S. infrastructure standards. Imperial railroads often constricted people and goods within a specific imperial network, producing economies of isolation.

Railroad construction often attempted to remake indigenous labor markets in order to capture and control existing indigenous infrastructures. Railway building, in many parts of the colonized world, augured the introduction of new, hierarchical systems of management tying wages and skills to racial distinctions. The racial organization and management of industrial labor saw some of the earliest and most significant forms of struggles over wages, technology, and the working day. Workers' struggles developed alongside armed insurgencies and campaigns of industrial sabotage, sometimes blending into struggles for self-determination and freedom.

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