Review by A. H. M. Kirk-Greene (N. Nigeria 1950 – 65)
How is it that the connection between railway construction and imperial rule is such an immediate and palpable one that it is not hard to believe one can hear the locomotive pant and whistle even if the events took place a century ago? It is as if yesterday’s British boys’ (well, maybe all but one!) proverbial wish to drive an engine was realised by their later vicarious contact with the great railway age as they boarded the Punjab Night Mail or the Uganda Express.
The link between empire and railways has long fascinated historians and gone on to beguile countless readers; think of such classics of the East African railway saga as M. F. Gill’s Permanent Way, Charles Miller’s The Lunatic Express, Ronald Hardy’s The Iron Snake and Arthur Beckenham’s Wagon of Smoke, Satow and Desmond’s pictorial Railways of the Raj, or the Canadian epic (book and film) The Last Spike. Nor have empire novelists been immune from such excitement, as readers of John Masters’ Bhowani Junction or Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar will quickly recall. Today’s travel agents, too, are fully alive to the opportunities of historical recall and social nostalgia to be derived from re-inventing the Orient Express and South Africa’s Outeniqua steam train. Now it is the turn of the Nigerian Railway, this year marking its 100th birthday, to join the club with the deeply knowledgeable Francis (Patrick to his friends) Jaekel in the cab.
And what an experienced locomotive driver Jaekel is! He is at once indefatigable (his three volume history, which weighs in at 8’/4 lbs. on my wife’s immaculate Weight- Watcher’s scales, took seventeen years to write and its 1250 pages took him 27 weeks to proof-read), highly qualified (after an apprenticeship with the LMS he spent 27 years with the Nigerian Railways, going back to 1938 when it was still a Government Department and he thus a Colonial Service Officer), and meticulous (his trailer in the Nigerian Field, vol. 62, at once indicated what a rich compendium of facts railway historians of Nigeria could look forward to). This is a remarkable, life-time’s labour of love.
Jaekel writes about no less than nine railway systems, all the way from the Lagos Government Railway (the first train ran in 1901, despatched from Iddo by a Hausa Guard of Honour and nicknamed “The Iron Horse” by its first passenger, the Alake of Abeokuta) and the onomatopoeic kokomaiko Lagos Steam Tramways of 1902 (replacing the Da Rocha rickshaws); through Lugard’s 12-mile narrow-gauge railway of 1901, connecting his new capital of Zungeru with the River Kaduna, and the Bauchi Light Railway, so crucial to the tin-mining industry on the Plateau, started in 1907 and closed in a grand ceremony at Zaria in 1957, with one of its engines (No. 56) now in Jos Museum; on to the Nigerian Eastern Railway, crossing the Benue at Makurdi to link Port Harcourt with Kaduna; and finally the Borno Extension Railway, started in 1958 and, over such flat country beyond the Jos Plateau, quickly reaching Maiduguri in 1964. Today, in a post-Jaekelian era, Nigeria’s new capital of Abuja has at last been connected by rail to Kaduna and further lines are scheduled to link Abuja with Lagos and even reach once-remote Yola.
For Jaekel, Nigeria’s railway history can also be seen, like that of the USA, in terms of what he calls Tinks-in’ milestones: the joining up of the LGR and NER at Minna in 1912, of the North and South branches of the NER at Gerti in 1926, and the inauguration of the work to join the NRC and NER at Kuru in 1958.
Perhaps because of its comprehensive encompassing of one hundred years of Nigeria’s transportation systems and its professional preoccupation with statistics galore, this is not an easy book to read or to find ones way about in. Vol. I focuses on opening up the country to sea, river, road and air transportation, with the railway not making its appearance before Chapter 10. Vol. II concentrates on the railway’s network and infrastructure, very much the core of the study and comprising half the whole. Vol. Ill deals with “organisation, structure and related matters”, including timetables, training, railway catering, crime and railway police, etc. There are nearly a thousand photographs, maps, tables and diagrams. Each volume usefully carries an index, but – less helpfully to the historian – there is nothing in the way of bibliographical guidance. While the text opens nobly with chapters on trade in 20th century Nigeria, geography and demography, it ends lamely with a chapter on the Railway’s medical and health services, lacking any sense of a conclusion.
In 1998 the Nigerian Railway Corporation stages its centenary. It is an occasion for which Francis Jaekel’s exhaustive History of the Nigerian Railway is eminently appropriate. In his Preface he claims that the history of Nigeria the country cannot be divorced from that of Nigeria the railway. Nor, this reviewer believes, can the chronicling of the Nigerian Railway now ever be separated from the name of Francis (aka Patrick) Jaekel.