History Kenya: Preparing For The Iron Snake Kenya Uganda Railway

The Uganda Railway, was a metre-gauge railway system and former British state-owned railway company. The line linked the interiors of Uganda and Kenya with the Indian Ocean port of Mombasa in Kenya. After a series of mergers and splits, the line is now in the hands of the Kenya Railways Corporation and the Uganda Railways Corporation.

Captain Macdonald (pictured) was a Scottish engineer in charge of the survey for the Uganda Railway. He was also a soldier of the British army in India, the country of his birth.

Perhaps London chose him to lead the survey team, which kicked off its work in December of 1891, because he hailed from a malaria-infested colony.

Perhaps.But one can argue that it was appropriate that the survey team was led by a soldier. This is because survey works were punctuated by all manner of odds, including disease, treacherous terrains, wildlife attacks and hostile natives.These were the kind of extremities that military men were trained to contend with.Capt. Macdonald was the man who devised the route of the railway, and recommended the three feet and six inches gauge that it later became. The Imperial British East Africa (IBEA) Company, for your information, had mulled a two-feet gauge.Unlike the Captain, a member of the Royal College of Engineers of India, his deputy was, perhaps also appropriately, a medical doctor. His name was Dr. John Wallace Pringle.Dr. Pringle’s briefs included finding out which parts of the vast East African hinterland, from a climate and tropical disease perspective, were appropriate for white settlement. Thus he held considerable sway in determining the route the railway would follow.Speaking of route – did you know that earlier plans on the Uganda railway contemplated it snaking along the lengths of one of Kenya’s main rivers?

Even IBEA through C.W. Hobley – yes, the same one that Luhyas called Opilo and Luos Obilo – had a steamer, the Kenia, assembled at Mombasa and taken to the Tana river to conduct a survey.Had the Sabaki or Tana route happened, who knows, Nairobi city, a metropolis that emerged from tents and corrugated iron workshops of the Uganda railway, would probably have ended up one humongous game park.Besides, the deputy survey team leader, Dr. Pringle, didn’t fancy Nairobi as a future capital.

According to R. W. Walsmey, author of a 1957 publication, Nairobi: The Geography Of A New City, Dr. Pringle deprecated the suitability of Nairobi as a future city.”….as a station site, the level ground commends itself to the engineer (Macdonald). As a site for the future Capital of East Africa and for permanent buildings for Europeans, the sanitary engineer and the health officer condemn it”, commented the doctor.

Well, the other thing that the survey team condemned was the Sabaki railway route contemplated earlier. In its stead, the survey team endorsed the Kikuyu escarpment, Rift Valley route to Uganda.And now that a route had been figured out, broke IBEA was left with the onerous task of convincing the government in Great Britain to fund the railway line.As a decision from London was awaited, IBEA officials worked to open up logistical supply routes in the meantime.In 1893, C.W. Hobley started constructing an ox-cart road towards Voi from Mombasa. Sir William Mackinnon, the IBEC chairperson, hired the services of missionary man George Wilson to help drive the ox-cart road through the Taru desert in Tsavo.

From Kibwezi, Wilson’s mission team at Kibwezi supervised works of a road that would connect southwards with the one that Wilson himself was overseeing.In 1893, three years before commencement of the Uganda railway construction, IBEA administrators at Fort Smith, began constructing a supply road linking their base in Kikuyu with Kibwezi.The IBEA administrators were led by Francis Hall (seated front right, also built Fort Hall – Murang’a today), who charmed a few dozen Agîkûyû to providing labour for the construction.

He made a cart that he used to cut through thick forests and onto carefully planted crops to “the dismay of (Kikuyu) farmers”, as writer Christine Nicholls recorded.

By August of 1893, Hall’s ox cart road had already reached Athi River, nearly 39 kilometers from the start.The route between Athi River and Kibwezi was also later completed by a team of British engineers led by Capt. Sclater. I think it was Waiyaki Way in Nairobi that was known as Sclater’s Road.It was named after the captain, who is said to have built the first road to Nairobi.

According to Prof. William Ochieng, Capt. G.E. Smith oversaw the construction of the remainder of the supply route from Fort Smith towards Kavirondo.By 1895, thousands of porters had passed through the Mombasa to Kavirondo supply route. True to their entrepreneurial acumen, Agîkûyû tribesmen sold food supplies at special market centres set up near Fort Smith specifically for both the porters’ and Fort’s needs.

Some Agîkûyû were opposed to these market centres as Peter Rogers, author of The British and The Kikuyu: 1890-1905, recorded.Writing to his father back in England from Fort Smith, Hall recorded an incident in January 1894 in which his men used force against the Agîkûyû in order to extract food. Ninety locals were killed in the raid.

(I’d recommend the book Kikuyu District by Paul Sullivan. Really, the book is a compilation of Francis Hall’s diary and letters written mostly from Fort Smith).

Let’s continue.For this reason, Fort Smith and the area around it was constantly under a state of tension with its hosts.Some of you who studied Kenyan history may recall that an Englishman at Fort Smith called Purkiss nearly lost his life after being attacked by Agîkûyü fighters led by Waiyaki wa Hinga (pictured).

Later, Purkiss managed to wound Waiyaki before capturing him. Waiyaki was then held briefly at the Fort. The British were worried that the Agîkûyû would overran the Fort and recapture their man. So they banished him to exile in Kibwezi, where he died.A year later, Purkiss also happened by Kibwezi, fell ill and incidentally also died there.Wait.There are contrasting theories about where Chief Waiyaki was buried.Some, including whoever updated Wikipedia about his death, contend that he was buried somewhere in Taita Taveta. It has also been widely reported that he was buried face-down.Well, likely the earliest, most reliable record of where Waiyaki was buried was written by railway survey leader Capt. Macdonald in 1897, two years after the Agîkûyû leader died.Wrote Capt. Macdonald:“…his skull had been fractured by the sword-cut he received from Purkiss, and this caused complications, which killed him. Strange to say, poor Purkiss died at the same station afterwards, on his way down from Uganda, and the graves of the two combatants lie close together….”Images courtesy of Kenya National Archives and Wikipedia.This handle will take a short break till later in the month. A blessed week to all of you.

About the Author

Sande Kennedy is the founder and Editor in Chief of SandeKennedy.co.ke & Kenyans247.co.ke He is a Kenyan-based Internetprenuer,blogger Political Activist & informer who has an interest in politics, governance, corporate-fraud and human-interest. Kindly drop me a note if you feel aggrieved on any matter that you would want to be highlighted  Twitter: @nyosake , Instagram: @itssandekennedy WhatsApp: +254791890826 Read More about me here