Building East African Railway 1902-09

Contributed by Ann King

Building East African Railway 1902-09

My object is precious to me as family history, and as a small but important part of world history. It is the detailed and meticulously annotated album of 400+ photos my grandfather, H.J.Brock, compiled between 1902 & 1909, documenting the survey and construction of the Shiré Highlands Railway in very difficult terrain in what is now Malawi.

Dr Livingstone's earlier discoveries in the Zambezi basin had drawn attention to the potential of this region,and the British government therefore set up settlements at the south end of Lake Nyasa and in the high land along the Shiré river. They saw railways as a key strategic factor in opening up the area. This was part of the questionable race by competing European powers to grab territory: the Scramble for Africa.

My grandfather was appointed by the Crown Agents as Assistant Engineer in charge of surveying and construction. He was 21, the son of a coastguard, and had hardly travelled beyond Dorset and Cornwall where he was brought up. His sea journey to Africa via the Suez canal would have been incredibly exotic and exciting for him, and the extraordinary sights and smells and sounds in foreign ports were a defining experience for him.

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  • 1 comment
  • 1. At 01:29 on 13 January 2013, RogerParkinson wrote:

    How very interesting. My grandfather, J E Stych, travelled on that railway in 1913 to help with the UMCA activities on Lake Nyasa. His diary records he went by rail from Port Herald to Blantyre and "That railway journey up to Blantyre was quite a picnic. We were each provided with a hamper of lunch (roast chicken and so on ) and at midday the train stopped and we were asked to take our teapots to the engine for hot water. Meanwhile the engine was being loaded up with firewood for the rest of the journey. There is no coal in the country and even the steamers use wood for fuel."
    His photos from the time include several shots of a derailed train but they are not well captioned so I don't know for sure if they were your grandfather's railway or another in Africa. Here is the link:

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Nyasaland (now Malawi)


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