King's College London
Online Exhibitions
Representing the unfamiliar: Photography in the British Empire 1866-1938

The extraction of resources

Photograph of a railway track entitled: Landslide in cutting near Ameki, with local workers clearing debris from the landslidePhotograph of a railway track entitled: Landslide in cutting near AmekiAs the FCO Historical Collection once acted as a library resource for the staff of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and its associated offices of government, the range of subjects and different angles of the reports saved in the collection was wide.

The contents included a large array of reports on private enterprise and colonial industry. These reports help to show the ways in which the British Empire manifested itself, not always through official or governmental means but through the establishment, or expansion, of commerce.

This could be in the form of trading or the extraction of resources in foreign territories, to name but two examples. Arguably, commerce through bodies such as the East India Company was the primary factor in the expansion of the Empire.

One major element of British imperial industrial strategy included the introduction of railways into colonial territories, often with the explicit intention of providing efficient means of removing natural resources such as coal towards the exterior. One such route was the Nigerian Eastern railway, a photograph of the construction of which is reproduced here.

The construction of the railway was reported on by the Director of Railways and Public Works John Eaglesome in 1915. In this report he included photographs demonstrating the progress of the line. Several reports followed before the completion of the railway in 1928.

Photograph showing indigenous people involved in the manufacture of sisal hemp, with farming machineryPhotograph showing indigenous people involved in the manufacture of sisal hemp, with farming machineryIndeed, coal mining itself also came under the gaze of Eaglesome. The Nigerian Eastern railway led to the Udi Colliery, a coal mine, reflecting how the two enterprises worked in tandem to provide efficient extraction of coal.

Industrial reporting was not limited to railways and mining but spanned a variety of industries. An example is HG Gwyther’s 1909 report on sisal hemp manufacturing in Togoland, a photograph from which is reproduced here.

Gwyther’s photography places the machinery of the factory as the subject, relegating the indigenous workers standing behind it into the background.

The photographs in these works also highlight the substantial use of indigenous workers by British colonists. In his report, Eaglesome states that upon reaching one ‘sparsely populated,’ portion of the line, where ‘food was not so plentiful,’ a majority of the labour force deserted. There was little adequate care for the indigenous workers; their diet was reliant on the locality rather than the British employers.

Moreover, racist emasculation was designed to maintain a subordination amongst mining and railway labour forces. Indigenous workers were pejoratively addressed as ‘boy,’ regardless of age, whereas only the Europeans were given titles of note such as foreman or overman.

Link to King's College London catalogue records:

Nigeria. Nigerian Eastern Railway: progress report for the half year ending 31st December, 1915. 1916

HJ Gwyther. Togoland: manufacture of Sisal Hemp. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1956

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