The Lunatic Line

The latter 19th Century saw the arrival and expansion of the British Colony. There was no greater example of this sudden intrusive change than the arrival of the Railroad during the 1890’s. The British saw the creation of a railroad as a vital resource linking the trading ports of the coast with the waters of Lake Victoria. Building such a railroad would give the British full control of the East African Protectorate, allowing them to control the nearby Suez Canal and thereby sea access to their Colony in India.

Plans swung rapidly into action in 1896, with engineers faced by the almost impossible task of building a railway from sea level up to around 1800 metres above sea level, over 900 km of hills, ranges and valleys. The railway became known as the “Lunatic Line” as the project pushed onwards.

The indigenous Kenyans viewed this as something malevolent and utterly alien, calling the railroad the Iron Snake. Local labour was difficult to recruit, and the British began to import workers from their colony in India. Thousands of Gujarati workers were brought to Mombasa to work on the railroad, a move that would have great effect on the future cultural character of Kenya.

The railroad crept forward, finally reaching a major hurdle at the banks of the Tsavo river in 1899. The river required the construction of a major bridge, and designs were made and implemented. Soon after a camp was established on the riverbank some of the Indian labourers began to disappear at night, and so began one of Africa’s greatest adventure stories.

It soon became clear that the railway had become the hunting grounds of two man eating lions. They were two huge male lions, their manes stripped bare by the thorns, who repeatedly struck at the camps during the night, dragging men from their tents.

Eventually, after the lions had claimed 124 lives, they were shot and finally the railway surged ahead, creating the small outpost of Nairobi before pushing on to Lake Victoria. The great iron snake finally reached the shores of the lake on the 20th of December 1901, bringing the dream of the Lunatic Line to life.


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