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Rhodes and the Railway

Livingstone had envisioned the Zambezi River as the transport route by which the region would be opened up to Christian values and trade, describing the Zambezi as ‘God’s Highway.’ However, it was the vision and ambition of Cecil Rhodes, and the construction of the railway from the south which would bring development to the banks of the Zambezi.

Rhodes made his fortune in the Kimberly diamond mines, founding the De Beers Consolidated Mining Company, and becoming Prime Minister of the British Cape Colony in 1890. Together with his close friend and associate, Sir Charles Metcalfe, Rhodes planned a transport and communications route the length of the continent – a grand concept which would become known as the Cape-to-Cairo Railway, with Metcalfe the chief consultant engineer.

As the vehicle for his ambitions Rhodes formed the British South Africa Company (BSAC), modelling it on the British East India Company, and sought British Royal approval for its activities in southern Africa. The Royal Charter, granted by Queen Victoria in 1889, gave considerable powers to the BSAC to administer a wide and as yet unspecified area of southern Africa on behalf of the British government. These rights, however, were conditional on the agreement of appropriate legitimate treaties with local rulers - and merely a paperwork exercise for a man of Rhodes’s means and methods. In due course Southern Rhodesia (now independent Zimbabwe) and Northern Rhodesia (now independent Zambia) were formed under the control of the Company.

Cecil Rhodes

Rhodes became seduced by the romance of the railway crossing the river just below the natural wonder of the Victoria Falls, and he is quoted to have said “Build the bridge across the Zambezi where the trains, as they pass, will catch the spray of the Falls,” although no-one is quite sure to whom or when.

The section of the railway line to Bulawayo was officially opened on 4th November 1897, to much ceremony and fanfare, with many dignitaries attending from all corners of the British Empire. Cecil Rhodes, who did not attend the celebrations due to ill health, sent a telegram announcing;

"We are bound, and I have made up my mind, to go on to the Zambesi without delay. We have magnificent coalfields lying between here and there, which means a great deal to us engaged in the practical workings of railways. Let us see it on the Zambesi during our lifetime. It will be small consolation to me and to you to know it will be there when we are dead and gone." (White, 1973)

It was Rhodes, in his role as chairman of Rhodesia Railways, who in 1901 commissioned the extension of the railway from Bulawayo to the Victoria Falls, and gave his personal approval to the design and location of the bridge over the Zambezi. However, construction would only begin in 1904, two years after Rhodes himself had passed away, at 49 years of age.

The final section of railway to the Victoria Falls, covering the distance from Hwange to the Falls, was begun in September 1903. The route was particularly challenging for the railway construction gangs, including miles of work through difficult country covered in dense bush and supporting a full complement of Africa’s ‘Big Five.’

Percy Clark had first travelled to the Falls whilst the railway was still under construction, recording that the workmen slept in the trees for fear of attack from lion and other dangerous wild animals. Despite these difficulties, the line to the Victoria Falls was completed on 25th April 1904. The distance from Cape Town was 1,641 miles (2,641 kilometres). Only twenty years before it took over six months of trekking with oxen to get to the Falls - now the journey was measured in days.

Two trains a week ran between Hwange and Victoria Falls from 10th May 1904, before the line was officially handed over to the Railway Company for official opening and operation on 20th June 1904. The trains took 22 hours on the Bulawayo to Victoria Falls journey and 24 hours on the return.



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