Learning the history of Ugandan Railway

We travelled back in time to the 19th Century

In Summary


Ruth’s sketch of the first railway head next to the head itself
Ruth’s sketch of the first railway head next to the head itself

In 1904, Sir Charles Eliot, the then British Commissioner to East Africa, is quoted as having said, “It is not uncommon for a country to create a railway, but it is uncommon for a railway to create a country.” In the Kenyan context, it is important to find out what this means.

To answer that, let’s travel back in time to the 19th Century:

It all starts in 1757, when the British established company rule in India. This meant that the British East India Company was tasked with the running of the Indian colony. Sooner than later, the British started engaging in trade with the neighbouring countries of the colony, such as China, exporting tea and opium.

This constant trade necessitated the British sailors to travel around as much as possible. For them to do so, they needed to look for a shorter sea route to India, seeing that the sea route they were using took six to 10 months to travel.

This longer sea route involved passing through West Africa, going down round South Africa (the Cape of Good Hope), then getting to Eastern Africa before finally following the wind to India. Since it took them so long, they tried to look for another route.

And that’s when the idea of a route through the Suez Canal (which was being built by the French between 1859 and 1869) came about.

If they wanted to control the shorter sea route to India, they had to control the Suez Canal. But if they wanted to control the Suez Canal, then they had to control the land around it, which is Egypt. But if they wanted to control Egypt, then they had to control the River Nile.

But if they wanted to control the River Nile, then they had to control its source, which is the Lake Victoria. But if they wanted to control the Lake Victoria, then they had to control the land around it.

The British weren’t sure where the source of the Nile was, and it wasn’t until 30th July 1858 when John Hanning Speke, an English explorer, ‘discovered’ Lake Victoria. However, the River Nile was so full of rapids and cataracts, it was impossible for people to sail upstream, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Lake Victoria. Therefore, they had to look for an alternative access route to the lake, and that’s when the idea of using the East African Coast came up.

Having figured out exactly what land they need as part of their Empire, it wasn’t a surprise then, that during the Berlin Conference of 1884, they carved out the area surrounding the River Nile, from Egypt at the top, to Sudan below it and finally to Uganda.

They also carved out the section from Uganda to the East African Coast, since that would be the access route they’d use to get to the source of the River Nile.

In 1888, William Mackinnon got a Royal Charter from the British family to be the one in charge of East Africa. He immediately deployed a team of officials like Frederick Lugard, George Wilson, Purkiss, Eric Smith and so on. For the next few years, they built inroads to the British East African region, signing treaties with the local leaders and building forts or stations.

By 1895, however, they became bankrupt due to losses accrued from constant battles with the natives. Therefore, they became insolvent and returned the charter to the British Government, and this area was effectively declared a British Protectorate.


The first activity the British government embarked on was the construction of a railway to run from Mombasa at the East African Coast to Lake Victoria. To carry this out, they sought the services of one Albhai Jeevanjee, who imported labour from India to work as the coolies.

In the year 1897, the railway builders got to Machakos, and the chief engineer, George Whitehouse, decided to walk ahead and scout for a perfect place to set up a depot.

That is when he came across the swamp that was Enkare Nyrobi. Falling almost halfway through the journey (Mile 327), he decided that this would be the ideal resting point for the workers because it had a temperate climate, and so they may plan on how to embark the Kikuyu highlands ahead.

The following year, in 1898, Albert Church was tasked with designing the layout of the town-to-be. In his design, he laid out the plan for a station at one end, with two roads running perpendicular from it and parallel to each other.

The roads, at the time, were known as Station Street and Victoria Street, but have now had their names changed to Moi Avenue and Tom Mboya Street. They were intended to run from the Station Headquarters to the Colonial Administrator’s house, which was situated at the top of Museum Hill, where the National Museum presently sits.

Additionally, his plan also laid out the segregation of the various races, at the time being the whites and the Indians. It is important to note that the Blacks/natives were not in the colonialists’ plans at this time, and even in years to come, they only got allocated land in Eastlands, where the soil was too poor to carry out any farming, and instead, only experienced flooding.

According to Albert Church’s plan, the Indian coolies would live on the area to the east of the railways station, which, to this day is the Muthurwa and Gikomba Market, with the road passing between them still known as Landhies Road. The term ‘landhies’ is presumed to be an Anglo-Indian name that means ‘railway workers’ accommodation’.

As for the railway officers, as well as any other colonial administrators at the time, they were allocated the land to the west of the railway, which today sits Upper Hill and Community. The area sat atop a hill, and thanks to that, the railway officers could see the budding town from their places of residence.

The area between the residences of the railway officers and the railway workers would be businesses, churches and trading centres. That is where the CBD currently sits.

In 1899, the railway builders finally arrived in Nairobi. The area, as the name said, was a place of cool waters. The Railways Station at the time was a single mabati shack, and that served as the depot for all goods.

Construction continued, and in 1900, the railway finally got to Nakuru, and in 1901, it arrived in Kisumu, completing the construction.

More than anything, it had cost a lot of money to the British government, and, to recoup the money they spent, they decided to bring in settlers to carry out farming here so that the railway could be useful in transportation of their produce. Thanks to the Crown Land Ordinances, these settlers were able to get large tracts of lands for cheaper prices, which they made into ranches.

Slowly by slowly, the country started developing, with towns coming up. Sir Charles Eliot, reflecting on how they got here, was surprised how a country was birthed out of a railway, hence quipped the statement we mentioned in the beginning.


In 1971, the East African Railways and Harbours Corporation established a museum just next to the current Railways Station. This museum exhibits the history of the railway construction in Kenya, with images and artifacts from the time. It still has tracks connected to the main railway line, and some restored locomotives are displayed in the yard.

Visiting the place is like time-travelling back to the past.

We started by taking a trip inside, looking at the images. We saw the man-eaters of Tsavo, posing a challenge to the construction of the railway as they’d regularly attack the workers. We experienced the extreme heat at Machakos, with nary a water source nearby.

We got to the Kikuyu highlands, and wondered how to overcome this hilly terrain. Afterwards, it went all downhill to Nakuru, and we had an easy time. In Nandi, the locals put up a spirited fight, but as we all know, nothing can beat the gun.

We finally got to Lake Victoria, and Princess Florence laid the last steel key, completing the construction of the railway. We even named the town in honour of her, Port Florence, though the natives later came to reclaim it as Kisumu.

We went to the mabati shack that formed the first railways station, sat on the waiting benches and saw the first railway head approach, marked ‘UR 1’ for ‘Ugandan Railway 1’.

We gleefully boarded it and sat at the cabins, staring outside the window to admire the beautiful wildlife that dotted the tropical savannah of East Africa.

Almost as if we were the characters in Ernest Hemingway’s book, ‘The Green Hills of Africa’, we pulled out our binoculars and started looking for elephants to hunt. And just like former American President Theodore Roosevelt in his book ‘African Game Trails’, we pulled out a gun, loaded it with bullets, and aimed it at the animal, striking it down.


After this time travel, we finally settled down to sketch.

With us was our best artist in town, Ruthless Ruth, who accurately painted the first railways station, with the UR 1 pulling in. Her painting was so good that it only needed a little bit of stop-motion for it to become an animation.

We also had Brenda Ngoya, an urban designer, who got to tell her plans of a proper Nairobi. It felt so sad upon the realisation that, however good her plans are, they will only remain on paper, for the authorities have no intentions of implementation. This seems to be the case for all other professionals in the built environment.

As for the boys, like John Mark, Ellie, Uzima and Mutinda, they spent the whole time jumping from train to train as if they were playing Subway Surfers in real life.

At the end of the day, we all learnt about the railway, and it surely was a beautiful experience. I wonder where we’ll go for our next Sketch Tour. Uganda maybe?

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