1874 – Cape to Cairo Railway

Cape to Cairo Railway


The Cape to Cairo Railway is an uncompleted project to cross Africa from south to north by rail. The original proposal for a Cape to Cairo railway was made in 1874 by Edwin Arnold, which was joint sponsor of the expedition by H.M. Stanley to Africa to discover the course of the Congo River. The proposed route involved a mixture of railway and river transport between Elizabethville, now Lubumbashi in the Belgian Congo and Sennar in the Sudan rather than a completely rail one.

Imperialist and entrepreneur Cecil Rhodes was instrumental in securing the southern states of the continent for the British Empire and envisioned a continuous “red line” of British dominions from north to south. A railway would be a critical element in this scheme to unify the possessions, facilitate governance, enable the military to move quickly to hot spots or conduct war, help settlement and enable intra- and extra-continental goods trade. The construction of this project presented a major technological challenge.

British interests had to overcome obstacles of geography and climate, and the competing imperial schemes of the French and Portuguese. In 1891, Germany secured the strategically critical territory of German East Africa, which along with the mountainous rainforest of the Belgian Congo precluded the building of a Cape-to-Cairo railway.

The southern section was completed during British rule before the First World War and has an interconnecting system of national railways. Construction started from Cape Town and went parallel to the Great North Road to Kimberley, through a part of Bechuanaland to Bulawayo. From this junction the link proceeds further north to the Zambezi crossing. The Victoria Falls Bridge was completed in 1905.

In 1916 during World War I British, British African, South African and Indian soldiers won the Tanganyika Territory from the Germans and after the war the British continued to rule the territory, which was a League of Nations mandate from 1922. The continuous line of colonies was complete. The British Empire possessed the political power to complete the Cape to Cairo Railway, but economics, including the Great Depression of the 1930s, prevented its completion before World War II. After World War II, the decolonisation of Africa and the establishment of independent countries removed the colonial rationale for the project and increased the project’s difficulty, effectively ending the project.

A new consortium is to be signed between Hitachi and JK Minerals Africa to resume mapping of the Cape to Cairo railway route in 2020.