How is it that the connection between railway construction and imperial rule is such
an immediate and palpable one that it is not hard to believe one can hear the
locomotive pant and whistle even if the events took place a century ago? It is as if
yesterday's British boys' (well, maybe all but one!) proverbial wish to drive an engine
was realised by their later vicarious contact with the great railway age as they boarded
the Punjab Night Mail or the Uganda Express. The link between empire and railways
has long fascinated historians and gone on to beguile countless readers; think of such
classics of the East African railway saga as M. F. Gill's Permanent Way, Charles
Miller's The Lunatic Express, Ronald Hardy's The Iron Snake and Arthur Beckenham's
Wagon of Smoke, Satow and Desmond's pictorial Railways of the Raj, or the Canadian
epic (book and film) The Last Spike. Nor have empire novelists been immune from such
excitement, as readers of John Masters' Bhowani Junction or Paul Theroux's The Great Railway Bazaar will quickly recall. Today's travel agents, too, are fully alive to the
opportunities of historical recall and social nostalgia to be derived from re-inventing the
Orient Express and South Africa's Outeniqua steam train. Now it is the turn of the
Nigerian Railway, this year marking its 100th birthday, to join the club with the deeply
knowledgeable Francis (Patrick to his friends) Jaekel in the cab.
And what an experienced locomotive driver Jaekel is! He is at once indefatigable (his
three volume history, which weighs in at 8'/4 lbs. on my wife's immaculate Weight-
Watcher's scales, took seventeen years to write and its 1250 pages took him 27 weeks to
proof-read), highly qualified (after an apprenticeship with the LMS he spent 27 years
with the Nigerian Railways, going back to 1938 when it was still a Government
Department and he thus a Colonial Service Officer), and meticulous (his trailer in the
Nigerian Field, vol. 62, at once indicated what a rich compendium of facts railway
historians of Nigeria could look forward to). This is a remarkable, life-time's labour of
Jaekel writes about no less than nine railway systems, all the way from the Lagos
Government Railway (the first train ran in 1901, despatched from Iddo by a Hausa
Guard of Honour and nicknamed "The Iron Horse'' by its first passenger, the Alake of
Abeokuta) and the onomatopoeic kokomaiko Lagos Steam Tramways of 1902 (replacing
the Da Rocha rickshaws); through Lugard's 12-mile narrow-gauge railway of 1901,
connecting his new capital of Zungeru with the River Kaduna, and the Bauchi Light
Railway, so crucial to the tin-mining industry on the Plateau, started in 1907 and closed
in a grand ceremony at Zaria in 1957, with one of its engines (No. 56) now in Jos
Museum; on to the Nigerian Eastern Railway, crossing the Benue at Makurdi to link
Port Harcourt with Kaduna; and finally the Borno Extension Railway, started in 1958
and, over such flat country beyond the Jos Plateau, quickly reaching Maiduguri in 1964.
Today, in a post-Jaekelian era, Nigeria's new capital of Abuja has at last been connected
by rail to Kaduna and further lines are scheduled to link Abuja with Lagos and even
reach once-remote Yola.
For Jaekel, Nigeria's railway history can also be seen, like that of the USA, in terms
of what he calls Tinks-in' milestones: the joining up of the LGR and NER at Minna in
1912, of the North and South branches of the NER at Gerti in 1926, and the
inauguration of the work to join the NRC and NER at Kuru in 1958.
Perhaps because of its comprehensive encompassing of one hundred years of
Nigeria's transportation systems and its professional preoccupation with statistics
galore, this is not an easy book to read or to find ones way about in. Vol. I focuses on
opening up the country to sea, river, road and air transportation, with the railway not
making its appearance before Chapter 10. Vol. II concentrates on the railway's network
and infrastructure, very much the core of the study and comprising half the whole.
Vol. Ill deals with "organisation, structure and related matters", including timetables,
training, railway catering, crime and railway police, etc. There are nearly a thousand
photographs, maps, tables and diagrams. Each volume usefully carries an index, but -
less helpfully to the historian - there is nothing in the way of bibliographical guidance.
While the text opens nobly with chapters on trade in 20th century Nigeria, geography
and demography, it ends lamely with a chapter on the Railway's medical and health
services, lacking any sense of a conclusion.
In 1998 the Nigerian Railway Corporation stages its centenary. It is an occasion for
which Francis Jaekel's exhaustive History of the Nigerian Railway is eminently
appropriate. In his Preface he claims that the history of Nigeria the country cannot be
divorced from that of Nigeria the railway. Nor, this reviewer believes, can the
chronicling of the Nigerian Railway now ever be separated from the name of Francis
(aka Patrick) Jaekel.