20 Kasım 2013 Çarşamba

Quotation: Princeton University A World History of The World, Railroads: the Force or Result of Expansion?

After studying several primary sources from different regions of the world including Russia and China, our team met this past Tuesday and discussed the development of railroad systems in the 19th century and how it influenced various emerging nation states from an economic and imperialistic perspective. Were railroads a greater force for positive economic development or imperialistic expansion? This is difficult to determine, because imperialistic expansion was often tied in with economic interests. However, ultimately I believe that imperialism was the motivating force behind railroad expansion, and that railroads were used primarily as a defensive tool to consolidate already conquered lands, partially through the economic benefits that they provide.

Russia’s history of expansion predates the development of their railroad system. Driven by a desire to create a buffer between them and their rival neighbors to ward off threats and preserve existing boundaries, the Russians pressed into new territories. For example, Russian expansion into the Caucasus Mountains protected Russia from Ottomans and Persian encroachment. They ventured into Persia and Afghanistan to fight the British, and spread into East Asia to compete with China for land just north of Manchuria. After 20 years of battle with the Chinese, the Russians claimed this land and established they key Pacific Ocean port of Vladivostok in 1860. The expanding Russia and their practice of Russification to assimilate the conquered peoples can be compared to the far reaching tentacles of an octopus that sucks anything in reach into its strong grasp, as the map from an English journal depicts below.

However it was after conquering these territories that the Russian government began the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railroad to link the capital at that time (St. Petersburg) and the West with the East (particularly the port at Vladivostok), completed in 1903. This suggests that railroads are not so much a force for imperialist expansion, but rather a tool to aid in consolidation to maintain imperial gains. By facilitating transportation between various regions of the empire as well as improving communication, centralization made governing such a large landmass much easier. Additionally, this also led to economic benefits as access to a port increased trade, making the periphery all the more central to Russia’s success. With an economic motivation to protect and increased access due to the development of the railroad network, Russia was able to consolidate these already conquered lands under a more centralized rule.

By 1875, there were more than 136,000 miles of track in Europe, including over 25,000 miles in England, France, and Germany. 20 years later, the total miles of track laid in China allotted to a whopping 179. However far before 1895 people in China recognized that they were behind their rivals, and this posed a great threat. While China, with defined borders, did not pursue imperialistic expansion, they recognized that other nations still might. Ma Jianzhong, a merchant in the China Merchant Steam Navigation Company, argues in an essay in 1879 for the immediate construction of railroads so that China can catch up to the rest of the world. Ma points out that “within the next few years all the countries surrounding [China] will have completed construction of their rail networks… and at that point [China] would be caught unawares… and the foreign powers would encroach on [their] frontier regions in order to control the very heart of China.” Rather than using railroads for China to expand, the key was to create a system to allow for the mobilization of troops to defend and consolidate the land they already had. Additionally, Ma notes that the railroads would lead to several economic benefits. Due to the improved efficiency and availability of a form of transportation, China would gain “yearly savings on the transport costs of purchased grain amounting to millions of taels” as well as be able to capitalize on their superior coal and iron and “dispel worries of unexploited natural resources and stagnant markets.” Once again, the railroads are not seen as an offensive tool to promote imperialist expansion. Rather, they are a defensive tool to protect China from threatening foreigners, as well improve efficiency and transportation within existing lands, leading to economic gains and further uniting the nation state.

By taking a step back, this conclusion becomes all the more clear. Take, for example, maritime trading networks. They physically connect far away places, boosting the global economies and facilitating imperialistic expansion and the development of colonies. A railroad, on the other hand, is a technology of the land. It serves to develop and connect the people of a nation, within the terrestrial boundaries to which they provide access. This idea is consistent with the notion that railroads are not a major imperialistic force, but rather are a major force used to connect and consolidate the existing domain of a nation.


Tignor, Robert L. "Chapter 17." Worlds Together, Worlds Apart. New York, N.Y., [etc.: Norton, 2011. N. pag. Print.

Image: http://grandwar.kulichki.net/maps/map_balc_humor.htm

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