September 03, 2010

Spread of Railways: The Revolt of 1857

The spread of the railways in India, whose inaugural run was on April 16, 1853, after the First War of Independence was spurred by the British strategy for rapid transport of forces and raw materials from across the country.
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The British Empire, faced with the first real revolt in 1857 which engulfed large parts of northern India, decided to lay down foundations of effective administrative governance and mobility of forces and Railways became its strategic part, A. Ramarao, Chief Operating Superintendent (Retd) Eastern Railway has said. The railway was meant to enhance mobility.
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In an article in “Rail Heritage Journal”, he said successive Governor Generals, culminating in the feverish activities under Lord Dalhousie, spurred the rapid spread of transport and communications, which eventually helped the British cause. The Bombay to Thana line, established in 1853, resulted from the efforts of the mainly European trading community in the city with the aim of expediting the transport of cotton to the textile mills Lancashire.
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Till then cotton, grown beyond the Western Ghats, was transported in small quantities to Bombay Port, crossing the Ghats on the backs of donkeys, Rao said, adding that a sense of urgency was lent to the line when supply of cotton from North America became uncertain. In Eastern India, Rao said the Railways were pioneered by Rowland McDonald Stephenson, the first Agent of the East Indian Railway, whose formal proposal for a railway system in India became the cornerstone of British railway policy. The first line from Howrah to Serampore was opened on 15 August 1854,, and the line quickly spread to Raniganj to tap the newly opened collieries there, Rao said.
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The inauguration of the East Indian Railway in February 1855 was a major event, though Dalhousie, unable to travel due to indisposition, attended the ceremonies only at Howrah.
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He said Stephenson had foreseen the economic, military and strategic importance of this new, speedier form of transport for securing the country, where the lurking danger of internal strife and external interference could never be overestimated, given its reputation of rich resources waiting to be exploited.
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His report on the “Introduction of Railways into India”, submitted in 1844, gave top priority to the need of railway communication in India from a military point of view, Rao said. The East Indian railway Company was set up in 1845, following Stephenson’s report, but the scheme for a line from Calcutta to Delhi had a tortuous passage through the government so much so that in 1849, the very existence of the EIR was threatened, he said.
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Stephenson then formulated a five-point justification to approach the then British Prime Minister, four of which emphasized the value of railways in safeguarding British possessions in India.
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The truth of Stephenson’s apprehensions was tested sooner than perhaps he himself would have imagined, in the 1857 revolt, Rao wrote. Rao said the total length of railways in India was 288 miles at the end of 1857. The railway line from Bombay had only progressed till Kalyan. In the east, he said the Burdwan-Rajmahal line was under construction, and plans were afoot to extend it up to Mirzapur, Allahabad and Jabalpur. A line from Delhi to Agra was also on the anvil.
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When the mutiny erupted, the lines in operation were short and confined to the hinterlands of Calcutta and Bombay ports.
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The rebellion in Bombay was put down before it started, while most of the action was in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, apart from Meerut and Delhi, in areas covered by the EIR.
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In August 1857, the Acting Agents of the EIR reported to the Board of Directors that services were suspended because, “Express trains have proved utterly unremunerative. Several attempts were made to throw them off the rails”.
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“The mutineers enjoyed strong local support in sabotaging railway operations in late 1857. Every effort has been made to detect the parties endeavoring to throw those trains with success, despite offering an award of Rs 100 for information on the subject”, Rao, quoting the reports of Agents, said.
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Despite its short length, the EIR came in handy for quelling the rebellion, he said and recalled when British reinforcements from Madras landed in Calcutta, the troops were moved over the railway up to Raniganj.
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Source and Author: Unknown