They have wakened the timeless Things; they have killed their father Time;
Joining hands in the gloom, a league from the last of the sun.
Hush! Men talk to-day o'er the waste of the ultimate slime,
And a new Word runs between: whispering, "Let us be one!"
--Kipling, "The Deep-Sea Cables"
The term Middle East was born in the beginning of the twentieth century. It would have been unthinkable without a series of spatial transformations in the nineteenth century, including the deployment of new steamer and telegraph lines, railways, and the Suez Canal, which together constituted a new West-East route via Egypt and gradually replaced the long sea voyage to India around the Cape of Good Hope. The geography we now deem natural was produced by these technologies of transportation and communication.
The longue durée expansion of European trade and colonialism was shaped by the monopoly of Muslim merchants, cities, states, and empires over the major transregional trade routes to the East and their alliance with Genoa and Venice. The desire to circumvent these middlemen was a key impetus in the European search for a sea route to India and direct access to the spices and textiles coveted in Western Europe. In 1492 Columbus voyaged across the Atlantic, looking for a westward alternative to the overland trade route to the Indies. This desire was fulfilled several years later with Vasco da Gama's "discovery" of a direct sea route to India around Africa via the Cape of Good Hope. Ironically, the feat was made possible by an ensemble of Islamicate seafaring technologies, navigational knowledge, wind records, and expertise. Da Gama's 1498 Indian Ocean journey from the Cape to Goa was guided by a Muslim pilot. Europe's "great divergence" at the turn of the nineteenth century has been attributed to the opening up of these New Worlds of possibility.
The great distances separating the disjointed parts of the European early modern colonial empires-empires born out of such famous voyages-fragmentized their geographies, and hence their politics. Until the nineteenth century, a one-way journey between England and India along the sea route around Africa could last an entire year-a delay requiring that most decision making and administration take place "on the spot." Yet during the second quarter of the nineteenth century, the Overland Route to India via Egypt-one of the key routes whose circumvention propelled the European colonial project in the first place-was rediscovered. In less than two decades, between the late 1820s and the mid-1840s, travel time between England and India had shrunk to one month, and the distance between these two places imploded. The gradual abandonment over the next three decades of the sea route around Africa significantly contributed to a rearrangement of the eastern parts of the British Empire. This space could gradually be traversed and managed as a continuous geographical, political, and economic surface formally governed, since 1858, from London.
This reconfiguration was not simply a result of technological acceleration or the preference of one route over another. Rather, it involved a complex negotiation among people, energy sources, engineering techniques, cultural protocols, and economic forces that gradually interfaced in more and more synchronized and stable manners. This chapter explores how this process created the British route to India via Egypt, overland and also over and underwater. As far as Egypt is concerned, it examines how this country was gradually annexed into a global technological, notional, political, and economic world beyond its borders. How did Egypt emerge simultaneously as a new geographical hub and as a political and economic periphery in a refashioned British Empire? We cannot discuss time without recourse to spatial concepts. Exploring this paradoxical "Middle Eastern" spatiality and the embryonic forms of politics spawned by the temporal standardization and synchronization that created it thus lays the groundwork for the equally contradictory temporality that will come to punctuate this space-the "Egyptian time" recounted in the following chapters.
Technology and Geography: From the Cape Route to the Egyptian Route
The surfacing of Egypt as a middle ground between a Britain and an India that were distinct parts of a single colonial empire can be ascribed to the very outcomes of the European success in circumventing Egypt as a central junction of East-West trade and traffic from the turn of the sixteenth century onward. The opening of the Americas and of the sea route to India intensified the gradual and uneven decline of the Mediterranean and weakened Ottoman influence over transregional trade and politics. The subsequent hegemony over trade and later the colonization of production brought unparalleled wealth to Western Europe, eventually financing its industrialization. The development of steam power in England at the end of the eighteenth century expedited technological developments in seafaring, improving communication with overseas colonies. The Industrial Revolution provided financial and political incentives for using steam power to bring England and India closer. Great profits could be made not only in the colonies but also in the growing industry of transportation and communication that linked them with Europe by moving goods, travelers, and information.
The opening of the Egyptian route was attributed (by historical actors since the early 1850s and until recently by historians) to one of these profit seekers, Thomas Waghorn (1800-1850), a pioneering son of a butcher from Chatham. Yet historians have shifted lately from their longstanding admiration of Waghorn as the route's founder to dismissing him as a self-promoter and exaggerator who unfairly claimed credit for a process that also involved many others. Both admiration and criticism make Waghorn a suitable first protagonist for this chapter. (He will later be joined by a dying camel and a semiliterate sea termite.) Waghorn indeed simplified a complex and heterogeneous story into a morality tale of great men and entrepreneurial spirit. Keeping him at the center of this decentered history is a way of keeping in sight the importance of simplification as part and parcel of hybrid histories involving multiple human and nonhuman actors. (Mis)representation, as all three protagonists will demonstrate, was itself a historical force, often constituting very real environments.
To begin recounting the creation of the new Egyptian route, a process whereby geography and technology produced each other, we might start with the geotechnical coincidence that fueled the Industrial Revolution. Whereas coal and even basic steam-engine technology could also be found outside of Britain, the geographical proximity of British coal mines to mechanically skilled artisans and water transportation networks, as well as a related mining problem-the need to pump out water-may explain early nineteenth-century developments in British steam engines and the country's growing reliance on fossil fuels.
A similar argument can be made about subsequent attempts to use steam engines to travel by water. Ocean steamers presented a new set of problems for shipbuilders who needed to develop new designs for vessels carrying their own energy source onboard. For example, the Dutch steamer Atlas, built in 1826 for the purpose of testing the practicability of steam navigation between Holland and Java, failed because it was too large and heavy for its engines and steering systems. The Atlas's size was a direct result of the fact that it was designed to carry a sufficient supply of coals for the entire voyage to Java, because the Dutch did not have any settlement at which they could stop for refueling along the way. By contrast, British ocean steamers could be much smaller (and therefore cheaper to build, and easier to propel and navigate) because they could stop for refueling when circling Africa. In both the Dutch and British cases, imperial geographies were mapped on the design of ships, and vice versa. Imperialism operated at the level of the engine, the size and shape of the ship, and the political map of the ocean it crossed. It was simultaneously an engineering factor and a political vector.
From the design perspective, in the ideal steamer coal occupied all free space, leaving no room for cargo or passengers. Waghorn, a young lieutenant stationed at the Bengal Pilot Service during the early days of ocean steam navigation in the 1820s, was obsessed with designing and commanding a steamer that would be able to make the journey from England to India via the Cape of Good Hope. He proposed to solve the aforementioned design problem by building small steamers whose voyages would be financed exclusively by delivering newspapers and letters between the metropolis and the potential coaling depots along the way to India. Steam power was expected to cut one-way travel time roughly in half, to six months. Waghorn aimed to translate this saved time into capital, increasing mail fares to the point at which steam navigation would become profitable.
Waghorn spent the second half of the 1820s trying to gather support for his proposed steamer line via the Cape. Among his interlocutors were engineers, members of Parliament, colonial officials, and merchants, making it impossible to neatly categorize this scheme as political, economic, or technical. It can be labeled a failure, however. Existing post laws compelled all vessels on the Cape route to take letter bags on board free of any sea postage. Any change in postage fares required an act of Parliament.
Waghorn, who thus had to seek his fortune elsewhere, accepted an invitation to examine the possibility of steam navigation in the Red Sea. A rapid and well-publicized trip in 1830 from London to Suez and from there to India convinced him that his destiny was as the proprietor of a private Overland Route mail agency. One of the ways he promoted this agency was to claim the discovery of a new route to India, even though other Britons were already aware of it. This false advertisement proved extremely durable.
Waghorn's career trajectory reveals the acceleration of British communication with India. As late as the 1820s, sailing via the Cape could take as long as a year. Waghorn's 1829 plan for steam communication on that route was meant to reduce this time by half. During the same year, even that hypothetical record was broken by Waghorn himself in his first rapid journey to India via Suez, which lasted four months and twenty-one days. In half a decade of operating an efficient private line, he reduced this time so significantly that by 1835, after the advent of Red Sea steam navigation, a ninety-day journey was considered slow. In 1837 the journey lasted about fifty-four days in each direction, and between 1841 and 1843 Waghorn reported an average traveling time of thirty-six days. When the plan for a Cairo-Suez railway (abandoned in the late 1830s) was reconsidered in 1844, one of its goals was to reduce Indian communication to less than one month, enabling letters from India to be answered by the ensuing mail to India. In less than fifteen years, the distance between India and England shrank to approximately one-twelfth of what it had been.
Aside from improving the safety and comfort of the journey, the most important endeavor was constantly expediting it. Waghorn devoted most of his efforts to synchronizing the various sections of the route, preventing time gained by technological acceleration from being lost waiting for the next means of transportation, thereby wasting the fuel, and hence money, spent in acceleration. Synchronicity optimized the equation of time and money. Time was not only a quantity to be reduced but a standard to be adhered to, speed and synchronicity thus reinforcing each other. During the 1840s, travel time between India and England was already calculated by the minute, and complex calculi that factored the different speeds of vehicles, weather variations, and optimal stopping times at stations were devised to match synchronicity with speed. These calculi enabled unifying the multiple schedules of the different sections into a single standard timetable that came to embody the Overland Route.
Synchronicity was made possible, to a large degree, by steam navigation. Steamers began sailing in the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean in the early 1830s. But as late as 1870, they were still competing nose-to-nose with sailing ships whose driving force-the wind-was free and did not take up space onboard. Like coal, wind was wedded to a particular temporality. Not unlike coal, it could be micromanaged with translations into money, space, and time. Yet such translations, for example the word monsoon, derived from the Arabic word for seasons (mawasim), reveal the difference in scale between calculi of wind and coal. The monsoon winds did not make sailing a whimsical matter; on the contrary, since the fifteenth century, careful registration of weather conditions dictated fixed schedules and itineraries. The monsoon weather system allowed sailing through the Indian Ocean in the spring and fall, compelling ships and merchants to wait in ports in between. Steamers, by contrast, could move year round.
Yet there was nothing inherently superior in the incessant (and by 1870, faster) motion of the steamer, compared to the significantly cheaper and more spacious sailing ship. As we now know, the competition was settled after the 1869 inauguration of the Suez Canal, which put the Mediterranean in direct contact with the Indian Ocean. The narrow waterway could be crossed only slowly and with difficulty by sailing ships (dependent on tacking to catch the wind). Reducing average steam travel between London and Bombay to thirty-three days in 1870 (compared with eighty-seven sailing days around the Cape), and significantly reducing insurance premiums, the canal eventually made steam navigation the preferable mode of sea voyage.
But the synchronizing of traffic along the new route to India cannot be reduced to the regularity of steam. It also entailed increasingly efficient interfaces among different means of transportation (steamers, animal-driven carts, and trains), and between them and human institutions (border and customs controls, hotels, tourist guides, and political authorities). What were the forms of politics, management, supervision, and culture that created the new route and were created around it?
Egypt: A State with a Route or a Route with a State?
Waghorn's remarkable success in expediting travel between England and India owes much to the fact that such acceleration complemented the interests of Egypt's ruler, Mehmet 'Ali Pasha (who eventually took on Waghorn as an ambassador and advisor), and was one of his lasting legacies. Mehmet 'Ali was the second in command of the Ottoman army (backed by a British fleet) sent in 1801 to drive Napoleon's army of occupation out of Egypt. The French had occupied this eastern Mediterranean Ottoman province in 1798, implementing a plan promoted by Charles Maurice de Talleyrand several years earlier. Instead of a frontal assault on Britain, they chose to challenge British possession of the Cape of Good Hope with a French-controlled Red Sea route to India. Invoking the old Venetian model of conducting eastern trade through Egypt, French politicians dreamed of renewing their colonial empire and making the Mediterranean a French lake. These dreaad already faded by the end of 1798, with Nelson's victory in the so called Battle of the Nile. After the French army evacuated Egypt three years later, Mehmet 'Ali prevailed in the ensuing struggle for power. He would rule as the Ottoman governor of Egypt until his death in 1848.
Thus the arrival on the scene of Mehmet 'Ali, hailed by British colonial administrators and later by Egyptian nationalists as "the father of modern Egypt," bears the mark of the European India traffic. And so does the centralizing state he began to establish, formally part of the Ottoman Empire but increasingly independent from Istanbul. Egypt's relative autonomy was attained by a rapid pursuit of economic development, which tied it to the global market and pushed it toward the ambit of the British Empire. Waghorn's arrival in Egypt coincided with the culmination of Mehmet 'Ali's state-building efforts, which included the introduction of long-staple cotton, the building of a modern European-trained army, and innovations in transportation and communication-of which Waghorn's Overland Route agency reaped the fruits. In turn, the influx of goods, tourists, and information along the route meant more taxable revenue for Egypt and the channeling of East-West commerce through the country.
To maintain and develop this resource, the safety, efficiency, and comfort of British travelers and mail became an important Egyptian concern. Overland Route traffic was handled by special officers in distinct warehouses in Alexandria, Cairo, and Suez. Passenger luggage was transported on the route free of tax. The Pasha paved parts of the route between Cairo and Suez and built desert lodges for the comfort of travelers, in which one could even get a haircut.
Mehmet 'Ali's commitment to continuous and uninterrupted British communication with India remained unwavering even during his 1831 invasion of Syria, which put Egypt at war with Britain and led to a British blockade of Alexandria and interception of Egyptian communications. When important news arrived in Egypt, the Pasha made exceptional efforts to expedite it. Further, the Pasha deliberately sabotaged attempts to explore and open competing routes outside Egypt. One of the reasons for the failure of an expedition to the Euphrates during the mid-1830s, for example, was sabotage perpetrated by Egyptian agents in Syria-from denying the expedition animals and workers to actively damaging its equipment.
At Waghorn's suggestion, in 1835 the Pasha started constructing a railway between Cairo and Suez-the most difficult section of the Overland Route-for the purpose of "the acceleration of the mails and passengers through Egypt." According to the plan, the extension of the Cairo-Suez line to Alexandria would have reduced the time required for crossing Egypt from between eight and ten days to only twenty-four to thirty hours. The death of Alexander Galloway, the engineer in charge, and Britain's refusal to commit in advance to paying postage for conveyance of the mail, delayed the completion of this railway, the first outside Western Europe and North America.
Despite these efforts, the Egyptian route was not without competitors. In 1834, letters from Bombay arrived in England via an overland route through Persia in three months. In 1837 the British press printed accounts of the aforementioned expedition to the Euphrates for the purpose of ascertaining the most eligible "overland route to India." This route required 46 days from England to Bombay and 52 on the return. It was one of five overland routes to India at this time, all going through what came to be known as the Middle East. The same year, the route via Egypt took 53.5 days outbound and 55.5 on the return but had the advantage of including less land travel time than any other route as a result of the constant improvement and acceleration of Egyptian travel arrangements.
In 1839, a new steamer line via the Cape began to compete with the Egyptian route. Its proponents claimed that the Egyptian route, dependent on a foreign ruler, was unreliable and would increase British involvement in the region, eventually forcing Britain to conquer Egypt. This prophecy-repeated frequently in subsequent decades and eventually fulfilled in 1882-reveals the kind of British involvement Egypt's ruler was facilitating. Mehmet 'Ali is said to have used similar words himself: "Egypt is a bridge thrown between Asia and Europe; England must have a free passage over it, or she must take possession of Egypt." Indeed, Thomas Waghorn was one of the first to raise the possibility of British colonization of Egypt, as early as 1837. Acceleration and synchronization had significant political implications.
The gradual development of the overland route and the extension throughout Egypt of a network of railways, roads, telegraphs, bridges, canals, and ports accelerated the shift of the Nile Valley to raw cotton production for the expanding European textile industry. According to the existing historiography, the development of these transportation networks was an offshoot of the industrialization of Egyptian agriculture and its transition to cash crops. While there is much evidence that supports the opposite causality (i.e., that new kinds of transportation technologies gave rise to the cotton economy), given that ends often turn into means, it is sufficient to agree that these were mutually reinforcing processes.
Beginning in the 1830s, new coal depots on the Egyptian shores of the Mediterranean and Red Sea that serviced steamers on both sides of the Overland Route started supplying mainly British coal to inland Egypt, fueling its Nile steamers, its cotton industry, and later its railway. These technologies transported state officials, tax collectors, agricultural inspectors, judges, conscription officers, and policemen between Cairo and the provinces, putting the modern centralizing state in motion. This point reveals much more than simply a causal problem with the claim that the cotton industry spawned the transportation network. The Overland Route provided the infrastructure and impetus for Egypt's transition to fossil fuel. The introduction of this new energy source into a country where even wood was scarce is indispensable for understanding Egypt's great political and economic leaps in the nineteenth century.
Coal consumption grew exponentially. During the year 1842, 7,260 tons of British coal were imported into Egypt; in 1843, this quantity grew to 13,000 tons; in 1844, 23,866 tons were imported; and during 1845, 48,063 tons. By 1899 the total consumption of coal in Egypt reached 825,000 tons. This growth translated into accelerated production and circulation of goods, information, and control. British coal fueled the Egyptian railway, Nile steamers, and other steam engines, including those operating water pumps for irrigation and urban water supply, as well as engines employed in the cotton industry (particularly cotton mills).
Cotton was the keyraw material of the Industrial Revolution, and its movements were abstracted to sketch the world system itself-its market structure, monetized economies, and global division of labor. But if raw Egyptian cotton was a product of British coal, theultimate raw material, can we sustain the neat division of global center and periphery corresponding to a stable opposition of raw and processed? Fueling Egypt with British coal and bringing to its shores the technologies and powers that this coal animated, the Overland Route was a tail wagging the dog.
A Letter That Created Its Destination
In 1851, less than three years after Mehmet 'Ali's death, his grandson and successor, 'Abbas, hired George Stephenson (the son of the pioneer of British railway engineering) to construct a railway on the Overland Route. Work began a year later on a Cairo-Alexandria line, sending clear political signals. To the Ottomans it was an accretion of Egypt's continued autonomous and vanguard role in the empire. To the British it was a signal that the new Egyptian ruler would continue his grandfather's policy of commitment to the improvement of British communication with India.
Twenty-four thousand corvée workers were put to the task, with hundreds of policemen preventing escape attempts. The line connected Egypt's two key urban and commercial centers and tied the cotton-growing Delta to the Alexandria port. Indeed, the construction of this railroad (and the increasing importance of steamships to the Egyptian economy) helped Alexandria replace Dimyat as Egypt's second city, precisely in this period. The new railway covered a significant section of the Overland Route and stretched parallel to and across a major water source (the Nile). It could be presented to the Porte as an internal Egyptian matter and to the British as a compromise that distinguished Egypt's position within the otherwise hostile Ottoman Empire.
The quick completion (by 1858) of the next section, between Cairo and Suez, and British support for this railway should also be seen in the context of one of the most important messages conveyed along the Overland Route: the news of the 1857 anticolonial uprising in India, a letter that created its own destination. Violence broke out in India on May 10 of that year, and the news reached London a month and a half later. Inside the Indian subcontinent, news moved along a newly introduced telegraph and railway. (The disastrous economic effects of these networks contributed to the spread of the revolt in the first place, according to some historians.) The message was dispatched from Calcutta on May 18, reached Bombay by land on May 27, was transmitted by steamer to Suez, crossed Egypt overland, and was sent again by steamer from Alexandria to Trieste. Leaving Trieste on June 25, it reached London by wire on the night of June 26-about one month and twenty hours after leaving India.
As soon as the news arrived, the Court of Directors of the East India Company recommended to the British cabinet the immediate dispatch of army units via the Overland Route. The cabinet decided instead to send troops in sailing vessels around the Cape-the slowest means possible. Only after the first confusion subsided were steamers used on this route, and even then, only the older and slower side-wheelers. The main reason for avoiding the Egyptian route was fear that the Ottomans, Egyptians, or French would object to the transit of British troops through Egypt. But when it was suggested to 'Abbas that small units might pass through Egypt in civilian clothes and without their weapons, he declared that he would arrange the transport of not merely two hundred men, but of twenty thousand if necessary, in uniform and armed. "I will not consider them as transit passengers, but as my own, and will carry them by my own private engines, carriages, and trucks." His enthusiasm indeed translated into reduced travel fares for the passing soldiers. By the end of September, troops were moving along the Egyptian route. Regiments leaving Plymouth reached India after thirty-seven days, while those departing from Malta arrived after sixteen to eighteen days. The Egyptian railway had greatly expedited their transit. The 130 miles between Alexandria and Cairo were completely bridged by rail, as was most of the distance between Cairo and Suez. The entire passage through Egypt, which previously lasted two weeks or more, took about fifty hours.
After 1857 the Egyptian route was regularly used for sending reinforcements to India and considerably aided the suppression of the uprising. In turn, the passage of armed British troops in uniform became a familiar sight in Egypt. In London, the "scandalous" delay in adopting the Overland Route for immediately relieving British India prompted the formation of an investigating committee in 1858. The committee's findings later that year had the effect of calling attention to the divided responsibility of the Indian administration, leading to the passing of the August 1858 "Act for Better Government of India," which terminated the raj of the East India Company. The passage of information and forces via the Egyptian route, as well as the nearly disastrous bypassing of this route, clearly demonstrated the importance of imperial connectivity and the dangers of ignoring it.
These events greatly promoted the status of the Egyptian route as the fastest and most reliable passage to India. By the end of 1858, the Cairo-Suez section of the Egyptian railway was complete. The diplomatic precedent, a reconfigured imperial administration, and the material infrastructure for the colonization of Egypt were now firmly in place. England and India were officially hyphenated by Egypt. An ensemble of railways, laws, telegraphs, political alignments and institutions, waterways, coal depots, and commercial arrangements stabilized this geography and presented it as natural rather than the outcome of contingency, aggression, self-promotion, and a great deal of maintenance. The violent history that connected these different segments left hardly any trace in the timetables, maps, or guidebooks that provided a bird's-eye view of the new route to India. Already the 1846 Waghorn Co.'s Overland Guide to India: By Three Routes to Egypt, with a Map and subsequent texts naturalized the new route and allowed it to emerge as a totality. As we will see, this representation helped shape the space it supposedly merely reflected.
Drawing Attention: Disorientation and the Desert of the Real
The Overland Route was constructed, synchronized, and promoted also in places quite far from Egypt and India. One of these sites was a theatrical adaptation of Waghorn's guidebook. Offering another example of his self-promotion skills, the "Diorama of the Route of the Overland Mail to India" was one of the last public matters in which Waghorn interested himself, and he even managed to promote it with his publicized death in 1851.
Dioramas were given their definitive form by Louis Daguerre, the inventor of photography, in the early 1820s. They consisted of massive, realistic landscape paintings, suspended from a theater ceiling and moving in sequence on a wire, with shifting light effects projected from behind. Alternatively, pictures might be stationed around a revolving platform. During the midcentury "panoramania," the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly-the central diorama venue in London-boasted millions of spectators annually, marking the emergence of a new mass medium of popular entertainment.
Throughout the 1850s, after the diorama of the Overland Mail debuted in London, various other dioramas and panoramas showcased Egypt. "The Great Moving Panorama of the Nile" had been exhibited in England over 2,500 times by 1852. The new photographic "Cairo Panorama" debuted in 1859. In 1860 "London to Hong Kong in Two Hours" took spectators to the Far East via Egypt along the Overland Route. The Overland Route diorama was the emblem of a decade of anxiety about imperial integrity.
Panoramas and dioramas of this period attempted to bring together entertainment and education. A typical description, taken from a review of the 1847 "City of Cairo Panorama," reveals how Eurocentrism was performed in these spectacles: "The visitor standing on the circular platform is in the very center of the locality represented, as real to the eye as if he were on the spot itself." However, unlike the older and static panorama painting, whose viewers had to move their heads and eyes to observe it in full, the new dioramas removed this autonomy, enabling "incorporation of an immobile observer into a mechanical apparatus and a subjection to a predesigned temporal unfolding of optical experience." The metaphor of a mechanical clock was regularly used to describe this nexus of observer, object, and time. In his armchair travel, the spectator was able to "enjoy an imaginary tour without stirring out of his chair, 'While Fancy, like the finger of the clock, / Runs the great circuit, and is still at home.'"Spectators became centerpieces in machines made of wheels in motion. This pseudopanoptic centrality was predicated on the removal of visual sovereignty and the impossibility of separating a viewing subject from the object of perception.
The Route of the Overland Mail to India Diorama-thought to have elevated the medium to an art form-was considered by a theater reviewer to be a superior example of such attention management. It was much longer than most other spectacles, comprising about forty tableaux. The Egyptian scenes attracted the most critical comment:
The route over the desert from Cairo to Suez, a subject offering but few opportunities for variety of effect, is treated with great skill, every occasion being seized of keeping up the interest by the introduction of characteristic details. At the station from which the caravan starts we have a group of figures representing the various classes of personages who are usually to be met on this overland journey; and as we proceed onwards the carcass of a dead camel mourned over by its Ethiopian owner, the withering skeletons of similar victims ... serve to diversify the dreary waste of sand over which the eye is made to travel.
An 1882 description of the history of theatrical effects considered the Overland Route diorama as a forerunner to realistic theater. One of the manifestations of this new theatrical realism was the use of panoramic backgrounds to give the illusion of motion in a railway train during the 1870s and 1880s. From the beginning of the 1850s, the Overland Route diorama was one of the first to simulate actual travel. It was thus a link in the convergence of forms of transportation with forms of representation and perception. In the history that starts with the balloon and painted panorama and continues with aerial photography and cinema, the relation of dioramas, travel books, and trains was an important chapter.
Many dioramas, especially those devoted to foreign travel, were painted with acamera lucida, a portable optical device invented in the first decade of the nineteenth century that allowed a painter to see simultaneously his subject, his pencil, and the drawing surface. Fusing the viewer's hand and object, sight and the illusion of touch, prosthetic devices like the camera lucida marked a turning point in the history of vision. Jonathan Crary argues that during the early nineteenth century geometrical optics, with its model of incorporeal relationship between a sovereign observer and an object of perception, was displaced by physiological optics and nerve theory, in which the body became the idiosyncratic surface on which vision is inscribed, obliterating the distinction between ("internal") sensorium and ("external") stimulation. The camera obscura embodied the older, Cartesian model of vision and subjectivity paradigmatic between the fifteenth and the late eighteenth century. Technologies such as the camera lucida were part of this early modern episteme's deterioration, eventually leading to the abandonment of representational aesthetics and naive realism.
The first known camera lucida to be used in Egypt was brought there in the mid-1820s by Edward William Lane, a friend of the device's inventor. His descriptive texts, written with the intention of accompanying camera lucida drawings, were later expanded and published as the 1836 Account of the Manners and Costumes of the Modern Egyptians, a work that Edward Said used to construct the archetypical figure of the Orientalist. For Said, Lane's work demonstrated Orientalism's construction of a self-referential representational archive that came to replace the real East. Yet by defining Orientalism as a set of literary maneuvers in an insulated written corpus, a (mis)representation of a real East, Said replicated the oppositional mode of Cartesian observation he sought to critique. Camera lucidas like Lane's, the diorama panels created with them, and the landscapes viewed from the windows of trains by the many diorama-viewers-turned-tourists (like Lane himself) suggest that Orientalism shaped the environments it misrepresented. Paradoxically, realistic pictures painted with camera lucidas-accurate simulations standing apart from their observer-helped reestablish the myth of the camera obscura and reincarnated the seemingly stable separation between the observer and a view standing apart (the very gap that the device demolished). Timothy Mitchell described this split as an effect of an "exhibitionary order." Seen from an Egyptian train, the supposedly stable gap between reality and representation was repeatedly put in crisis and restabilized.
In 1845, half a decade before the beginning of railway works in Egypt and the debut of the Overland Route diorama, a British tourist imagined with trepidation the march of technological modernity in the ancient land he was crossing on camelback: "A railroad is about to be constructed across the desert.... [W]hen that day comes, all the excitement and wonder of a journey in the desert will be over. There will be no more pitching of tents, or sleeping under the starry firmament, surrounded by Arabs and camels.... All will be reduced to the systematic tameness of a cotton-factory." But the Egyptian railway did not eradicate excitement; it aestheticized it. Only when the active, dangerous, and bouncy crossing of the desert on camelback or cart was replaced by a relatively smooth, linear, and passive movement through the landscape could the landscape be viewed as landscape-an image set apart from its observer.
Looking at the desert through the train's window (window seats were always in high demand) revealed an Egypt that was flying past as a spectacle. Westerners were now looking at it with the kind of gaze they developed to circumvent the nausea of motion sickness: fixing their eyes on a distant stable point in the landscape, through which they saw Egypt moving like a diorama. The gaze from the train's window was predicated on the incorporation of a passive observer inside the optical mechanism. A sovereign external gaze was replaced by a new episteme that regarded the eye as part of the field of vision, problematizing the neat separation of subject and object. The train was an optical device that seemed to put things in perspective, creating the distance from the object and its picturesque effect: "You only need a mosque with a minaret and a few saints' tombs with whitewashed domes, built of mud, to make a picture," one railway passenger remarked. Or as another passenger put it, "[An Arab village] is hardly distinguishable from the land, certainly not in color.... However, a clump of palm-trees near it gives it an air of repose, and if it possesses a mosque or a minaret it has a picturesque appearance, if the observer does not go too near."
Discerning the village depends on familiar features (like palm trees or mosque minarets) on which rests its picturesque appearance (i.e., its visibility as village). Focus also requires maintaining the "right distance" from the object. Notably, the familiarity of the view, which enabled seeing it as view, was not necessarily the result of a previous sighting. For most travelers in Egypt, crossing the country on their way between Europe and India, the train's window was the first and often the only extended encounter with the "Egyptian landscape." However, framed by the train's window, this landscape that they were freshly laying eyes on was already a familiar one: "We felt at once that we had reached the Egypt of our dreams. The palm tree-that familiar type of Eastern scenery,-the foliage of scripture illustrations, which were so dear among the pictures of our childhood ... was before us at every stage.... By half-past-three, P.M., we had our first sight of the pyramids, and their long familiar forms mellowed to the view by a rosy hue which rested upon them in the distance." Looking for the first time, the eye immediately identifies the already familiar. "They [the pyramids, but in another account] stand still in that purple distance in which we have seen them all our lives." Actual Egypt was filtered through another Egypt brought from home.
And sometimes home erupted into Egypt. Casting a dioramic gaze in the land of the pharaohs was disturbingly uncanny. Sights of "unchanging" agricultural techniques, "ageless" pyramids, and "primordial" camel caravans seemed unreal when viewed from the windows of the most modern means of transportation: "It seems hardly natural to look from the windows of comfortable first-class carriages, rapidly whirling through so primitive a country as we pass through."
The paradoxical nature of the "modern" spectator's relation to the "ancient" surroundings was not confined to the view outside the train. According to various reports, in the first years of their operation, before a steady supply of coal was secured along the railroad, Egyptian trains and Nile steamers were occasionally fueled by mummies. Their dried organic substance and the bitumen used in the embalming made mummies a potent fuel, which Egyptians had used for centuries. The claim that "mummies, cut into proper lengths, made a very good substitute for wood and coal" was printed in English scientific journals, passed by word of mouth, and transformed into the stuff of jokes, rumors, and anxieties. It spread like wildfire among travelers, exacerbating the uncanny temporal paradox of Egyptian railway travel.
Rushing across ancient surroundings on board such haunted trains gave a suspect character to the overly spectacular Egyptian landscape. While dioramas were becoming more and more "realistic," the Egyptian real was increasingly deemed "unreal," "unnatural," "uncanny," "dreamy," or "picturesque." The convergence of these processes accounts for a disorientation reported by European railway and steamer travelers in Egypt. As visitors noted in their diaries and travel accounts, sailing up the Nile, crossing Egypt by rail on the overland route, or viewing Cairo evoked in their minds' eyes the diorama. Real Egypt transported them to the theaters of Europe. "Often, while I was amusing myself with the view of this unbroken series of foreign images," wrote one traveler, "I could fancy that I was still in Europe, and was only looking at a painted diorama of Egypt."
Indeed, while viewing the hyperrealistic Overland Route diorama in London made spectators briefly believe they were actually in the East, looking at the East from the window of a moving train confused passengers into thinking they were watching a diorama in the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly. In such disorientations reality and its representations switched parts, and the temporal structure of the semiotic axis was reversed (the signifier preceding the signified). What were the forces that structured such a nebulous domain, in which reality and representation were not firmly separated? What might constitute appropriate cartography for a terrain where boundaries between the real and simulated were so porous? To answer these questions, we follow our second protagonist, a dying camel, along a macabre path running parallel to the Overland Route.
One of the highlights of the Overland Route diorama was the scene of "the dying camel," regarded as one of the spectacle's key demonstrations of verisimilitude: "Camels too are dying-which is a great proof of the picture's accuracy, for we never recollect a view of the desert yet but that there was sure to be a camel dying in it." As this review suggests, one could hardly represent (i.e., see, as descriptions are always also prescriptions for how to look) the Egyptian desert without this necessary corpus. As a result (one train passenger noted typically), the image of "the artistic painting of the 'Dying Camel,' ... frequently came before me as I saw the decaying carcasses of the faithful quadrupeds scattered along the desert in all stages of decay." The dioramic depiction of the dying camel was an adaptation of a popular 1840s realistic work, Henry Warren's The Dying Camel in the Desert. The diorama further popularized it so much as to warrant a writer's assumption that "most of us have seen the picture of the dying camel." By the 1880s, the image was emblematic of Egypt itself.
The prominence of dying camel images can be explained in two ways. First, camels tended to die near the railway, mostly because they increasingly tended to live and move near it. The camel and the train may appear to be opposites, embodiments of the clashing forces of modernity and tradition. Yet during its first years, the Egyptian railway generated a steady increase in camel caravan transportation (from 50 camels to more than 2,500 in less than three years in the early 1850s). Put plainly, Egyptian trains could not move without camels. Camels carried railway tracks and telegraph poles, transported water (required for engine cooling and steam production) from the Nile to train stations, and moved leftover merchandise and passengers to destinations that were past the railway's reach or beyond its capacity to transport. The animal's split foot even inspired a track-laying system unique to Egypt: instead of using expensive wood boards to tie the tracks to each other, British railway engineers devised a bell-shaped connector that tied the tracks together under the desert sand. Pictorial representations of Egyptian railway stations from the 1850s reveal that camels were an indispensable part of the picture. Yet this proximity led to numerous road accidents involving camels and trains, providing fodder for the pictorial representation of the Egyptian landscape as exotic and ancient. The train was literally producing Egyptian antiquity in the collateral damage of its own modernity.
The second explanation for realistic painting's attraction to dying camels has to do with the aesthetic virtues of death. As panoramas and dioramas grew more realistic, their creators started to face increasing criticism about inanimate objects in the foreground. Figures of humans and animals spoiled the realistic illusion by looking inanimate. Ploys such as foregrounding dying camels offered a solution. Dying camels satisfied various requirements of realistic accuracy: they were "typical" (establishing the correspondence between dioramic and real views) and "worthy of attention," capturing the mortal danger of crossing the desert; they provided a familiar image; and they legitimately didn't move, thereby promoting the realism of a medium that depended on controlling the temporal unfolding of the visualization of movement.
Indeed, the power of such pictures to bring the landscape into focus should be understood within the temporal structure of vision. The movement of the train did not allow extended viewing; it presented snapshots quickly flying past. In this speed the familiar-the contours of which the eye recognizes-was always the first to present itself. The dying camel was a nexus of multiple citations of texts citing images citing other images citing the real, and vice versa: of the real eliciting attention to the elements that made it realistic, worthy of attention and description. This process generalized the singularity of the cited images, transforming every dying camel into the Dying Camel, evoking the type as the organizing principle of the particular. The picture functioned as the standard that comes before its constitutive "examples." "Examples," in turn, came to attest to the image's truth in a protocol whereby essence precedes existence. And of course, drawing attention to always entailed also drawing attention from; focus is always also a procedure of blurring. If dead camels were primordial features of the desert, they could not be seen as casualties of the train.
Meanwhile, the problem of roaming camels colliding with trains on railway bridges and other parts of the track was severe enough to generate abundant correspondence between the Railway Administration, the Ministry of Interior, and other governmental departments, yielding new legislation that attempted to contain the situation. Preventing such dangerous crashes required better control over human and animal movements in the countryside. As camels found it hard to internalize new notions of property, village headmen were assigned the responsibility of supervising herding in their territories. A heavy fine was levied on animal owners whose beasts were hit by a train. As a result of this fine, animal owners most likely refrained from reporting the deaths of their camels and buffaloes.
Administrative reports from places where trains and animals collided frequently included-as an unrelated event to be investigated and prevented by village headmen-incidents of train stoning by rural "riffraff." Camel and peasant unruliness emerges as instances of a similar irrationality. The anger of peasants whose camels were killed on the unfenced railroad was understood by officials, and later by Egyptian literati, as pure rage against the machine, demonstrating a superstitious or traditional aversion to modern technology. This standard caricature of the Egyptian peasant reorganized and resignified what were seen as specific examples of its manifestation, preventing other causal connections from becoming apparent.
The Overland Route Underwater
Synchronization and representation held the Overland Route together, even where land was covered by water. A key component in the Overland Route was a submarine telegraph that tied together England and India via Egypt. The tale of its deployment concludes the story of a fragmented British Empire made whole, politically, technologically, and territorially, and of Egypt's emergence in it as a spatial core and political fringe.
Colonial studies has increasingly challenged the notion that an influx of Western techno-sciences transformed the colonial world while leaving Europe unchanged. Recent work on the development of new sciences-from botanic gardening to statistics-as means of governing native populations in the colonies shows that these and other techno-sciences should not be seen as purely Western products that were merely disseminated to the colonial world. Rather, they developed through the interaction of the "West" and the colonial world, and ought to be seen as the product of that interaction. However, much of this literature seeks to provincialize Europe by focusing on the governance of native populations, presenting the colonies mostly as a challenge to Western hegemony, a set of problems that required path-breaking European solutions. If the colonies emerge as laboratories of modernity, Europeans, with their guns, germs, steel, and coal, are seen as its sole scientists, leaving the natives with the role of the fruit flies. Such models of "interaction" reinforce the inherent separateness of the categories they aim to blend.
Broadening our perspective of imperialism to include, alongside the governance of populations, also the challenges of transportation and communication between the colonies and the metropole, casts light on previously ignored arenas of knowledge production and scientific development. As we will see, indigenous knowledge, materials, and actors originating from the colonies remade the metropole in significant if unacknowledged ways.
Projects such as the deployment of a submarine telegraph line between Europe and India via Egypt generated new knowledge about the sea surface, currents, flora, and fauna, giving rise to new sciences such as ocean cartography and new technologies like sounding devices. While land telegraphy was advancing rapidly in Europe and its colonies, alongside railroads that required signaling systems, communication over water stalled. While attempts at tightly wrapping metal conductors with tarred jute or hemp were effective in crossing rivers and maintaining communications for short spans of time, during the first decades of the nineteenth century European materials and expertise were insufficient to traverse large bodies of water.
Successful underwater telegraphy was the result of a combination of European and colonial materials and knowledge. Effective insulation was made possible with the 1840s "discovery" of gutta-percha, a material used in Southeast Asia for centuries. Gutta-percha ("Percha rubber" in Malay), a natural latex produced from the sap of tropical trees native chiefly to the Malay Archipelago, is waterproof and thermoplastic (malleable in high temperatures but solidifying under pressure and in the low temperatures of the ocean bed). These properties made it an excellent electrical insulator. Gutta-percha insulation made possible the first successful transmissions of long-distance electrical signals under water, including the 1851 connection of England with France and later with the rest of Europe. Indeed, Europe was glued together with Asian latex.
Europe's new connectivity was made possible by over a decade of experiments with underwater telegraphy, carried out mainly in India by British colonial engineers as part of the deployment of an Indian telegraph network. This network-significant parts of which were completed in the mid-1850s-both precipitated the 1857 uprising and was the only successful line of defense keeping the British army from total defeat during its initial stages. Marine telegraphy relied on local knowledge for the extraction of gutta-percha, and on the actual stuff itself. It thus offers a case in which the colonies presented both the problem (the urgent need for long-distance communication across water) and the solution (the insulation material that made communication possible).
Rather than being the fruit of an interaction between colony and center, submarine telegraphy was one of the sites where these categories were violently inscribed. In the early days of underwater telegraphy, cables were used to ignite gunpowder from a distance. Blasting things from afar has been an important dimension of the new technology ever since: though marine telegraphy has been repeatedly hailed as a technology that will promote communication, understanding, and peace between nations, it has often been utilized as a weapon. The Egyptian connection with Europe is a good example of this violent history.
The Malta-Alexandria cable was diverted to the Mediterranean after being initially manufactured for serving military communications in one of the Opium Wars, which ended by the time the cable was ready. Yet the cable would soon be put to its original purpose in its new setting. In 1882 Britain occupied Egypt with the undisclosed motivation of gaining direct control of the Suez Canal, in fulfillment of earlier prophecies about the Overland Route. During the bombardment of Alexandria from the sea, the Eastern Telegraph Company's ship Chiltern attached itself to the Mediterranean cable and transmitted to London minute-by-minute telegraphic descriptions of the destruction of the city.
It is tempting to call this the first sea assault to be transmitted in real time. But telegrams between the Chiltern and the headquarters in London were received within approximately thirty-five minutes. The delay's indeterminacy is as significant as its actual duration: only two years later, in 1884, did the newly established Greenwich Mean Time allow for a claim to "real time" in the singular. And only in 1900 was the Malta-Alexandria cable used for telegraphing time signals from the "master clock" in Greenwich to the subordinated Egyptian "slave clocks." Yet the desire for temporal commensurability was clearly at work already in the 1882 bombardment. On June 14, the Chiltern hosted an experiment that fused the scientific and military meanings of breakthrough: "A telephone was attached at Malta to the Alexandria cable and connection was made with the other end of the cable on board the Chiltern off Alexandria. It was found that owing either to the distance or to the vibration caused by the firing it was impracticable to send a verbal message but the firing at Alexandria was distinctly heard through the telephone at Malta, a distance of more than a thousand miles."
Ricochets from Alexandria could arrive at Malta instantly, reaching the London press the following day. Yet the telegraph, hailed as the great leveler in that it put all humanity on the same line, also created centers and peripheries. Even while being submerged in water, oceanic telegraphy provided a bird's-eye view of the empire at every moment. In the 1840s land telegraphy allowed for standardizing national time zones. Four decades later, submarine cables enabled intercontinental standardization and the synchronization of steamer lines, railways, and telegraphs, connecting new geographies and creating new geopolitics. In Egypt, after taking Alexandria, British troops marched on the railroad, which marked the shortest route to Cairo and was an easier alternative to walking in the desert sand. Embedded reporters joined the units and sent their "live" reports from the battle via telegraph. The Overland Route literally laid the ground for the British occupation. The direction of flows of power between two points on a line transformed these points into a center and a periphery.
Temporal standardization can be seen as symptomatic of a more general standardization project in which telegraphy played a crucial part. During the 1850s, submarine telegraphy was a key scientific field in which electrical and engineering standards were fixed. The birth of ocean telegraphy was marked by two colossal failures in the deployment of the Red Sea (via Egypt) and Atlantic cables toward the end of that decade. Breakdowns were partly attributed to a lack of standard units for precisely measuring resistance along the cable. As a result, an 1859 committee of inquiry and the 1861 British Association Standard Committee were created for establishing uniform yardsticks for telegraphy and engineering. Submarine cable failures were thus a key moment in the establishment of late Victorian metrology and its instrumentation. Lessons learned from these failures translated into the emergence of the "culture of accurate and absolute measurement" and started "a train of investigation which now sends up branches into the loftiest region and subtlest ether of natural philosophy."
The integrity of the cables and hence of the empire hinged on such accurate and uniform "standards" and on a set of mediatory principles for applying abstract theory to practice. The institutional subordination of electrical and engineering practice to theory (i.e., physics) was another outcome of the 1861 investigation of telegraph failures. In this struggle between "practical men" and "men of science," the latter emerged victorious. Not all standards were stable, but standardization, the perceived necessity of a correspondence between standard and example, and the continued pursuit of better theory have proven durable. Standards were frequently replaced by other standards, theories replaced by other theories. For example, the resistance standard developed while laying the Malta-Alexandria cable became the accepted imperial standard until it was replaced by the ohm. But once they were established, standards could be replaced only by other standards; standardization itself became standard.
The standard is at once a product of the empirical data and the abstract principle that precedes it. It is positioned simultaneously before and after the empirical. The efficacy of the standard therefore hinges on effacing its own messy history, on making invisible the circumstances of its own production, and on presenting itself as something that precedes nature, not as something imposed on it. Metrology devices measured ohms, hours, and kilometers, as if resistance, time, or space were naturally expressed in these terms. The standard established itself as the organizing principle of engagement with the real, the only avenue for accessing it.
During the 1860s, Egypt gradually became a telegraphic hub connecting Europe and India via a Malta-Alexandria cable and a Red Sea cable between Suez and Karachi. The latter connection was preceded by a failed attempt at connecting Egypt to India through the Red Sea in 1859, resulting in one of the two defining breakdowns of submarine telegraphy. Exploring this failure more closely allows us to move beyond regarding the cables as passive connectors of historical actors and to acknowledge their active role as dynamic (if invisible) sites of history making, if not actors in their own right. It is also an opportunity to introduce the third and last protagonist to the stage. Underwater, "where the blind white sea-snakes are," cables crept among other nonhuman actors through whose silent universe human words were passing. In this abyss, the "Eurocentric" structure of the cables-made of a core of European metal and insulated by gutta-percha-and the neat center-periphery division itself were severely challenged.
A major reason for the 1859 failure was the fact that the cable was submerged without adequate survey of the topography and conditions of the seabed. It was released in a straight line by compass, without any attempt to select a uniform depth and with no slack that would allow the cable to adapt to irregularities of the floor. Rather than touching the bottom at all points, the cable was suspended in various places between different elevations; as a result, it collected sea growths and broke under their weight. At these and other points, the warm, salty water of the Red Sea degraded the cable's wrappings, exposing it to marine borers such as "the formidable Teredo navalis," a tunneling shipworm with an insatiable appetite for gutta-percha that quickly ate through the insulation.
The teredo was an active, if invisible, participant in the project of European colonialism as well as in a colonial project of its own. In an age of colonial expansion that depended on wooden ships, the teredo, whose diet was based on driftwood and submerged wood, traveled all across the globe, drilling their way through colonial fleets and establishing their own colonies in submerged wooden structures, from ships to docks and dikes, for which they were nicknamed "sea termites." After centuries of this pattern of traveling, it is hard to establish the teredo's exact origins. One assumption is that the worm originated in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, traveling to the Mediterranean with Dutch ships returning from their Southeast Asian colonial possessions (from which gutta-percha also originated) in the eighteenth century. The Dutch regarded the teredo as a plague sent by God. As the Dutch fleet transported human colonists from Europe, it carried stowaway nonhuman ones back home. While the former violently changed essential local forms of being in the colonies, the latter assaulted the most distinctive and basic infrastructure of Dutch life, the canal. In 1731 (when the worm was first recorded), a teredo infestation, eating away wooden seawalls, nearly flooded the Netherlands. All the attempted solutions were like sticking a child's finger in the dike. Arguably, teredos may have been responsible for drilling the famous hole itself, making the transition from wood to imported stone inevitable.
The implications of the transition to stone, from increased taxation and a growing reliance on the colonies to a later disdain of alternative means of transportation such as the railway, can only be alluded to here. Like gutta-percha, the building of stone canals supports the argument made by scholars of colonialism-so far mainly with regard to a nonmaterial realm-that colonialism reshaped the imperial center as well as the periphery. Another outcome of these events was a growing scientific interest in the teredo, whose morphology, reproduction, and eating habits became an object of research and observation.
After redesigning Dutch canals, the teredo helped solve one of the most daunting engineering problems of the Victorian era: digging the first tunnel under a body of water, a project that started the modern tunneling industry. After repeated failures and collapses while digging in the soft mud under the Thames, engineer Marc Brunel was driven to approach the task after drawing inspiration from the teredo's tactics. The worm was able to eat its way through the stoutest wood while protecting its head with shells that oscillated to cut the wood at the same time, while its petrified layer of excreta formed a smooth lining for the tunnel to protect its delicate tissues. Brunel copied the teredo, replicating it in metal and at a larger scale. "A teredo navalis, or something very like it, in steel, did the great engineer make, and so the tunnel was bored. Even a nuisance like this may form a useful object lesson." During the 1820s, miners were imitating the techniques of the teredo inside the "tunneling shield," cutting wormholes through the earth. The tunneling shield was a worm hosting human agency.
The Thames Tunnel, "the eighth world wonder," was a career-making project, an undertaking of unprecedented scale and public attention. Its successful completion made possible the conception of and public support for even larger engineering feats. Brunel's son and collaborator in the tunnel project, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, became the first railway engineer to standardize time zones in 1840, one year after he deployed a telegraph line along the track of the Great Western Railway (GWR). Brunel's steamship the Great Western was a westward extension of the GWR from Bristol to New York. Based on this model, the Peninsular and Oriental's Liverpool-Alexandria and Suez-Karachi steamer lines were synchronized with the Egyptian railway in 1857 in a similar fashion.
In 1859 Brunel built the largest ship in the world, the Great Eastern, with such interfaces in mind. Built on the Thames, the Great Eastern was the only ship big enough to carry onboard the entire Atlantic submarine telegraph cable and was one of the key factors in the eventual successful deployment of this line in 1866. Likewise, the Great Eastern, accompanied by the Chiltern (which would later become the floating communications hub of the Alexandria bombardment), deployed a second Red Sea cable-now including iron coating against teredo boring-and firmly reconnected India and Europe via Egypt.
The engineering success of the Thames Tunnel and its commercial failure were important frames of reference for even larger projects, such as the digging of the Suez Canal. The canal made iron steamers more competitive than wooden sailing ships, inadvertently solving the boring problem posed by the teredo. Yet as one door closed, another one opened. The 1869 opening of the canal had put the waters of the Red Sea and Mediterranean in direct contact, gradually equalizing the salinity of the Bitter Lakes with that of the Red Sea. This initiated a process called Lessepsian Migration-named for Ferdinand de Lesseps, the canal's chief developer-which enabled colonization of the eastern Mediterranean by Red Sea species.
The worm's great appetite for gutta-percha and its formidable drilling techniques thus played an important part in the failure of the first attempt at intercontinental telegraphy at the end of the 1850s. The next telegraphic connection, a decade later, factored in the teredo in various ways. Second-generation cables were much thicker and more durable, as they included teredo-proof iron coating, which also made them much more expensive. As a result of the failure of the first attempt, which was subsidized by the British government, the second Red Sea telegraph had to be privately funded. One way to finance its deployment and maintenance and underwrite the higher costs of the new cables was opening news agencies that sold telegraphic information to clients along the line. As we will see in chapter 4, new pricing structures for telegraphy (entailing higher costs per word), and the presence of news agencies such as the Reuters office in Alexandria, opened in 1865, were among the key conditions for a series of changes in the Arabic language-the emergence of what we call today modern standard Arabic and the prose written with it.
In an influential text titled "Can the Mosquito Speak?" Timothy Mitchell implicitly connected Science and Technology Studies with Subaltern and Postcolonial Studies, playfully evoking Gayatri Spivak's famous question about the subaltern. Along these lines, and in a much more literal sense, our worm may almost be able to write: the electrical throb of human words through the long throats of submarine cables transformed sea termites into key actors in a new underwater linguistic environment. During my own research in the Rare Books Reading Room in the British Library, where I picked up the trail of the teredo's story, I traveled daily to Kings Cross Station through the Thames Tunnel, which is now part of the London underground network. The teredo opened the door for my own entry into the narrative, thus participating in the writing of its own history.
Yet despite, or probably because of, all the hybridity, flux, and havoc it wreaked underwater, Teredo navalis eventually promoted more stable center-periphery relations onshore. The durable antiboring submarine cables, the heavy metal steamers that sunk them properly and in straight lines, and the news agencies that helped finance them by circulating information in unprecedented volume, rapidity, and variety joined Egypt tightly to Europe and facilitated more nuanced, multilayered, and hence effective imperial control. Accidents, breakdowns, and malfunctions are vital forces of technological advancement. To the extent that the train crash informed the development of the railway, with its technological safety measures, synchronization schemes, and operation protocols, and the shipwreck shaped modern sea vessels, Teredo navalis shaped the submarine telegraph, as a present absentee. The worms thus created the conditions wherein humans were the only ones able to claim credit for the traces they left in their wake.
The Middleness and Peripherality of the Middle East
Critiques of anthropocentrism, seeking to expand social history (and "the social" itself) to include nonhumans, are a continuation and culmination of critiques of ethno- and Eurocentrism (such as critiques of Orientalism or efforts to provincialize Europe), as well as phalo- and logocentrism. And they appear to be the final frontier in the battle against humanism, which aims to decenter the human himself. Yet what emerges from connecting the ignored wormholes of the teredo, the invisible history of dead camels, and the fragmented history of the Overland Route is the inherent problem of centrism as such. Such linkages suggest that our anthropocentric conventions may be tied historically, and not only analytically, to other centric projects that not only divide humans from nonhumans but also introduce hierarchy inside "the human," into space, and even into the real itself. As we have seen, representation often precedes reality, it is impossible to separate a viewing subject and an object of perception, and examples come before the standard. Yet modern epistemology is predicated on blocking such multidirectionality, reducing this flux to manageable categories: "subject" and "object," "Europe" and "Egypt," "human" and "nonhuman."
The foregoing sections retraced the role of these fluctuations and their stabilization-and the importance of hybridity and its simplification-in laying the techno-political foundations of colonial Egypt. What makes Egypt a privileged locus for examining the workings of centrism per se is the fact that the very history and the same actors that transformed this country into the spatial heart of the British Empire and eventually into a "Middle East" simultaneously caused its economic and political peripheralization. Egypt offers an example in which "the middle" and "the center" are diametrically opposed and mutually incommensurable. As we have seen, Egypt's "natural" middleness and accompanying decentering were a long time in the making. The shift in British India traffic away from the Cape involved the installation of physical infrastructures (coal depots, steamer lines, railways, submarine telegraphs, and canals), political structures (a centralizing state, foreign intervention and occupation), and protocols of representation (guidebooks, timetables, dioramas, and news agencies) that joined this country as a periphery to a European center.
The tension between center and middle was reproduced inside Egypt itself, in the very mechanisms used to synchronize the different sections of the Overland Route. For example, beginning in 1831 and throughout the 1830s, Mehmet 'Ali's son Ibrahim constructed a new overland mail route to Syria to expedite communications with the headquarters of the Egyptian army in Damascus and to facilitate control over the occupied space. The system included sixty-eight postal stations, built at equal distances between Cairo and Damascus, with five horses, five couriers, a scribe, an inspector, and a silver watch in each.
The watch seemed to bring the disciplinary and punishing institutions of the centralizing Egyptian state into each and every remote station. Careful registration of arrival and departure times of the mail bag (the reports being added to the mail) pinpointed sources of holdups, for which stationmasters were punished, and slowness-for which couriers were whipped. It was as if the watch adorned the Pasha's long hand, as if through it the state could see.
However, despite its appearance, reminiscent of an eye (the black pupil in the center of a white sclera, the twelve eyelashes), the clock face never casts a gaze. Its English homonym "watch!" is always only an imperative. While initially the new Egyptian postal authority intended to appoint only literate scribes, officials quickly realized that there were not enough of them to man the stations. Instead, the authority had to employ people who knew only how to copy the numbers from one to twelve, and when those were scarce, to train illiterate "scribes" to do the job. Scribes, stationmasters, and couriers themselves constituted the gaze of authority, by appending their own vision onto the mechanism that controlled them.
Another example, also part of the evolving Egyptian communications system, is a semaphoric telegraph line, built in 1839 between Suez, Cairo, and Alexandria. This system comprised "telegraph towers" consisting of upright posts or masts fifty or sixty feet high, with movable wooden arms whose position could be manipulated by means of chains. Different positions indicated different signals, which could be discerned from the next tower with the aid of powerful looking glasses. The signals could be deciphered with a special dictionary, but for communication between the towers themselves, all that was required was exact reproduction of the signal so that it could be communicated to the next post. As in the case above, human vision was detached from the reflexivity with which it is conventionally associated and incorporated as a cog in a machine.
After semaphoric telegraphs were put to use on the Overland Route, passengers for India could stay in Cairo until their ship was ready to depart from Suez before they set out across the desert. The Alexandria-Cairo semaphore was used to notify Alexandria, twelve hours in advance, of the arrival of the Indian mail at Suez. Again, it was as if the steamers arriving at Suez and Alexandria were actually "seen" from Cairo. But vision, apparently, had a very different function in the creation of the "panoptic" central state.
Reading clock faces and engaging in semaphoric synchronization did not involve "telling time." The Egyptian telegraphers, postmen, and railway workers who harmonized the empire could remain external and peripheral to the mechanical time they helped keep. The centralizing Egyptian state that emerged in the midst of this synchronized empire-our "route with a state"-was predicated, like the dioramic performances of Eurocentrism in the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, on the denial of various kinds of autonomy and sovereignty: political, economic, and even visual, across the ranks, from its workers to its ruler.
These instances-in which communication and synchronicity were devoid of intentionality or autonomy-narrow the gap between scribes and telegraphers on the one hand and writing worms on the other. In this respect Brunel's teredo-inspired "tunneling shield" provides an emblem for the ways people move about in the world, devouring it while being insulated from it, producing from its messy substance their smooth passageways made from processed and petrified excreta. We have seen them do so in other metal frames wheeling forward, carrying human actors through alien terrains. Overland Route train passengers were moving along a network that generated the conditions of its own perception and legibility. The camouflage of the worms, camels, and other nonhuman, non-European, and non-elite driving forces and casualties was a crucial part of the view.
Members receive 20-40% discounts on book purchases. Find out more