The Benguela Railway

19/03/2014 15:56

Written by Mike Stead and Sean Rorison

The Benguela Railway (Companhia do Caminho de Ferro de Benguela) owes its existence to Dr Livingstone (1813–73), who had found copper deposits in the Katanga region of the Belgian Congo during his famous transcontinental journeys. A few years later Cecil Rhodes, eager to get his hands on the precious mineral, despatched his friend Sir Robert Williams on an expedition to find out more. Williams approached King Leopold of the Belgians for prospecting rights. The king, believing the deposits to be of poor quality, granted him the rights. Williams and his expedition set off in 1901 and by 1902 they had proved the existence of a rich 400km-wide copper belt. The copper mines of Katanga were subsequently to become some of the richest and the biggest in the world. Williams knew that to realise the wealth of these deposits he would need to transport the ore by rail to the nearest port for export to the markets of Europe and America. He reckoned that the most economic route from Katanga was to the west coast following a route used successively by early traders, slave traders and Boer trekkers. Even though this would necessitate building a new port at Lobito it was cheaper than the alternative of crossing to the east African port of Beira in Mozambique. The overland journey to Beira was not only longer but crucially the sea journey to Europe is 4,800km longer than from Lobito. Williams was granted a 99-year concession by the Portuguese government to build and operate a 1,344km-long railway linking Lobito with Katanga. The concession also included the rights to run a telegraph, mineral prospecting rights and commercial privileges extending 120km either side of the line. It was a truly enormous undertaking that would take almost 30 years and £12 million to build, and would eventually connect with the rail systems of Congo and later Zambia to form part of a transcontinental transport network.

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