The dark and terrible colonial tracks of ‘The Night Train’
The fate of Mozambican miners doesn’t register on the scale of 20th-century misery, but by rights it should
SA historian Charles van Onselen has an uncanny ability to unravel, despite fragmentary primary sources, vivid reconstructions of past lives. He uses these as microcosms to illuminate the effect of monumental global forces.
His latest book, The Night Trains (Jonathan Ball Publishers), examines just one railway line but explores capitalism, colonialism, racism, apartheid and xenophobia – and it etches the lives of millions of people into one’s mind.
Between 1910 and 1960, five million labourers were transported by rail between Lourenço Marques in then Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique) and Booysens station, Johannesburg. The Eastern Main Line, says Van Onselen, was “the umbilical cord and lifeblood that gave birth to the mining revolution that took place on the Witwatersrand between the two world wars”...