Imperial Dreams, Cartographic Carvings: Of Railways, Cars, and a Red Africa

Cecil Rhodes had a dream…and a red one at that. He dreamt of a red expanse crossing the whole of Africa, joining Cape Town to Cairo, without interruptions. It was a colonial dream of modernist unfurling, demarcating British colonies in the continent, and stitching them together partly through a red line: one of Rhodes’ most famous projects was a Cape-to-Cairo railway line, a project that came face to face with other imperial powers’ comparable ventures (including the French west-to-east colonial attempts in Africa, the Portuguese’s own Pink Map, and Belgian and German activities).


Rhodes’ British Empire corridor through Africa. Source: South African History Online. The chromatic reference is born out of the practice of color coding British colonies red or pink on maps.*




The Rhodes Colossus Striding from Cape Town to Cairo. A caricature of Rhodes after he announced plans for a telegraph line and railroad from Cape Town to Cairo. This editorial cartoon of the Scramble for Africa period is most likely a pun, referencing to the Greek Colossus of RhodesSourceEdward Linley SambournePunch (1892).


The Cape to Cairo Railway, and Rhodes’ Gigantic Proposal. Source: Auckland Weekly News, 1899. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-18991110-8-4.

Yet up until after the First World War, years after Rhodes died, no such infrastructure saw the light of day. The attempts of connecting adjacent African British colonies through modern technology allowing for swift mobility and coherent, continuous integration remained incomplete, initially due to territorial patchiness (wherein German and Belgian colonies precluded the territorial flow of British power in Africa) and then due to both economic concerns (particularly after the First World War, even though a continuous line of British colonies in Africa was finally seized) and political ones (decolonization). And so, for years, to travel the length of Africa while remaining either within the British-controlled domains or within international waterways (and so, never to enter another power’s colonies) entailed having to use a combination of modes of transportation, including rail, car, steamship, and foot (“Cape to Cairo Railway;” James B. Wolf, “Imperial Integration on Wheels: The Car, the British and the Cape-to-Cairo Route,” p. 116).

Nonetheless, the dream endured (or rather lurked), and its specter was reincarnated in an English couple’s aspiration: to follow Rhodes’ red line and trace, or materialize, a direct route from south to north, but this time, only by car . . . a dream that was deemed foolish by some of their contemporaries but which was shared (and even attempted) by others.** Major Chaplin Court Treatt, accompanied by his filmmaker wife Stella Court Treatt, led an expedition from Cape Town to Cairo in two Crossley cars. Setting off in 1924 and for a period of sixteen months, the Court Treatt Expedition was more than an amusing, personal adventure for the young couple. It was instead a patriotic–colonial duty that marketed and campaigned for an all-British reality. It involved consciously choosing, despite complications, to prove the strength, quality, and endurance of Englishmen,*** an Englishwoman,**** and British artefacts and technologies***** in moving through British imperial territories (“Stella Court Treatt;” James B. Wolf, “Imperial Integration on Wheels: The Car, the British and the Cape-to-Cairo Route,” p. 116; Tal Zalmanovich, “‘Woman Pioneer of Empire’: The Making of a Female Colonial Celebrity,” pp. 196-197).

The Expedition's Route

The Court Treatt Expedition’s Route. Source: Crossley Motors’ website.

In her diaries of the journey, Stella wrote:

[had we not restricted ourselves to a British imperial route,] our problems would have been simplified . . . we would have found roads . . . and we could have avoided bridgeless rivers and swamps. But the desirability of blazing a trail through British Africa was superior to every other consideration.—as cited in Zalmanovich, “‘Woman Pioneer of Empire,’” p. 209

Therefore, the precariousness in ‘uncharted’ lands was also an attempt “to revitalise an earlier style of colonial expedition for the motoring era,” wherein the expedition

was represented as a battle to traverse exotic and hostile territory. . . . the colonial travellers pitted their trucks against resistant landscapes, not yet smoothed and tamed for motorised travel. . . . they also pitted themselves against recalcitrant ‘natives,’ who were indifferent and sometimes hostile to their adventure. . . . In the Court Treatt journey, both obstacles—the terrain and the ‘natives’—were represented as an exacting test of British engineering and character.—Georgine Clarsen, “The 1928 MacRobertson Round Australia Expedition: Colonial Adventuring in the Twentieth Century,” pp. 206–207

Yet this constructed image of African precarity was also ironically one of passivity, and thus, British superiority:

Out of Stella’s travel narrative and the reports from the expedition, a specific image of Africa emerges: a romantic and easy-to-digest image, almost devoid of menacing groups contesting British rule in the continent. In the expedition narratives Africa was presented to readers as a desirable land both for conquering and hunting, as well as a space fit for the roaming of carefree young people drawn to its promise of vastness and adventure.—Zalmanovich, “‘Woman Pioneer of Empire,’” p. 194

Indeed, colonial it was, for the accentuated ‘Englishness’ of the reported accounts took away from the contribution of non-English. The non-British were hushed in British narratives and reports, and if they were present, they were uncooperative, but ultimately passive, ghosts. Reports of the expedition, like those of Fred C. Law, omitted the many Africans who helped in the expedition’s success, including Julius Mapata and Musa, both of whom worked as interpreters and guides at some point in the expedition (Zalmanovich, “‘Woman Pioneer of Empire,’” p. 193; cf. Crossley Motors’ website). Such silencing

perhaps enhanced the heroism of the white people participating in the expedition, rendering them superior and independent of the indigenous population. Indigenous guides were frequently omitted from the journals and narratives of white explorers and adventurers.—Zalmanovich, “‘Woman Pioneer of Empire,’” p. 193

In addition, this style of colonial expedition brought new forms and modes of coloniality: subjugation through representation. This new form of (colonial) tourism, where ordinary people (setting aside that Major Court Treatt was a Royal Air Force major) undertook extraordinary feats, was conducted through the camera rather than the gun. This followed an international shift in practices and attitudes toward wildlife during the 1920s and 1930s, wherein the relatively ‘passive’ camera replaced the gun and hunting as a form of wildlife tourism. In making this choice, the Court Treatt expedition was “a narrative of the triumph of the gaze” (Zalmanovich, “‘Woman Pioneer of Empire,’” pp. 200, 201).

The Court Treatt couple co-produced a short film, From Cape to Cairo, which was filmed by the cinematographer Thomas A. Glover during the expedition. The movie was exhibited theatrically in Britain and the United States in 1927, accompanied by lectures and interviews starring Stella. It was also made available for home distribution in 16 mm and was re-released in 1934 (Emma Sandon, “Projecting Africa: Two British Travel Films of the 1920s; Zalmanovich, “‘Woman Pioneer of Empire,’” p. 194). The first shot shows the convoy as it drives across what is most likely the Qasr El Nil Bridge, Cairo. In 1927, Stella also published her diaries of the expedition as Cape to Cairo: The Record of a Historic Motor Journey. During the expedition, her fellow travelers assigned her the role of keeping record of the journey, and Stella fulfilled this task of “memory keeper and myth creator of the expedition, . . . [writing] of its successes and failures on a daily basis” (Zalmanovich, “‘Woman Pioneer of Empire,’” p. 194).




* There are a few theories and interpretations as to why the British Empire has been cartographically represented via red or pink, a practice that began in the last third of the eighteenth century and became standard convention shortly after 1850. Some theories attribute it to the visual dominance of these colors, wherein the “colouring gave the erroneous impression that the British Empire was the only imperial force in operation. . . . The singular use of colour made the territories of the empire appear more connected politically than they actually were. . . . Finally, because Britain itself was coloured in the same pink as the territories it controlled, any sense of smallness surrounding the British island was replaced with amazement at the vastness of its dominion” (Sarah Maitland, What is Cultural Translation?, pp. 83-84). Other theories link it to the color of the traditional heraldic emblem of the English monarchy, the pink Tudor rose, while still others associate it to the red coats that the British troops wore (Alexander Irvine, “The War of the Worlds and the Disease of Imperialism,” p. 40; Princeton Report on Knowledge; “Stella Court Treatt;” Tal Zalmanovich, “‘Woman Pioneer of Empire’: The Making of a Female Colonial Celebrity,” p. 197; The Times Atlas, “The Power of Maps—Part One,” 2015). Leslie Banker and William Mullins, however, maintain that a practical, printing compromise led to the use of pink in representing the empire on maps despite red being the actual color associated with the empire. Printing colonies, protectorates, mandates, and the such in red would have led to legibility issues, wherein place names would have been difficult to read (p. 12).

** Different colonial/imperial “adventurers” took part in forms of imperial integration as the Court Treatts did, even using the same mode of transportation: the automobile, or the “vehicle of adventure and exploration” as Wolf put it (“Imperial Integration on Wheels,” p. 114). In the first decade of the twentieth century, the Germans successfully crossed Africa from east to west by car, prior to the Court Treatts, but through both German- and British-controlled territories. Then, after the First World War and concurrent with the Court Treatt Expedition, the French undertook the Citroën Expedition (also known as the croisière noire expedition) and crossed the African north-south route successfully, even though the British pointed out that the Citroën half-tracks used in the journey were not really cars. The French Renault company also sponsored an expedition, this time from Algeria to the Cape, which was completed in 1925 after two years (Wolf, “Imperial Integration on Wheels,” pp. 112–116). In this sense, “the Court Treatts were the first to succeed [in crossing Africa by car] while restricting themselves to territories under British rule” (Zalmanovich, “‘Woman Pioneer of Empire,’” p. 197).

*** In addition to the Court Treatts, Fred C. Law, the special correspondent for the London Daily Express in Cape Town, representatives of the Crossley Motor company, Thomas A. Glover, a cinematographer, and Errol Hinds, Stella’s brother, participated in the expedition.

**** For an analysis of how this expedition was reported to discursively partake in the creation of the “women pioneers of empire” or the “female colonial celebrity,” refer to Tal Zalmanovich’s “‘Woman Pioneer of Empire’: The Making of a Female Colonial Celebrity: “Stella was an active agent in this process of constructing an alluring, modern and brave female figure. Apart from authoring her own narrative, Stella had control over the representations of the expedition as her husband financed the venture and the movie they made” (p. 194).

***** Examples include the Crossley cars and Bovril beef spread (Zalmanovich, “‘Woman Pioneer of Empire,’” p. 197).



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