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The British And The Electric Telegraph in India Part 2: Engine of Power
The British ensured that telegraphy was effective militarily. Those with the tool had an incredible advantage over those without it. Historians recollecting telegraphy in India note the impact of the wires during the Indian mutiny of 1857. Lahiri Choudhury highlighted the importance of a telegram sent by signallers at Delhi warning of rebellion. He concludes that the message allowed the British to retain control of the Punjab.1 The telegraph was often the target for those not well disposed to the British authorities. Choudhury states that by January 1858, there were less than 2500 functioning miles of wire. In 1856 there were over 4000 miles.2 Those who sought to dislodge the British regime perceived the strategic importance of telegraphy.
Choudhury termed the telegraph 'no providential saviour' for the British in 1857. He labels the wires generally 'less than useful to the East India Company (EIC) government 'owing to spatial and structural flaws'. He understands that the quality of messages was often compromised and criticises the telegraph for its insufficient efficacy, a subject this essay will address later. Choudhury seems to gainsay himself at least in part when writing that the uprisings of 1857 saved the telegraph in India from an 'ignominious death.'3 To downplay the impact and general utility of the telegraph, before going on to note the expansion of the network after the uprisings were extinguished, makes little sense. The telegraph would have had to have served at least some utility to warrant investment in its improvement.4 Beyond his general critique of the telegraph, much of which warrants due attention, Choudhury is correct to notice that the mutiny motivated the British to adopt a 'principle of alternate and duplicate lines', 'in every case' along the wires.5 Rather than remarking that the uprisings saved the telegraph, Choudhury would be right if he said that although imperfect, telegraphy was important during the conflict of 1857-58.
Other histories, including one by Saroj Ghose, laurel the telegraph for its impact in 1857. Ghose notes that advancing military columns carried the field telegraph with them. He explained that it allowed problems in moving troops to be overcome. The device was able to coordinate the activities of steam vessels.6 The first chapter of Telegraph and Travel’ by Frederick Goldsmid records the efforts of Colonel Patrick Stewart in employing the telegraph amid the relief of Lucknow.7 Before 1857, Dalhousie commended the telegraph for devouring hitherto assumed notions of time, and revolutionising military strategy:
When her Majesty's 10th Hussars were ordered with all speed from Poona to the Crimea, a message requesting instructions regarding their despatch was one day received by me at Calcutta from the government of Bombay, about 9 o'clock in the morning; instructions were forwith sent off by the telegraph in reply and an answer to that reply was again received at Calcutta from Bombay in the evening of the same day. A year before, the same communication, for the despatch of speedy reinforcement to the seat of war, which occupied the telegraph no more than twelve hours, could not have been made in less than 30 days.8
The telegraph brushed aside pre-existing understandings of the possible and engendered new realities.9
That the telegraph became a serviceable military tool is beyond doubt. Dalhousie and others would not have written effusively of the wires were its impact unnotable; Sir John Lawrence, Chief Commissioner of the Punjab would not have proclaimed that ''The telegraph saved India,'' for no reason.10
The telegraph had a significant social dimension. O'Shaughnessy remarked on the diverse use Indians made of the wires and their penchant to communicate messages revealing ''an absence of all disguise which is almost beyond belief”. The telegraph had woven itself into the social fabric of the British and the Indians.11 By 1859, telegraph mileage in India had almost tripled.12 It is time to turn our attention to the Indian telegraph extending beyond India.
The British viewed telegraphy as a means to coordinate British interests. The first telegraph route linking Britain with India opened in early 1864. It passed through Europe and Russia before connecting to Persian territory. A submarine line completed its link from the Persian Gulf to Karachi.13 Effective telegraph communication joined Europe and the United States around this time. The Suez Canal opened in 1869. It became part of the British imperial telegraphic ambit, connected via Aden to Bombay. By 1870 India was linked with Britain by a line under exclusive British control.14 By 1875, India had become 'the main overland link between the West, the Far East and Australasia.'15 Increased centralisation in governance was a motive to connect Britain directly with India. Significantly, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had telegraph lines, and officials had lines to their homes.16
The installation of the Persian Submarine Telegraph cable in 1865, linking Karachi and London, reveals that the connection of the colony to the metropole could create new geostrategic concerns.17 When constructing a line on the Makran coast, the Persian government farmed a tract of land required for the wires, and this caused a problem. One condition of this arrangement was that the Sultan would not introduce foreign agents into the farmed districts.18 The Persian government sought to shape this situation to their advantage by allowing passage of the line through the region on the condition that the British would acknowledge their claims in the disputed territory. As Muscat and Kalat were closer to India than Persia, these places took precedence. A crucial British strategic consideration was strengthening the defences around India. The British would conclude that the territorial claims of Persia did not extend East of Gwadar, and they constructed the landline from Gwadar to Karachi without informing the Persian government. In addition to connecting existing imperial possessions, the telegraph could expand informal empire.19 This underlines the importance of India in a broader British telegraph nexus. Like the Turks, the Persians were willing to participate in the international telegraph system to gain national prestige, and financial gain was a motive.20 The telegraph was alluring. The transmission time of a message from Karachi to Fao was three-quarters of an hour and never exceeded two hours.21
The private interest was integral in laying cables. However, ‘no cable enterprise was ever entirely free of government manipulation and support.’22 By 1892, two-thirds of world cables belonged to Britain and almost all to British firms. Nearly half of these wires belonged to the single conglomerate of the Eastern and Associated Telegraph.23 The diffusion of private investment with governmental backing expanded British power and created a truly global network. One of the effects of this was to increase world trade and market integration through tramp shipping.24
The third and final part of this series will be published next month. You can read the first part here.
Lahiri Choudhury, Telegraphic Imperialism, Crisis and Panic in the Indian Empire, c1830-1920, 2010, 31
Ibid 47, 32-33
Saraj Ghose, Commercial Needs and Military Necessities: The telegraph in India, chapter 6 in Technology and the Raj: Western Technology and Technical Transfers, 1700-1947, eds: Rory Macleod and Deppak Kumar, 1995, 161, 164
Frederick Goldsmid, Telegraph and Travel A Narrative of the Formation and Development of Telegraphic Communication Between England and India, Under the Orders of Her Majesty's Government, with Incidental Notices of the Countries Traversed by the Lines., 1874, 38
Shridharami Krishnalal, Story of the Indian Telegraphs: A century of progress, 20
Mel Gorman, Sir William O’Shaughnessy, Lord Dalhousie, and the Establishment of the Telegraph System in India, Technology and Culture, Vol.12, No.4 (Oct; 1977), 581-601
Amelia Bonea, The medium and its message: reporting the Austro-Prussian war in the Times of India, Historical Social Research, Vol. 35, No.1 (January 2010), 167-187, 174
P.M Kennedy, Imperial Cable Communications Strategy, 1870-1914, Vol.86 No.341 (Oct; 1971), 728-752, 731
Lynne Hamil, The Social Shaping of British Communications Networks prior to the First World War, Historical Social Research, Vol.35 No.1, Global Communication: Telecommunication and Global Flows of Information in the late 19th and early 20th century, 2010, 276
Christina Phelps Harris, The Persian Gulf Submarine Telegraph of 1864, The Geographical Journal, Vol.135 Part 2, June 1969, 169
Soli Shovar, Communications, Qajar Irredentism, and the strategies of British India: The Makran Coast Telegraph and British Policy of Containing Persia in the East (Baluchistan) part I, Iranian Studies, Vol.39, No.3 (Sep,. 2006), 329-351. 337-338
Soli Shavar, Communications, Qajar Irredentism, and the strategies of British India: The Makran Coast Telegraph and British Policy of Containing Persia in the East (Baluchistan) part II, Iranian Studies, Vol 39. No.4 (December 2006), 569-595, 570-571
Daniel R. Headrick and Pascal Griest, Submarine Telegraph Cables: Business and Politics, 1838-1939, The Business History Review, Vol.75, No.3 (Autumn, 2001), 543-578, 549
Bryan Lew and Bruce Cater, The telegraph, coordination of tramp shipping, and growth in world trade, 1870-1910, European Economic History Review, Volume 10, Issue 2 (August 2006), 147-173, 161