New interpretations constantly grow around a familiar story, like life along colonial railways. From the vast plains of America to the subcontinent of India, scholars have noted, railroads played a pivotal role in inscribing power on uncharted terrain. They facilitated conquest, opened lands for settlement, and fueled the colonial extractive economy. And railroads were more than mere “tools of empire.” From missionaries and administrators in the field to interlocutors in the distant metropole, Europeans celebrated railroads and their locomotives as vehicles of their “civilizing mission” on the benighted colonial frontier. Not only did railroads reshape local lands into well-ordered spaces of production, they also remade their non-European dwellers by uplifting them from their alleged state of cultural decline. An instrument of progress, industry, and rationality, the railroad was the personification of the model colonizer: it captured lands as well as the minds of their inhabitants, not by brute force but by the sheer power of modernity (see figure 1).
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