C. Van Onselen: The Night Trains

The Night Trains. Moving Mozambican Miners to and from the Witwatersrand Mines, 1902-1955.

van Onselen, Charles
London 2020: Hurst & Co.
256 S.
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Kleoniki Alexopoulou, Universidade Nova de Lisboa

The latest book by Charles van Onselen deals with the trains that carried migrant workers from Southern Mozambique (Sul do Save) to the diamond and later gold mines in Rand, South Africa, during the period from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century. Over the last decades, scholars from various fields, and particularly social historians and economists, have shed light on these migration streams not only as voluntary/free migration flows but also as an institutionalised circular migration system organised by the states of Mozambique and South Africa.

In my opinion, Van Onselen does not fill a large gap in terms of scientific novelty, however he succeeds in writing a fascinating popular history book, suitable for a broader audience. He artfully places this institutionalised migration system in the wider context of South Africa’s industrial development, while he shows that this type of labour migration has been a persisting pattern over the colonial era, which leaves behind nothing but a post-colonial legacy of especially high rural poverty rates.

Chapter 1 presents the geography of the Eastern Main line and chapter 2 explains the economic logic behind it. Chapter 3 analyses the labour regimes and shows how the vicious circle of forced labour in Mozambique and supposedly “free/voluntary” labour migration towards South Africa worked. Chapter 4 points at managerial ideologies by the actors and agencies involved in labour recruitment and transportation such as the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association (WNLA), the South African Railways (SAR) and the Portuguese administration.

Chapter 5 describes the logistics and the conditions of the passage to the mines via the 804 up-train and the mobilisation of labour through “quasi-military” operations. Chapter 6 introduces readers to the physical and mental status of migrants, who exit the mines via the 307 down-train. This chapter demonstrates how migrants’ personalities were dissolved in depression and alcoholism (see imported “Wine for Blacks” into Mozambique) and how the processes of identification, feeding and medical screening of migrant workers led to or rather inherently implied their objectification, commodification and finally dehumanisation.

Chapter 7 examines the specificities of the down passage or alternatively the so-called “return of the Living Dead”, along with their personal belongings and cash savings, and chapter 8 highlights the dangers, such as robberies, that Mozambican repatriates confronted during their return journey. Last but not least, chapter 9 gives an anatomy of train “accidents” as “acts of men” and not as “acts of God”, which means understanding them as preventable disasters that were caused by human decisions and actions, based on racial and class divisions; in other words, based on structural inequalities rather than pure lack or randomness. One of the key points that are made explicitly throughout the book is that migrants were seen as “goods” and freight rather than as passengers. And from another angle, they were not seen at all, they remained invisible for the rest of the passengers and the general population of South Africa, despite their significant contribution to the economy.

Van Onselen gives a remarkable historical overview (including several anthropological observations) of labour migration to the mines from a regional perspective, aiming at freeing the readers from the dominant national narratives of South Africa. In his effort to show the core, the essence of the “rules” of the capitalist “game” and dismantle the miracle of South African growth, he questions notions such as the “free labour market” and presents us a “robber economy” which was established via a police and tax state as well as other semi-public and private actors functioning as “states within a state”.

Perhaps one could argue that he goes too far in the concluding section by bringing up the trains that ended up in Nazi concentration camps or the trains by which Armenians were deported in the Ottoman Empire, leading to crimes against humanity such as genocides. However, he recognises that these major historical “incidents” in principle cannot be compared. What he intends to do is to pay tribute to Arendt’s argument that “there was something in the practices of colonialism that might have helped prepare the way mentally for the European barbarisms of the 20th century” (p. 191).

Almost in all chapters, van Onselen makes good use of the available primary sources retrieved from national and local archives, particularly of South Africa. Only a few references from recent relevant studies (after 2017) on South African railway networks and labour migration from Portuguese Mozambique are missing. Nevertheless, a book is a long-term project and perhaps the main bulk of information from secondary literature as well as the archival material was already collected by the author a couple of years ago.

Among the virtues of the book is the constructive combination of macro- and micro- history, along a sufficient degree of generalisation. The author does not lose sight of the big picture and of the non-fiction story that he wants to tell and be heard, without on the other hand over-commercialising it. He is proved to be an excellent acrobat keeping the desired balance between scientific accuracy and joy of reading. As I mentioned before, this story as a whole is relatively known to experts in African economic history and perhaps repetitive points could be tiring for them. On the other hand, he highlights certain aspects that have been overlooked by the audience worldwide, while they are unequivocally worth to be remembered.

Van Onselen uses a rich colourful language, as he was writing a beautiful novel or poetry: “The earth’s insides had been ripped out, leaving behind mountains of rocky entrails and yellowing waste to bleach in the harsh sunlight” (p. 31). At some points the language becomes slightly sweeping or populistic and sentimental; however, I consider this part of the charm. Beyond doubt, the positive aspects of the book outweigh its scarce shortcomings and downsides. The sincere, genuine interest of the author in the history of black miners is confirmed in the afterword, where lingering questions – having emerged during his childhood for the first time- can be finally unlocked and answered after a lifetime of research.

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