Book Review – The Night Trains by Charles van Onselen

Nicole Sithole reviews Charles van Onselen’s The Night Trains: Moving Mozambican Miners to and from South Africa, 1902-1955 (Jonathan Ball, 2019), £25.00.

The Night Trains is a riveting account of the gruesome experiences of black men from the Sul du Save in Mozambique, on board ghostly night trains which transported them back and forth to the coal and gold mines in South Africa. Over a period of four decades, these trains operated on the Eastern Main Line which connected Johannesburg to Lourenço Marques (Maputo). These trains acted as agents of underdevelopment for black societies in the Sul du Save through the mass exportation of men to the labour hungry mines. This succinct book brings to the fore a topic that has, to the author’s surprise, not solicited much historical attention. This is even though “the Eastern Main Line and the seemingly endless supply of black labour that it conveyed across the face of the southern African plateau formed the umbilical cord and lifeblood that gave birth to the mining revolution that took place on the Witwatersrand between the two world wars.”1

After the discovery of gold deposits in the Witwatersrand, trains operated on this line discretely, hidden from the white public eye by the night. A mutually beneficial economic relationship developed between Mozambique and South Africa, wherein ‘rail traffic [was] traded for human traffic.’ Van Onselen challenges Eurocentric conceptualisations of the train as a machine of progress and civilisation. He illustrates how several interested parties, namely, the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association (WNLA), the South African Railways (SAR) and the colonial and Apartheid governments of both countries, made unlikely alliances to concoct a brutal scheme that resulted in the impoverishment, torment, and dehumanization of black men from the Sul du Save. This process of impoverishment was facilitated by these night trains. Van Onselen demonstrates how a harsh economy under the Portuguese in Mozambique made contracts offered by mines more appealing for black men, even though those wages steadily declined. There was no ‘hidden hand of the market’ causing wholly voluntary migration to the mines, instead, poor men chose the lesser of two evils.

Onboard night trains, men were never given full passenger status and experienced something more akin to ‘mobile incarceration’. Racist thinking and profit maximisation shaped both the operationalisation of these trains and the relationship of black men with this system. In the journeys between Johannesburg and Lourenço Marques, men were referred to as neither miners nor passengers, but rather as ‘recruits’, ‘mine natives’, ‘natives in batches’ and the like, an illustration of their commodification and dehumanization. On the journey home (in what became known as ‘down trains’), the author shows how many of these men were essentially the ‘living death’, either physically, mentally, or emotionally. Life in the mines and mine compounds had been harsh, separated from family life and subjected to dangerous work environments. Many men contracted diseases such as pneumonia, silicosis, and tuberculosis, whilst some battled mental illness, alcoholism, and drug abuse. On down trains, many lives were lost because there was no real healthcare except unstaffed medical coaches and brandy to soothe the pain. There was also always the risk of fatal accidents. Train disasters, for example, dealt with in chapter 9, were always judged as just that…accidents, by investigating bodies. However, van Onselen argues that racist mentalities in white society, more specifically, among white railway staff, may have contributed to the occurrence of these train disasters through deliberate neglect. For those who survived, stops during the down journey were characterised by theft, harassment, and conning by hawkers trying to get access to the men’s hard-earned wages before they reached home.

In the final chapter, the author closes off by illustrating that the black men from the Sul du Save did ultimately have a sense of political consciousness. This is exemplified in the formation of political organisations such as the Union of Natives of the Mozambique province. Slightly more attention could have been paid to this aspect. Throughout the book, these men are represented mostly as helpless participants, with very minimal agency. The exception to this is the brief discussion of the cognizance of those who weighed their options and chose unfavourable contracts at the mines. Additionally, the author only mentions men who fled from the trains when opportunities arose, yet this could have been an interesting point to engage with one dimension of their resistance. Barring this criticism however, the book is a well nuanced, yet simple enough read that is suitable for both scholars and non-scholars alike.


[1] C. van Onselen, The Night Trains: Moving Mozambican Miners to and from South Africa, circa 1902-1955. (Jonathan Ball, 2019) p. 5.

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