Travel inspires comparison, often revealing as much about the places we come from as the places we visit. This was certainly the case for late 19th-and early 20th-century Indian travellers in Europe, especially those who visited the imperial metropole of London. Their travel writings suggested ways that colonial underinvestment in making Indian urban space liveable and accessible for Indians impoverished the subcontinent’s cities in comparison to those that they visited.
One such traveller was Munshi Mahbub Alam, a prominent publisher and newspaper editor based in Lahore, who set off in 1900 on a great trans-European journey. Mahbub Alam’s journey took him to the grand Paris Exposition Universelle, as well as the major cities of the continent, including London, Vienna, and Berlin. On his journey home, he also travelled across the Ottoman Empire and Egypt, visiting Istanbul, Damascus, and Cairo.
Throughout his travels, Mahbub Alam dispatched reports back to India to Paisa Akhbar (Penny Paper), one of the most prominent Urdu newspapers in pre-World War I Lahore. Readers of the Paisa Akhbar were treated to Mahbub Alam’s reflections on – and occasional complaints about – the people, food, architecture, religious practices and languages he encountered across Europe and West Asia.
Transportation looms especially large in Mahbub Alam’s account of his travels. Unsurprisingly for a man who travelled so far, Mahbub Alam was obsessed with how people moved around. In 1908, when he collected and published his reflections in a massive 970-page tome titled Safarnāmah-yi eurūp (Travelogue of Europe), he devoted entire lengthy chapters to the steam ships, railways, tunnels, and roads on which he travelled.
From a transportation perspective, no city was more impressive to Mahbub Alam than London, then the largest city in the world. London, according to Mahbub Alam, was home to 14 railway lines, including the world’s first underground railway system, which first opened in 1863. The city was, in Mahbub Alam’s words, “a jungle of iron roads”. “It is a wonder that the trains don’t collide with each other every day,” he marvelled of the electric and steam-powered trains that criss-crossed the city and its suburbs.
In his dispatches to the Paisa Akhbar, Mahbub Alam explained that trains in London did not simply move across the city, but also under it, passing through tunnels in a system called the “tube”. “Tube,” he explained, “is the English word for ‘nalkay’ (tubes, pipes, or taps) and refers to a special underground railway line”. Mahbub Alam arrived in London on August 8, 1900, nine days after the public opening of the “twopenny tube”. A popular new deep-level underground that ran on electricity, rather than steam, the ‘twopenny tube’ today still forms part of London’s Central line.
“What a strange thought it is,” Mahbub Alam marvelled of the underground, “that above London is filled with its residents... but below this railway is still moving along”. His descriptions of the train emphasised both its technological innovations and the experience of riders, inviting his readers in Lahore and across India to admire the innovation of the underground and imagine themselves as riders.
Of his rides on the twopenny tube, Mabub Alam wrote, “there is a very lively atmosphere” on the train, in part due to the excitement among commuters that the underground had reduced what had once been an hour by bus to 26 minutes by tube. Anticipating that his readers might experience some trepidation for him descending into the darkness of subterranean London, Mahbub Alam assured them that, “it is lit up like daytime at all times by electric light”.
Even the processes of purchasing a ticket and boarding the train seemed innovative to Mahbub Alam. “Passengers do not purchase tickets on the line. Instead, two pence permits the passenger access to a room, which is, in fact, a lift. The lift immediately descends through the soft ground”. His one complaint of the system was that “underground it was quite cold”, a fact that would surprise modern-day users of the London tube, but which was frequently noted in the early 20th century.
Mahbub Alam’s evident admiration for technological marvels of the London underground and urban rail did not exist in a vacuum. His understanding of the system and its significance was filtered through his worldview as a prominent Indian Muslim capitalist in Lahore.
Across his newspapers and his published books, he pushed for greater authority for members of his own class of Indians, envisioning a world in which they, like their European counterparts, might have the financial capital to invest in massive infrastructure projects in their home regions.
It is important to note that Mahbub Alam was not highly critical of the colonial regime in most of his writing. Colonial authorities sometimes accused the Paisa Akhbar of “anti-European vapourings” when it advocated greater Indian representation in regional governance, but they rarely censored or fined it as they did so-called “radical” papers.
Indeed, Mahbub Alam’s subsequent travels to Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Western Front during World War I were even supported by the government. The colonial state saw him as a reliable reporter on the conditions of the war for Indian audiences.
Nonetheless, when read alongside his descriptions of travel in India, Mahbub Alam’s comments on London make it apparent that the colonial economic system that enriched British capitalists – whose investments financed train systems – comparatively impoverished Indian cities. As some Europeans grew increasingly wealthy from trade and their economic interests in colonies such as India, they often invested the money back in Europe, contributing to the rise of modern European urbanism represented by projects like the underground.
In India, conversely, investment in infrastructure more often reflected the military and economic interests of the colonial state. The railways, for instance, were designed in part to ensure that colonial troops could be moved easily to quell potential rebellions after 1857.
While much of the financing for Indian rail systems came from British capitalists, early investors were guaranteed a 5% return on investment, which – when not met by railway profits – came out of Indian tax revenue. These investors often reinvested their returns in Britain or other colonies, rather than in India.
Mahbub Alam was not necessarily aware of the financial policies and practices that limited Indian urban infrastructure while contributing to their expansion in Britain. But he was certainly aware of the effects of these colonial practices.
Bombay, the second largest city in India at that point and the place Mahbub Alam returned to by steamship, boasted of some technologies that he saw as reflective of modern urbanism. He admired the gas and electric lights that he could see from the ship.
But immediately upon disembarking, he chafed at some of the more limited urban infrastructure and colonial racism that proscribed his mobility. He complained of the poor facilities of the customs offices in Bombay and the poor treatment of Indians in comparison to Europeans.
In subsequent years, his newspapers featured calls for increased Indian control of industry and municipal authority, as well as an emphasis on engineering education, suggesting he hoped that Indians would invest in and expand local urban infrastructure.
The experiences of Mahbub Alam on the London tube ultimately draws our attention to the problem of colonial underinvestment in urban Indian infrastructure, and particularly the type of infrastructure that would have made cities more liveable for Indians. The “jungle of iron roads” that made movement across the massive metropolis of London “very convenient” was developed as Indian urban infrastructure often languished.
The writings of travellers such as Mahbub Alam encourage us to reflect on not only the ways South Asians encountered and celebrated new technologies across the world, but also the colonial inequalities that kept many of these technologies centred in the imperial metropole.
Amanda Lanzillo is Lecturer in South Asian history at Brunel University London.