The Telegraph From Below

This piece accompanies Sebastian James Rose’s longer article in History Workshop Journal 97: The Telegraph from Below: Race, Labour and the Indo-European Telegraph Department 1862–1927. It is currently available to read with free access.

Epitomised by Morse keys, copper wires, iron poles and submarine cables, the electric telegraph is widely considered the precursor of modern communication technologies. Along with the steam train, it symbolises the high technology of the Victorian period. Despite this, almost no scholarship exists on those who constructed, maintained, operated and secured its networks. Instead, telegraphs have been understood as ‘tools of empire’ and nations, and as technologies for nineteenth-century corporate expansion and globalisation. Yet, globalisation and empire building through telegraph infrastructure was only possible because of the thousands of subalterns who made and maintained telegraph networks. Shifting focus towards subaltern telegraph workers alters our perspective on the agency of labour: the various ways workers defined, pushed back and complicated the demands of officials and hierarchies imposed form above. Studying these workers shows us that empire and its technologies were not strong, stable and omniscient, but brittle and precarious, reliant upon negotiations and contestations with local communities and ecologies.

Operating in Iran and the Gulf from 1862 to 1932, the Indo-European Telegraph Department (IETD) served as a vital communication link for the British Empire. On completion in 1864, the IETD’s landlines and seacables became the final piece connecting India and Britain via telegraph, linking the IETD into an expansive network of national and commercial telegraph networks that stretched from the Ottoman Empire through continental Europe and onto Britain. Established in the immediate aftermath of the Indian Rebellion in 1857, the IETD was primarily intended as an intragovernmental communication highway for officials to exchange information between Britain and India, and consequently, to the growing number of diplomatic sites situated throughout Iran and the Gulf. Initially placed under the Public Works Department in India, the IETD largely retained its status as an independent bureaucracy with its own internal hierarchy. The IETD and its network were divided into two sections: the Persian Gulf Section (PGS) headquartered in Karachi and the Persian Section (PS) headquartered in Tehran.

Image shows a section a larger map of telegraph lines running between Europe, India, Australia and China, made in 1866. The section focusses on the lines running from Constantinople through Persia to India.
Section of ‘General map of telegraph lines between Europe, India, Australia, & China’ (1866). Wikimedia Commons.

The IETD’s workforce was diverse, both in terms of the types of work undertaken and the various communities that contributed to the network. Like other imperial departments and colonial commercial companies at the time, workers were organised by an ever-changing and elusive concept of ‘race’. Categorisations of race in colonial India served to structure government administration and perpetuate a hierarchy that placed colonizers in positions of authority. Throughout British India in the late nineteenth century, economic pressures and the demand for increasingly cheap labour resulted in a growing reliance on subaltern workers, subordinate racialised groups, for major infrastructure projects such as telegraph networks. Due to a shortage of workers and a desire to reduce public expenditure, the IETD was placed under the jurisdiction of the Indian Telegraph Department from 1888 until 1893. During this period, racial distinctions between ‘Europeans’ and ‘non-Europeans’ were officially formalised.

Defined negatively, ‘non-Europeans’ was a catch-all term that encompassed workers such as South Asian cleaners and cooks, Parsi accountants, and Armenian signallers. Typically, ‘non-Europeans’ were assigned clerical tasks like accounting, lower-ranking signalling duties, as well as ‘menial’ and security roles like cleaning and patrolling the lines of wire. In contrast, ‘Europeans’ were considered technically proficient and were allocated positions of authority, such as superintendents of telegraph stations and signallers on the international wires.

The image is a print of a telegraph cable being laid in the mud of the Persian Gulf, published in the Illustrated London News in 1865. It shows British colonial officials hauling the cable, with local people playing a supporting role.
The Indo-European Telegraph. Landing the cable in the mud at Fao, Persian Gulf.’ Illustration for The Illustrated London News, 8 July 1865. Wikimedia Commons.

The image above shows the final connection of the Indo-European Telegraph Department’s cable to the Ottoman domestic line at Faw, connecting India to Britain for the first time in 1864. British colonial officials in their pith helmets are represented as the driving force of construction, hauling the cable to land. According to written sources from IETD officials, however, there were no British personnel involved in hauling the cable to shore. Instead, almost the entire local male population of Faw of around 350 Arabs and Persians were recruited to complete the task.

Organising its workforce by race presented the Department with additional problems. The neat delineation between ‘non-Europeans’ and ‘Europeans’ was fraught with vagaries. ‘Mixed race’ communities like Anglo-Indians, Goanese, and the diasporic and geographically dispersed Christian community of Armenians, defied neat taxonomies. Were they Europeans or non-Europeans?

Armenians and Anglo-Indians constituted the majority of subaltern signallers in the IETD. Nearly all Armenians and Anglo-Indians worked the Local Service, which managed local connections between stations within the IETD network, while the General Service, responsible for the international wires, was staffed by ‘Europeans’ receiving higher pay. In the IETD’s Tehran, Shiraz, and Isfahan stations, Armenians predominantly occupied lower positions in the Local Service. Due to a lack of ‘European’ signallers, the number of Armenian signallers grew from a handful in 1864 to just over half of all Persian Section signalling staff by 1910.

Contrary to British assumptions about their incapacity to work the international wires, Armenians became an attractive prospect for the Department precisely because of their ability to operate across multiple spatial and cultural registers. For example, the IETD’s Armenian munshi (secretary/translator) in Isfahan, Stephen Peter Aganoor, linked the Department directly to the prince-governor of Isfahan and his influence at the court was said to have produced ‘consideration and respect for the Department’. Similarly, Arshak Malcolm, became the first, and possibly only Armenian, to reach the high position of 2nd grade signaller in 1888 as clerk-in-charge of the station in the small southern Iranian market town of Borazjan. His promotion was a partial recognition of the ‘political’ work he conducted on behalf of the IETD in a region where central government control remained weak as local Khans engaged in power struggles. Malcolm was praised for his ‘intrepid bearing’, and for saving the telegraph line from damage on more than one occasion.

Similarly, Anglo-Indians were designated by the IETD as capable of selected European traits of operating complex machinery like telegraph keys, whilst their Indian heritage supposedly granted them climatic toleration of the hot and remote stations of the Gulf. Anglo-Indians were excluded from the Persian Section because it was assumed that they were ‘in stamina and habits quite unfit for the hardships of the Persian Highlands’, due to ‘their physique, their nationality…and the sedentary habits they have acquired in the cable stations of the Gulf.’ Such discourse mirrored imperial assumptions that naturalized race for the individual as inherently bodily and proscribed certain communities to particular forms of work.

While Anglo-Indians and Armenians facilitated connections between the IETD and local communities, South Asian servants played a crucial role in maintaining telegraph infrastructure. At various telegraph stations, labourers and servants were responsible for cooking, cleaning, and repairs. Onboard the IETD cable ship, Patrick Stewart, workers were responsible for the relaying and repair of the network’s continuously degrading submarine cables. The daily maintenance work carried out by subalterns shows the network’s constant need for repair and the wide array of tasks required for its upkeep. The Patrick Stewart employed many South Asians, primarily working as lascars (sailors employed in the British navy), who were assigned physically intense work such as stoking the boilers, cooking, and stewarding. The hierarchical racial structure meant that physically-demanding work and its associated health impacts were predominantly borne by ‘non-Europeans’. The life and career of Ameen Mohideen, the serang or leader of the lascars aboard the Patrick Stewart from 1871 to 1891, serves as an example. Ameen began as a second-class lascar and was later promoted to serang. He was compelled to retire due to an irreducible inguinal hernia, causing ‘protrusion of the gut’ and severe abdominal pains accompanied by vomiting and obstructed defecation. This injury was likely exacerbated, if not caused, by repetitive lifting. Ameen’s debilitating injury underscores the physical toll exacted by telegraph maintenance operations. The ‘revolutionary’ technology of telegraphy relied heavily on the reproduction of physically demanding and repetitive tasks, often at the expense of the health of subalterns.

A photograph of the crew of the Patrick Stewart, an IETD cable ship. White officials in uniform stand on the quarter deck balcony. Below them, a large number of south Asian workers dressed in identical dark clothing are standing and seated and a smaller number are dressed in white.
Photograph of the crew of the Patrick Stewart c.1890. Owned by author.

Across the network’s landlines, Ghulāms, lineguards and jemadars formed the backbone of security and petty labour operations. Their responsibilities included patrolling sections of telegraph lines, surveying for damage and vandalism, and serving as a visible presence of the Department in remote areas. The use of lineguards by the IETD was most prominent in Makran, a coastal region that straddled British and Qajar-administered frontier territory in southern Baluchistan. During and after the construction of the Makran line in the 1860s, security was predominantly provided by nomadic and semi-nomadic communities, who received subsidy payments from the IETD for protecting the line. Despite the Department’s efforts to regulate labour through inspections and schedules, lineguards often adapted their work to suit their own needs, sometimes failing to show up or subcontracting the work to friends and relatives while they worked the fields during harvest. Petitions were another way workers attempted to shape their conditions. In 1926, the ferashes (servants) at Panjgur station successfully petitioned for an increase in pay against rising food prices. While power relations between subalterns and IETD officials were by no means equal, the work of lineguards and other IETD workers shows that officials had to adapt the network to the desires and limitations of its labour force.

The Department’s reliance on local labour gave these workers a degree of control and leverage in shaping both working conditions and the network itself. As such, the IETD was unsuccessful in its attempts to produce a highly disciplined indigenous and imperial labour force. From this perspective, imperial telegraphy appears less like a ‘tool of empire’ and more like a contested and hybrid technology. The ‘nerves of empire’ and the expansion of global communication were not solely the domain of imperial pioneers, but rather an entangled and negotiated endeavour, reliant upon the continued work, organisation and agency of subalterns.

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