Monday, 11 April 2011

The Victorian Internet, 1899

St. Helena connected by Cable to Cape Town, November 1899
At the time of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 (Isandlwana, Rorke’s Drift et al) it took twenty days for a message to travel from Southern Africa via steamer to the Cape Verde islands and on by telegraph to London.  As this remained the situation at the outbreak of the Second Boer War in October 1899 a quicker and more direct route was urgently required.  The Eastern Telegraph Company contracted the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company to manufacture and lay the necessary cables which were to link Cape Town - St. Helena – Ascension and St. Vincent in the Cape Verde Islands.  Messages could then be routed over the Western Telegraph Companies’ existing cables from St. Vincent via Madeira to Carcavelos, Portugal.  From there to Porthcurno in Cornwall they again travelled over the Eastern network.
The Cable Ship Anglia laid the 2,065 nm first stage from Cape Town to St Helena, completing it by 26 November 1899, and while CS Anglia returned to the UK for more cable CS Seine laid the section from St Helena to Ascension, a distance of 844 nm, completing it by 15 December 1899.  CS Anglia then laid 1,975 nm of cable from Ascension to St Vincent, Cape Verde Islands, completing the task by 21 February 1900 only four months after the start of the war.

 Rebuilt Cable Landing Station, Comfortless Cove, Ascension Island, May 2010

Cable Entry Duct, Comfortless Cove, Ascension Island, May 2010
In 1901 the Eastern Telegraph Company contracted the same company to manufacture and lay another set of cables from St Vincent to Madeira, 1,130 nm, and from there a 1,375 nm cable to Porthcurno.  CS Anglia and CS Britannia carried out this work.  To provide an alternative route in case of cable failure another cable laid by CS Anglia in the same year was that from Ascension to Freetown, Sierra Leone, a distance of 1,125 nm.

The All Red Line Around the World
In 1902 the final link in the global network of cables owned and operated by British companies was made with the laying of the Pacific cable from Canada to Australia.  The Pacific Cable, jointly owned by the British Government and the Governments of Canada, Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, New Zealand, Tasmania and Western Australia in a unique partnership arrangement was, “effected in obedience to the strong desire of the people of the wide-spread British Empire to utilize electricity for the accomplishment of Imperial consolidation”, and to ensure that “The All Red Line” touched only the territories of the British Empire.

Some parts of the line had been completed considerably earlier.  In 1866, the Great Eastern connected Ireland to Newfoundland, by 1870 Suez was linked to Bombay and from there to Madras, Penang and Singapore.  Australia was linked to British telegraph cables directly in 1870, by extending a line from Singapore to Port Darwin and by 1872, messages could be sent direct from London to Sydney.

To complete the network, the final major cable laying project was the trans-Pacific section.  The route selected was Bamfield, Vancouver Island - Fanning Island - Fiji - Norfolk Island.  From Norfolk Island, two cables would be laid, one to Southport, Queensland, with a landline to Sydney, while the other would land at Doubtless Bay, Auckland and in total 7,837 nm of cable would be required.

It was decided to lay the Bamfield-Fanning Island section in one continuous length.  At the time no cable ship existed that could carry the cable to do this, so the Telegraph Construction & Maintenance Company had CS Colonia built.  Laying of the 3,459 nautical mile long cable began at Bamfield on 18 September 1902, reaching Fanning Island on 6 October.  Fanning Island had been formally annexed to Great Britain in 1888. 

In September 1914, the German cruiser, Nurnberg, slipped up to Fanning flying a French flag.  The Germans landed and wrecked the cable station, cut the cable and destroyed a cache of spare instruments. It is also said that they also found time to raid the local post office and steal some stamps.   Within two weeks the severed ends of the cable had been found and, communications re-established.  In December the same year Nurnberg was sunk at the Battle of the Falklands.
The CS Anglia which had been used to connect Cape Town and St Helena then laid all the sections from Fanning Island to Australia and New Zealand during 1902.

“The All Red Line” was inaugurated on 31st October 1902 and the Imperial Defence Committee was able to report to the British Government, “The dependence of the United Kingdom on cable stations situated upon foreign territory has been generally eliminated.”
Britain dominated the international cable networks and no other country possessed such an extensive network. In 1896 there were 30 cable-laying ships in the world, 24 of them owned by British companies.  The Eastern Telegraph Company controlled almost 50 per cent of the world’s submarine cables while other British companies owned another 30 per cent of the cable routes.  These figures underestimate the extent of British domination of worldwide telegraphic traffic because, apart from a number of transatlantic cables, most of the submarine cables owned by non-British companies were local links connecting to British long-distance routes.
Over the following years the Eastern and Western Telegraph Companies merged along with others such as The China Submarine Telegraph Company and The British-Indian Submarine Telegraph Company to form the, wonderfully named, Imperial and International Communications Ltd which in 1934 became Cable and Wireless.
Map from "The Annals and Aims of the Pacific Cable Project." Johnson, Ottawa 1903.Text adapted from "Colossus" by Paul Gannon and


cable companies in my area said...

It's quite hard to imagine how long for a single message to arrive years ago. I just realize I should never complain if my connection is a bit slow sometimes.

Hannah Terry said...

Hi! I love this article it's so interesting!
My grandmother mentioned her grandfather George Ward came from England to lay the cable for the telegraph on Saint Helena and never left, instead staying and marrying an islander. You wouldn't have any information about individual people by any chance? or anything about the process of laying the cables?
Thanks heaps