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“From one British island to another:” imperial federation, colonial nationalism, and the Pacific Cable telegraph, 1879-1902 Oliver, Claire


This essay traces the development of Sir Sandford Fleming’s Canadian campaign for the Pacific Cable submarine telegraph line from 1879 to 1902. Fleming envisioned a globe-encircling communications network that supported both Canadian economic and political expansion as well as increased inter-colonial partnership between Canada and the Australasian Colonies. Supporting the project through ideologies of nationalism and imperialism, Fleming maintained a broad public discourse in order to encourage funding for the expensive and unpopular telegraph line. The Pacific Cable’s construction during a period of growing political independence across Britain’s white settlement colonies reveals the institutional legacy of the British imperial system within emerging modes of early twentieth-century national development. Fleming’s criticism of rival corporate telegraph networks highlighted the moral utility of public ownership over Britain’s worldwide ‘all-red route.’ In his twenty-year push for the Pacific Cable, Fleming successfully synthesized a new mode of colonial self-determination based in British imperial kinship and global economic integration, elevating telegraphy into the nervous system of “the new Empire.”

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