By the 1890s, 32,000 laborers from British India were recruited to East Africa under indentured labour contracts to construct the Uganda Railway. Most of the surviving Indians returned home, but 6,724 decided to remain in East Africa after the line’s completion. Subsequently, some became traders and took control of cotton ginning and sartorial retail. From 1900 to 1920, a sleeping sickness epidemic in the southern part of Uganda, along the north shores of Lake Victoria, killed more than 250,000 people.
Almost from its inception the Uganda Railway developed shipping services on Lake Victoria. In 1898, it launched the 110-ton SS William Mackinnon at Kisumu, having assembled the vessel from a kit supplied by Bow, McLachlan and Company of Paisley in Scotland. A succession of further Bow, McLachlan & Co. kits followed. The 662 ton sister ships SS Winifred and SS Sybil (1902 and 1903), the 1,134 ton SS Clement Hill (1907) and the 1,300 ton sister ships SS Rusinga and SS Usoga (1914 and 1915) were combined passenger and cargo ferries. The 812-ton SS Nyanza (launched after Clement Hill) was purely a cargo ship. The 228-ton SS Kavirondo launched in 1913 was a tugboat. Two more tugboats from Bow, McLachlan were added in 1925: SS Buganda and SS Buvuma.
On the other hand, the Uganda railway was of strategic importance to Uganda`s trade economy. As the region was transitioning from the era of slave trade, it provided an important strategic transport alternative at greatly reduced costs of transport from Uganda to the Coast. All major cash crops introduced in Uganda by the British like cotton, coffee, tobacco, tea and minerals like copper were all transported from Uganda using the Uganda railway. The railway network was also the all-important golden thread that wove the East African Community together to become economically codependent on each other.