Transportation and Revolt

Transportation and Revolt

Pigeons, Mules, Canals, and the Vanishing Geographies of Subversive Mobility

By Jacob Shell

How political regimes have responded when certain modes of transportation—from carrier pigeons to canal boats—have been associated with politically subversive activities.





How political regimes have responded when certain modes of transportation—from carrier pigeons to canal boats—have been associated with politically subversive activities.

During World War I, German soldiers shot down carrier pigeons for fear the birds were carrying enemy communiqués; in Mexico, the United States, and other countries, mules were used for smuggling and secret travel in mountainous areas; in the British Empire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the British feared that supplies for anti-imperialist rebellion were being transported by canal. In this book, Jacob Shell argues that many political regimes have historically associated certain modes of transportation with revolt or with subversive activities—and have responded by acting to destroy or curtail those modes of transportation.

Constructing a conceptual framework linking physical geography with the politics of mobility, Shell presents historical examples of the secret, subversive mobilization of people and cargo across watery spaces and harsh terrain, carried by watercraft and transport animals including pigeons, mules, camels, elephants, and sled dogs. Efforts to suppress such clandestine mobilities ranged from the violent (the shooting of pigeons) to the indirect—curtailing financial support, certain kinds of social knowledge, or schemes for infrastructural development. To show how such efforts at immobilization could affect cities and urban transportation, Shell looks at the Port of New York in the early twentieth century, where potentially transformative plans for inner-city freight transportation were rejected—likely, Shell argues, due to fears of anarchist activities. The innovative argument advanced by Shell in Transportation and Revolt challenges conventional wisdom about the supposed obsolescence of transport methods that have become marginalized in the modern era.


$35.00 X ISBN: 9780262029339 208 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 16 halftones


  • Emphasizing fear and class resentment, Shell's Transportation and Revolt is groundbreaking in that it adds a novel and provocative twist to conventional histories of transportation. It gives a more complete social and political context about why certain things didn't happen, and this work will no doubt stimulate other scholars to investigate the role of fear in shaping how we move.


  • Those interested in historical mobility, subversive or insurgent mobility, and animal mobility will find a lot to like in Transportation and Revolt. The book offers a powerful argument that the reasons why certain transportation modes become dominant while others fade away are not always economic or technical but can also be rooted in politics, fear and efforts to control suspect people.

    Journal of Transport Geography

  • Transportation and Revolt brings together radical historical geography with transportation history to expand our view of the ways ruling powers thwart resistance movements. Authorities not only built infrastructure to contain subversion, they also un-built infrastructure to immobilize political others. Jacob Shell has unearthed important traces of a world of working animals and transport systems long rendered invisible.

    Dawn Biehler

    Technology and Culture


  • Jacob Shell's Transportation and Revolt opens up a secret world of subversive mobilities, clandestine trafficking, and insurgent evasion. Out of this colorful and overlooked history, Shell gleans a new way of understanding why certain transportation infrastructures have not been built. This exhilarating history of ungovernable mobility reveals what is at stake in not only building, but also abandoning and destroying, transportation technologies. I highly recommend it for the new angles it will bring to anyone interested in mobility, transport, and urban planning, as well as social history, radical political history, and regional studies.

    Mimi Sheller

    Director of the Center for Mobilities Research and Policy, Drexel University, and author of Aluminum Dreams: The Making of Light Modernity

  • Humans make revolutions, but not without help. Pigeons, mules, elephants, and sled dogs, among others, have been essential vectors of modern revolt, as Jacob Shell confidently demonstrates in this remarkable study of the disruptive power of transport.

    Joyce E. Chaplin

    James Duncan Phillips Professor of Early American History, Harvard University, and author of Round about the Earth: Circumnavigation from Magellan to Orbit