The raw and uncut history of European colonialism

I’ve been reading a wonderful book titled “The discovery of tin on the island Billiton” by Bert Manders. It is a description of the origins of the mining giant BHP Billiton, published a few years ago to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the company. The book is based on the diaries of the founder, John Francis Loudon. Loudon lead the first expedition to Billiton in 1851 and published a report of his experiences in 1884. But he also left his heirs a square box with documents and a hand-written instruction to preserve the contents “should someone wish to write the history of Billiton”. Which is strange to say the least – hasn’t he just published the history of Billiton?

As it turns out, in 1884 Loudon has published a purged version of the history. He naturally did not want to unnecessarily offend his partners and colleagues, and due to the morals of the Victorian era he had to leave out the spicy details. Spicy details like the story how he combined business with pleasure by marrying “the most beautiful virgin of Banka”, a 17-year old beauty from a Chinese family with excellent connections in the local mining community. The book I am reading is based on the original, supplemented with unpublished passages from Loudon’s diaries, comments he wrote in the first edition of his report, photos and some background. It is a fascinating tale from the heydays of 19-th century colonialism.

An open-pit tin mine on Singkep (near Billiton), probably in the 1920's (Tropenmuseum collection)

An open-pit tin mine on Singkep (near Billiton), probably in the 1920’s (Tropenmuseum collection)

Loudon spares no one in his writings. His companion and co-founder, Baron Vincent van Tuyll, he describes as “a perfect fool”, his chief engineer De Groot is “a vicious bully”, the colonial administrators are a bunch of useless bureaucrats. The locals are lazy and a ragtag gang of pirates, the imported Chinese workers are “opium junkies, murderers and thieves”, the chieftain of Billitong is an “evil, cunning rogue”. Even some of his friends are en passant mentioned in the book as real losers. Only John Francis Loudon himself is a pillar of society, an entrepreneur and a hero. But that’s how I would describe myself too, if I was writing a book about how I started a mining company. I must say, that from the impressive biography of Loudon, it seems he was everything he claimed to be. Most importantly, having been brought up on Java, fluent in Malay and experienced in the ways of doing business in these quarters, he was much better prepared for the exploration of the colonial riches than his partners.

Chinese mineworkers on Billiton, ca. 1890 (Tropenmuseum collection)

Chinese mineworkers on Billiton, ca. 1890 (Tropenmuseum collection)

What I find especially interesting about this book are the insights it provides into the mutual perceptions and misconceptions of Europeans and natives in that era. And I would like to illustrate with a quote from the unpublished part of Loudon’s diary. He describes a written communication with his business partner, Tuyll, who was back in the Netherlands at the time. Loudon, of Dutch-English origin, writes in his diary in Dutch, so I translated the piece to English. Tuyll’s letters are in English, and I’ve put them in italics.

“Tuyll wrote me in his letter of July 24th that I had to judge on a matter he discussed with the queen. Her Majesty claimed that the native women have black palates. Tuyll asked me to investigate: “Please look into your nonna’s roof of mouth“, as he wrote. In my diary I find the following: November 3rd. Wrote to Tuyll that I have attempted, as far as circumstances allowed, to investigate the issue commented upon by Her Majesty. I have never investigated on this before; I have limited myself to the lips. I could not look at my nonna’s mouth, as I was celibate for a month. I had to investigate the mouths of the other nonna’s to judge on this important issue. To my regret I must say that Her Majesty is wrong. It has been shown by inspecting various specimens. In a letter of February 23rd 1853 Tuyll noted: “Notwithstanding your investigations, which I communicated to the Queen, she still maintains that the women have black palates.

I can vividly imagine the scene on Billiton. Loudon, in his casual evening dress, is reading the letter from his companion by the candle light. As he gets to the passage above, he bursts into laugh. Letter in hand, he goes out of his hut and knocks on the door of his European neighbour, perhaps the engineer De Groot.

-What the hell do you want? I’m busy with my nonna.
-Oh, she’s in then? Good! Can I check her palate?
-Her WHAT?
-The roof of her mouth.
-WHAT?! Go check your own girlfriend’s mouth!
-Come on man, you know she died of yellow fever last month and I’ve been dry since. Its for this fool Tuyll, he says the Queen thinks they’re black on the inside as well. Let me have a small look, just to make sure its not true.

Roaring laughter, the whole small European community gathers to check the palates of their native girlfriends. That must have made their day. No wonder Loudon didn’t publish such stories in 1884. And what a genius he was to keep the records. This stuff is priceless.

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