Tag Archives: colonialism

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 The book I am reading is based on the original, supplemented with unpublished passages from Loudon’s diaries, comments he wrote in the first edition of his report, photos and some background.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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Little Europes

Overseas countries and territories (OCT) and Outermost regions (OMR) of the European Union (by Alexrk2, via Wikipedia)

On a wide cobbled space on the sea front they found a guard of red-coated militia drawn up to receive them, and a crowd—attracted by their arrival—which in dress and manner differed little from a crowd in a seaport at home save that it contained fewer women and a great number of negroes.

The words above describe the arrival of a ship full of slaves – white slaves – to Bridgetown, the capital of the British colony Barbados, in late 1600’s. These lines are from one of my favourite books, “Captain Blood: His Odyssey”, a novel by Rafael Sabatini. “Home” refers to England, and today, crowds in most European seaports differ even less from the crowds in Bridgetown, Papeete or Paramaribo, as the ports of mainland Europe are rather diversified by the influx of immigrants from the (former) colonies. The colonial empires that were so dominant in the past 5 centuries are gone, most of the colonies have gained independence years, or even centuries ago. But a few remain attached to the “mother-country”, either too small to be able to stand on their own or too valuable as a honey-moon destination to be let go. Most of these bits and peaces of Europe scattered around the globe are French, as France has had the most difficulties ditching the notion of it being destined to rule the world (most French still cherish the thought that one day, the world will call upon them). But quite a few are British, some are Dutch, and even Norway has “colonies” in the southern seas.

For the most part though the so-called Outermost regions and Overseas countries and territories of the EU are either a rock in the ocean, like the famous Saint Helena where Napoleon was banned to, or a tropical paradise, making a living of newly weds and smuggling. The effect of these “little Europes” is rather unique. You fly out of the frozen European winter for 10 or even 20 hours, and suddenly you’re on the French Riviera, but on the other side of the globe. The heat, the white-washed buildings, the magnolias – its as if you’ve driven to Nice or Marseille. Even the number plates on some of these islands have the EU flag. And, as immigrants from Aruba and Martinique are drawn to Europe, there is a steady trickle of white Europeans to the tropics, nowadays for the most part not buccaneers or white slaves, but retirees, searching for a better climate to warm their elderly bones.

So are the differences between Europe and “little Europes” really blurred? Are Reunion, Saba and the Cayman Islands as European as Bristol or Vilnus? Yes and no. Being “Europe” seems less and less about pure geography. Although by now, pretty much every colony that had a serious desire and capacity for independence has become independent, the political and economical ties of the remaining colonies with the “mother country” are too strong to endanger by such a radical move as a declaration of independence. Its not the whole story though. Slower changes are simmering under the surface. Semi-dormant independence movements exist in most French overseas territories. The Dutch Antilles have been dissolved, some becoming states within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, while others have become direct parts of the Netherlands. And regional ties are becoming more important than ties to the distant mainland Europe, as evidenced by the recent Samoa time zone change.

One thing is certain – these specks of Europe in tropical seas will remain a prized tourist destination, regardless of the geopolitics. Check out the map – Europe may be closer to you than you thought it is!

Curacao 9 Curacao 8 Curacao 7 Curacao 6 Curacao 5 Curacao 4 Curacao 3 Curacao 2 Curacao 1

All of the photos below were taken at Curaçao, a constituent country within The Kingdom of the Netherlands, which is a member of the European Union. However, Aruba, Curaçao, and Sint Maarten have the status of overseas countries and territories (OCTs) and are not part of the EU. Nevertheless, only one type of citizenship exists within the Kingdom (Dutch), and all Dutch citizens, including the Curaçaoans, are EU citizens. Got it? Me neither. But it somehow works.

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