Tag Archives: reading

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 The book I am reading is based on the original, supplemented with unpublished passages from Loudon’s diaries, comments he wrote in the first edition of his report, photos and some background.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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So you wanna be a blogger?

So you’ve decided to start a blog. Congratulations. You and a zillion others. Might want to try and make yours attractive to read, otherwise what’s the purpose of writing one? But how to make a readable blog? There are no rules about what a blog should be, that’s part of the fun of blogging. What to do? Well, keep on reading this one, for starters.

While I have some writing experience and training, I am not claiming to be a Master Blogger. I do have a huge amount of reading experience so I am something of a Master Reader. Since its your blog we’re discussing, you’re the one who decides what it looks like, what you write about and how often (unless you maintain a company blog or something similar, in which case its a different story). So I won’t try and tell you what to do. I can, though, give a few tips that might be useful.

Firstly, the opening sentence of your posts needs to be catchy. It is surprising how many bloggers start each post with “So I went to Rome last weekend”, “So this is what I think about the dairy consumption in the Mid-West”, “So here is the final proof there’s life on Mars”. In all these sentences, “so” is absolutely unnecessary. Try reading them without the “so” – the meaning is still there. “So” is just an example of “burden words” people use. When used in speech they can be annoying enough (think about all those times you heard “like, you know”) but there is absolutely no excuse for using them in a written text.

Secondly, the length of your posts should be reasonable. Of course, nobody can tell you how long your blog posts should be. There is some common sense to it though. Personally, I prefer posts that are column-size, 300-800 words, readable in a couple of minutes. Doesn’t mean you can’t write shorter or longer posts, but if you always write a couple of sentences, why not stick to Twitter? And if you write posts of thousands words every other day, are you sure they are meant to be read and enjoyed by others and are not just a form of therapy? A bit of diversity in your post length is fine, but keep the readers (and their attention span) in mind.

Thirdly, you may want some pictures in your blog. Yes, the ones that mean a thousand words. A couple of well-chosen pictures can make a good post excellent. But putting dozens of photos in every post is just unnecessary – its a blog, not Instagram. And if you put up a picture a day with a few words – that’s Twitter stuff! Blogs are primarily reading material, so use pictures to illustrate your writing, not as core material. Unless you blog about photography, of course. Every now and then I submit a photo post myself, but I try not to make a habit out of it.

Fourthly, your blog should have a topic. Writing about whatever comes up in your head is fine, but to attract readers that would come back, its nice if they can follow a theme in your writing. Doesn’t matter what your topic is, as long as you write interestingly enough it can be as narrow as the genetic diversity of moths at the Isle of Skye or as the history of democracy in the Arab world. On the other hand, your topic can be as broad as marine biology or as small European countries. Just write with the (non-specialist) reader in mind, and try to transmit your enthusiasm about the topic!

Fifthly and last – post regularly. Personally, I am rather put off by bloggers that are posting daily. Partly its jealosy of them being able to write so frequently but partly because I don’t believe that one’s topic can be that inspiring day after day. Posting regularly does help gather followers. If I have to wait a month between posts, I lose track (and interest). Once per two weeks is the lowest acceptable frequency I would say. I try to write at least weekly, myself, and would be very happy if I could pull off two posts per week. Reminds readers you’re still alive.

And that’s what I can do for your blog. From now on you’re on your own. Happy blogging and remember:

  1. Don’t start every post with “so”
  2. Be brief, but not too brief
  3. Use pictures wisely
  4. Choose a topic you like
  5. And post regularly!

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Why some businesses are a success while others are not

Bangkok, Thailand

Bangkok, Thailand

While travelling, I’ve read quite a few books. Usually I was able to swap them in hostels or buy cheaply at second-hand book stores. As a reader I am not very picky, and will go for anything printed. Especially when on the road for months on end. So not everything I’ve read was of high grade. However, every now and then I was able to get some quality books. Like “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations”, a book that discusses the burning topic of Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor. The main point of the book is that climate, natural resources or luck are just not enough to answer that question. Culture, ethics and science are all involved as well. Of course, all the basic principles that contribute to the wealth of nations apply to businesses as well. The main factor in success is knowing your customers, and being ready to go the extra mile to provide quality service. Here’s an example of how it should be done.

We stayed in Bangkok for just a few days, before embarking on a classical SE-Asia tour through Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. From Laos we went back to Thailand, for a couple of weeks of diving at Ko Phi Phi, but not before we’ve spent a day on Khao San Road, getting massages and doing some shopping. We’ve arrived on a night train from Laos, and were rather dirty and tired.

We went to Donna Guesthouse, where we’ve stayed two months before, hoping we’d be able to rent a room for the day, just to store our bags and use the shower. We never got the chance to ask. The owner immediately recognized us (mind you we were there more than two months before, for just 3 or 4 nights, and its in Khao San Road, the most touristy place in Thailand!), asked how our trip was, and for how long we were going to be in Bangkok.

When he heard we were leaving the same evening, he offered us to store the bags at the place and use the shower, refused to receive money for such a minor service and insisted to provide us with towels as well. In essence, he treated us as friends rather than as a chance to earn a couple of coins. Its been almost two years since, but I remember that small encounter as one of the most positive things I’ve experienced while travelling and if anybody asks me about a tip for a good place to stay in Bangkok I say without hesitation – Donna Guesthouse.

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