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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 The book I am reading is based on the original, supplemented with unpublished passages from Loudon’s diaries, comments he wrote in the first edition of his report, photos and some background.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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The 7 things I now understand a little bit better about Americans (in Europe)

My post titled “7 things I don’t understand about Americans in Europe” keeps drawing new comments, and not all of them are friendly. But I welcome them all, since the goal of the post was, in fact, to learn more about Americans in Europe and why they behave the way they do. Thanks to all those people (mostly Americans) who took the trouble to comment, I have indeed learned a few new things.

  1. Why don’t they drink tap water?
    Still unexplained. Possible answers were “Maybe it’s because we’re next to Mexico”, blaming low quality of tap water in some parts of Europe (and extrapolation to other parts), and more generalizing “American paranoia” (the last one is from an American, I merely quote here).
  2. Why do they think Europe has a “low season”?
    I was duly pointed to the fact that “Certain parts of Europe do in fact have low seasons, they just tend to be tourist magnets.” So yes, some sea-side resorts have low seasons, but the weather then is rather bad, and most businesses are closed, so in fact, they have no season at all then. If you’re going to Ibiza or Dubrovnik in the “low season” be prepared to visit a ghost town.
  3. Why do they use money belts? and
  4. Why don’t they use ATM’s?
    Commentators combined answers to these two questions, so I guess they are related.  I can live with the explanation that (some) Americans are not used to the crowds – “In America, we usually drive in cars and don’t walk much or use public transport.” Another commenter says that “pickpocketing certainly exists across the globe but is pronounced in Europe due to social problems.” I tend to disagree with this broad statement – social problems anywhere in Europe are nothing compared to India or Latin America. Perhaps, indeed, as another commenter suggests, “Money belts are a combination of paranoia and ignorance.”
    As far as ATM’s are concerned, apparently, “For Americans, ATMs often have very high fees for foreign transactions.” On the other hand, it does not apply for all Americans, as these comments clearly show: “Money belts are stupid. My wife and I use ATMs.” “I have never owned a money belt! They’re totally useless. I find that you’re better off with a little bit of street smarts and an ATM card with no international fees.”
  5. Why are they in such a rush?
    The most common explanation is the one I originally came up with myself – limited vacation days. But, as I’ve written in another post, the shocking truth is that Americans don’t even use the little leave they have! Why they insist on choosing quantity instead of quality? One commenter explains it as follows: “I could sit around in cafés or parks lounging and relaxing but how is that any better than moving at a fast pace to see as many sights and museums as possible?” Personally, I think a good vacation is exactly the opposite of “moving at a fast pace”, and is actually intended for relaxing. But has made a career out of writing about it, so I’ll refer all further questions to him.
  6. Why don’t they have a clue?
    Still a bit vague here, even though my question seems justified. Apparently, “most Americans think of Europe as Disneyland”. This is perhaps explained by “They don’t have a clue because they are never taught to be curious about what the rest of the world is like”, although it seems a broad generalization. But, as one commenter rightfully pointed out, “99% of them won’t even come over to Europe for not having enough time so, support the ones that do!” I couldn’t agree more.
  7. What’s up with Paris?
    As one commenter puts it, “there’s an unhealthy obsession in American culture with Paris as the capital of romance and beauty. Personally, I think it is neither.” On the other hand, another commenter says “I don’t know if I can explain Paris if you haven’t been there. I don’t think I would want to live in Paris, but as a tourist, I love Paris. ” According to others, “Paris is dirty, overhyped, and overrun with tourists”, “Paris is incredible but it’s also a dirty, angry city with tons of social problems.” So there’s definitely something about Paris, I just didn’t have the chance to check it out for myself yet.

It does appear that my post has hit a nerve, even though for some it was the wrong nerve – if you want to know more, check out the comments of the original post here. I still don’t understand (some) Americans, but thanks to the feedback, I understand them a little bit better. More comments are warmly welcomed!

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7 things I don’t understand about Americans in Europe

Perhaps its because I haven’t been to the USA. Or its just me and it seems perfectly logical to everyone else. But there are quite a few things about Americans in Europe that I just don’t get. These 7 are the ones that puzzle me the most.

  1. Why don’t they drink tap water?
    I agree, tap water is not the same everywhere. Even in some European countries (like Ukraine) tap water is not safe to drink. But Americans buy bottled water even in the Netherlands, where tap water is the purest, safest, tastiest in the world. Somehow, they seem to think its “not done” to order tap water in a European restaurant, and some of them are fixed on the idea Europeans don’t drink tap water.
  2. Why do they think Europe has a “low season”?
    Having climbed to the top of Mount Pilatus above Luzern in April, I was shocked to meet dozens of Russians, the women plowing the 2 meter deep snow on high heels. The cable car was already running. What low season?

    Having climbed to the top of Mount Pilatus above Luzern in April, I was shocked to meet dozens of Russians, the women plowing the 2 meter deep snow on high heels. The cable car was already running. What low season?

    Americans see Europe as some Caribbean resort, that only opens when tourists are there. Therefore, half of them avoids Europe outside that imaginary “low season” because they think Europe is “closed”, and the other half only goes in the so-called “low season” because Europe is supposedly “packed” in the high season. Europe is full of Europeans, and they keep Europe busy even when the Americans are not around. November to March is “low season”? Don’t forget the Christmas and Spring vacations and the skiing resorts are filled to the rim.

  3. Why do they use money belts?
    To the average American, Europe is a thief’s paradise. Scared of pickpockets, Americans in Europe resort to using those silly money belts. As a result, every time an American has to pay, every pickpocket knows exactly where the said American stores all his money. If they’d just use ATM’s, they wouldn’t have to carry all their money around and be such a tempting target, but…
  4. Why don’t they use ATM’s?
    Why are Americans changing money? Don’t they have ATM’s in America? Why would anyone want to carry a stack of $$ all the way to Europe instead of just using a plastic card to draw money out of any ATM machine? They must think they’re going to Somalia or something. Some Americans are actually using traveller’s cheques. You gotta be kidding me! That’s, like, so 19th century!
  5. Why are they in such a rush?
    The average American in Europe, whether on an organized tour that promises a European “experience” or travelling independently, is in a horrible rush. Their schedule includes on average 3-4 hours a day on a bus or train, not including boarding and disembarking. Add to that an hour for checking in and out of the hotel every day (since they’re in a new town every evening) and there is very little time left for “experiencing” anything but lack of time. I know Americans have limited leave days, but why not use your vacation as it is intended – for relaxing?
  6. Why don’t they have a clue?
    No, I don’t expect them to know everything about their destinations. But you’d think a minimal level of knowledge is not too much? At least try to browse through a couple of Wikitravel pages before going somewhere, why don’t you? Nowhere is this lack of clue more severely shown than in Amsterdam. I understand and know from personal experience that reading about the Red Light District and the coffee shops is one thing, and seeing them “live” is another.  But being surprised they even exist? That’s just too weird.
  7. What’s up with Paris?
    I admit, I haven’t been there myself, so it might be I am wrong. I’ll do my best to check it out ASAP. But I honestly can’t imagine what can be so damn wonderful about Paris that every American dreams of going there and once they’ve been there, goes on and on about how great it is. Do they have a “Paris admiration class” in high school or something?

Of course, the above does not apply to Americans only. A lot of Australians in Europe have the same issues. More seriously – of course, I know it does not apply to all Americans. But many Americans visiting Europe travel like they’re trying to relive the Eurotrip movie or at least as if the said movie is their only source of information about this diverse continent. And that is what I understand least of all.

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Be James Bond, take the train

On short commutes I prefer the bicycle. And when going to a place far-far away flying is often the only option. But on the short distances between and inside small European countries train is my favourite mode of transport be it for a weekend getaway or on business travel. European trains get their fair share of bad publicity, especially in winter times. While this criticism is often justified, I would like to take a moment and focus on the positive sides of train travel when compared to car or plane.

Train or plane?

Flight view - more of the same

Flight view – more of the same

Let’s start with train vs plane. Unlike on a plane, in a train you have Space. There’s space for your legs, space for your luggage, space in the toilet and space to walk around and stretch your legs. On many trains there’s even a special place to go to for lunch, dinner or a drink. And in that space, called restaurant car, they give you an actual meal on real plates with proper knives and forks, a meal that doesn’t taste like cardboard (low pressure and dry air in pressurized planes makes everything taste like cardboard). Further on the train’s plus side – when you take the train you don’t have to show up 2 hours in advance, and you don’t have to take off your shoes before boarding. On a train you can take all your drinks or camping gas tanks and pocket knives with you (for a hiker like myself its a real issue!). Also, when you take the train, you actually arrive directly at your destination. At least, I do, because my destinations tend to be in city centres rather than in airports. When you’re flying, on the contrary, you arrive at the airport and (ironically) have to take a train into the city, a train that is often more expensive and takes longer than the flight. Finally, there’s the view. The view from a plane sucks. In Europe, most of the time the view is just clouds. Even when there are no clouds, after a couple of flights all tiny villages below look the same. And you have to bend your neck in a weird angle to try and catch a glimpse of the tiny villages and clouds through that damp small window 3 seat rows away, because window seats cost extra. I, on the other hand, am at this very moment sitting next to a window bigger than the one in my living room, passing the Dom of Cologne and castles above the Rhine. I see new people coming and going as the train goes from city to city, I wave to those staying behind at the stations, in other words, I am travelling. On a plane, I’m just bored. Enough on the plane though, you get the point by now, let’s talk about the car.

Drive or rail?

New Zealand, where parking is still fun

New Zealand, where parking is still fun

In some aspects, the car offers the same advantages as the train when compared to the plane – the view, the luggage, the space (unless you have a small European car, like mine). The car has a couple of nasty drawbacks though. The car is your responsibility. It’s an asset as much as it is a liability. You are the person who actually has to drive it. Which means that you can’t spend the time you’re on the road reading, writing, sleeping or watching a movie – all of which you can do on the train. Or have a few beers while travelling. Well, OK, you can, but please don’t. The real problem with the car, though, starts when you arrive. Yes, the car, like the train, can take you to the city centre.

It's probably the most beautiful parking spot in the world

Ahu Tongariki on Easter Island – it’s probably the most beautiful parking spot in the world

While the train takes care of itself, the car doesn’t – it has to be parked. Perhaps not a problem in a big country like Australia or Canada, but rather a big issue in European cities. Space, hence parking, is scarce and expensive. And once parked, your car, especially if it’s a rental or has foreign license plates, is a thief magnet. Bummer. I could drive all the way to Vienna or Milan. I’d much rather take the night train ,dine with a couple of wine glasses, sleep on board in a bed (not a plane chair),have my morning coffee with croissant and step out fresh and crispy onto the platform and into the morning sun.

James Bond 1

Rail away! Wild Balkan scenery on the Belgrado-Bar route

Speaking of night trains – here comes the bombshell. The biggest advantage of a train over a plane or a car is sex. Sure, you can squeeze into the tiny toilet on a plane to join the mile high club, or have some back seat action (again, not if you have a small European car), but that’s not really classy, is it? On the other hand, on an increasing number of European train destination just a minor upgrade will get you a private coupe all for yourself and your darling, so that you can feel like James Bond (or Daniela Bianci) on the Oriental Express. Just don’t forget to order the breakfast in bed for a complete experience and I dare you to show me the car or plane that can beat that!

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Laid back Laos

Sunset on the Mekong

Sunset on the Mekong

The party began already at the train station. Huge stacks of Beer Lao were being loaded into the train. The Lao association of Civil Engineers and Architects was sharing the night train to Bangkok with us and they made sure they’d travel in style – Lao style. Within minutes from departure the beer cans and bags of chips were being distributed to everyone within reach, including conductors and Thai border guards.

Morning alms in Luang Prabang

Morning alms in Luang Prabang

Communication with the increasingly drunken engineers and their secretaries (Lao professional associations travel as real communists – all or none) was somewhat difficult. Until one of the engineers started apologized for his poor English and sighed: “if only someone could speak Russian…”. To which I could only reply by saying “Так что ж ты раньше молчал?” (“why didn’t you just say so before?”). Seldom have I seen a person become happier at the sound of the Russian language. Apparently, he has studied in Kiev in the 80’s and was rather proficient in my native tongue. Although his Russian was a bit rusty after two decades, several beers and a bit of practice made wonders and we were soon singing Russian songs together as the night train rolled through the Thai countryside.

A solar panel in front of every hut in every village

A solar panel in front of every hut in every village

Unfortunately for him, the beer and the constant switching from Russian to English to Lao also made him lose focus. In a slip of the tongue he has mentioned his wife. Before we could blink, one of the women in the party was beating him on the head with her purse. She was kind enough to explain to us what we already understood: “The bastard told me – he not married!” Apparently, he was working his charms on her the whole evening, and was making considerable progress. Until that fatal slip of the tongue. Fortunately, Lao are laid-back, cheerful people, and the whole incident was over in seconds and cheered to by another round of Bee Lao. For all I know, they might have ended up in the same bed after all. I didn’t stay awake long enough to find out – we’ve had a busy schedule in Bangkok for the next day.

P.S. Apparently, the “tubing” party in Vang Vieng has been shut down – hurray!

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Good walls make good neighbours

They say Europeans don’t know their neighbours, that they don’t even know each other’s names, and limit the contact to the casual “hello” when they meet on the stairs. I for my part know my neighbours really well. I know which music they like, which football team they support and which nights they reserve to watch the games. I know which computer games they play, when they go to work and what time they come back and I always know when my neighbours are giving a party. If my neighbours are having some trouble in their relationships I am always up-to-date on their problems. I even know how often my neighbours have sex and which ones like it rough. This in-depth acquittance with my neighbours I owe to the paper thin walls in our small European apartments, that conduct each and every noise. I still don’t know their names though.

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