The “knowledge economy” and tin mining in 19th century Malaya

Professor Barbara Watson Andaya, Asian Studies Department, University of Hawai’i

In 1893 the Resident of Perak, Frank Swettenham, wrote disparagingly about the failure of European tin-mining ventures in the Malay Peninsula, contending that unnecessary expenditure led to financial collapse, and that Chinese miners were then able to buy up these mines 'for a song', and make a fortune, despite their 'ridiculous and primitive methods'. Fourteen years later, however, he spoke with admiration of the Chinese contribution to the development of the Federated Malay States and even though, in his own words, 'most of my life was spent with Malays’, his influential writings convey little sense of Malay-Chinese interaction (Swettenham, 1893, p. 34; 1907, p. 232; and 1942, p. 57). By the early 20th century, the social and economic separation between Chinese and Malays appeared to be well in train, and it was this situation that led Rupert Emerson in 1957 to describe the newly independent Malaya as 'the perfect example of the plural society’, which J. S. Furnivall, the originator of the phase, had characterized as one where the social orders lived side by side in one political unit, but without mingling (Emerson, 1957, p. 4; Furnivall, 1939, pp. xv, 446).

Tin Mining in Malaysia: Alternative Histories

The expansion of the tin industry during the colonial period is often cited as a key element in the development of a 'plural society’, and most histories of Malaysia trace the ethnic divides that evolved as tin mines and rubber plantations became the twin pillars of the colonial economy. Yet it can be argued that this focus largely reflects the nature of the sources on which the tin-mining narrative relies. From the mid-19th century, written documentation in the form of eye-witness accounts, official documents, photographs, statistical reports, company files, and so on, has provided a deep and informative history, but it is one that privileges 'research accessibility'.

A second level, equally important, but less supported by European sources and thus less easily recovered, concerns the human interaction that occurred through the 19th century between local communities and the newcomers who began to arrive in the Malay Peninsula in such numbers. Embedded in this interaction is a process of 'knowledge transfer' that ultimately enabled Chinese miners to familiarize themselves with the Malayan environment and to use this background of knowledge transmission to develop their own initiatives. At the same time, there was a local mastery of certain types of expertise that Chinese miners, in acknowledging indigenous knowledge, never sought to secure.

Malay Respect for Chinese Mining Methods

The 'less recoverable history' of Malaya's tin fields could be approached from various angles, but three aspects stand out as important elements in laying the basis for Malaya’s emergence as the world’s primary tin producer. The first concerns a deep Malay respect for Chinese mining expertise, in which there was no thought of 'ridiculous and primitive methods'. Although Malays had been mining, smelting, and exporting tin since at least the ninth century, during the 18th century local rulers were quick to acknowledge the skills of Chinese miners and accept their contribution to the local economy. The Sultan of Palembang welcomed their presence on Bangka, a major producer of tin, while in Borneo the Sultan of Sambas 'imported' Chinese as gold miners (Andaya, 1993, p. 189; Somers-Heidhues, 2003, p. 51). In 1776, when tin production declined owing to a prolonged drought, the Sultan of Perak expressly sought to recruit 'young and strong' Chinese men from Melaka. Supervised by the Raja Bendahara, the new arrivals were given written authority that allowed them to open mines along three small rivers in the Kinta district (Andaya, 1979, p. 337). Based on this and subsequent evidence. a classic study of the tin industry’s formative years concluded that ‘the early Chinese miners came at the invitation of the Malay chiefs’ (Wong, 1965, p. 21).

Initially, the number of Chinese miners working in tin-producing areas was relatively small. In 1824, for example, there were only about 400 Chinese in Perak; in 1828 there were around 300 miners in the Lukut area of Negeri Sembilan, and 600 in the mines at Sungai Ujong, near modern Seremban. Because they were in a minority and normally recognized the authority of some raja, integration into community life generally presented few difficulties. As one missionary in Sungai Ujong remarked, 'it was pleasing to observe the amicable spirit subsisting between the Malays and Chinese in these parts'. Malay villagers supplied the miners with rice, fruit, and poultry and acted as porters to carry smelted tin to a collecting centre, while a 'considerable number' worked for wages in the mines. The raja of Jempul (in modern Negeri Sembilan) confirmed this favourable relationship by adopting the Chinese manager of one mine as his son (Tomlin, 1844, pp. 91-92).

It would be misleading, however, to depict the first half of the 19th century as a kind of golden age of socioeconomic acceptance, for the sources refer to several episodes of serious confrontations between Malays and Chinese. Written documentation provides few details about the causes. To what degree can conflict be attributed to cultural transgressions (for instance, regarding Chinese relations with Malay women), or to disputes about water access or mine ownership? Did the locally born ‘Baba Chinese’ who often helped fund migrant enterprises also act as mediators? Even so, while these questions remain part of a history that can never be fully recovered, the continuing links between Malay and Chinese leaders underscore a general recognition of the technological innovations and organizational skills that Chinese miners had introduced.

Chinese Respect for the Malay Pawang

The second aspect concerns Chinese respect for Malay familiarity with both the physical and supernatural aspects of the landscape. Miners who migrated from Bangka or Borneo would have had some experience with tropical conditions, but those who came directly from China, largely rice farmers, still had much to learn. Even more significant, however, was Chinese awareness that mining involved much more than simply locating a possible site for a mine. Regardless of their background, all Chinese migrants brought with them deep-seated beliefs in the need to acknowledge local gods and deities, especially in regard to mining. In China itself, underground activities had been consistently discouraged by classical sages, geomancers, and even Chinese emperors because the otherwise favourable feng shui of landforms could be changed or ancestral graves disturbed. Centuries of cultural anxiety about this potential harm meant that miners were fully aware of the need to placate powerful spirits when the earth was excavated (Collins, 1916, pp. 3, 42).

Malay pawang in the Straits Settlements, circa 1890

In the new environment of the Malay Peninsula, it is unlikely that any Chinese miner, regardless of his mining experience, would have deemed himself equipped with the cultural and linguistic skills required to strike a bargain with suspicious and possibly malevolent spirits. For the necessary expertise, as in China, he had to turn to ritual specialists, and in this case, to the Malay bomoh or pawang (normally a man, but at times a woman) skilled in divination and the opening of a mine (kelian) (Sevea, 2020, pp. 111-151).

As Abraham Hale, a colonial official with considerable knowledge of Malay culture, tellingly remarked, 'the Chinaman is no prospector, whereas a good Malay pawang has a wonderful “nose” for tin' (Hale, 1885, pp. 303–320). However, it was not simply the rate of success in divination that ensured pawang kelian a steady clientele; it was the conviction that they possessed the supernatural powers required to negotiate with the spirits whose goodwill was necessary for any mining venture. Fortunately, a number of Malay manuscripts recoding pawang traditions have survived, enabling us to see the way in which they both cajoled and threatened so that the spirits of the tin that lay hidden beneath the ground would obey their commands. They might, for instance, begin an invocation with the respectful Islamic salutation: 'Peace be with you, oh tin ore', or alternatively, adopt a more aggressive tone: 'I am desirous of opening a mine here / If you do not assemble together / I will curse you' (Skeat, 1900, pp. 265-266).

A pawang’s relationship with the spirits was believed to be so strong that he could even induce the tin to return if the mine appeared worked out; conversely, an aggrieved pawang could cause the tin to disappear. Rituals always operated under strict rules: the pawang should wear a black coat (permitted to no one else); he adopted a particular stance during his invocation; he employed a special vocabulary, in which common words such as timah (tin) were forbidden; and he was responsible for constructing the platform on which offerings were made, according to specific guidelines. The behaviour of the miners was also subject to strict regulations. Since any mishap or unexpected death was easily attributed to some failure to observe established protocol (for instance, by carrying an umbrella, or wearing a sarong rather than trousers), it is little wonder that 'the Chinese used to adhere to these rules' and compensate the pawang with the customary payments in cash or tin (Hale, 1885, p. 307).

Yet there is still so much that remains unknown. Did an intermediary bring the pawang and Chinese leaders together? To what extent did language differences impede communication? Were negotiations between pawang and individual Chinese miners intermittent or long-lasting? What other skills did the pawang kelian bring? Did he offer advice, for instance, about the water-resistant wood best suited for the construction of innovative equipment that attracted European attention, such as the pumps (chin chia) and sluice boxes (palong)? The pawang kelian would certainly have been responsible for overseeing the collection of kayu sungkai (Peronema canescens), which was used to support the platforms used for spirit offerings. While readily available in secondary tree growth in the cleared areas around tin mines, kayu sungkai may have been valued because it possessed what appeared to be a supernatural ability to change its form, petrifying after a few years of lying in water.

Malay attitudes towards the seemingly supernatural shift from one form to another also applied to smelting, the mysterious process by which tin ore was transformed into solid ingots that resembled silver. Serving in a shamanistic role, specialists in metallurgy have always occupied a special place in Malay and Indonesian cultures, and it was therefore natural that pawang had traditionally assumed the smelting role. They well understood that, despite the heavy forestation of the Malayan jungles, only a limited number of trees yielded charcoal which could burn at the necessary heat level. One of these was the hardwood kempas (Koompassia malaccensis), referenced in the late 18th century as the best source and, like tualang (Koompassia excelsa) and chengal (Neobalanocarpus heimii), kempas retained its reputation for producing high-quality charcoal into the 20th century (Andaya, 1979, p. 397; Lock, 1907, p. 19).

Although these large trees were 'far in the interior,' their use in smelting was considered essential, prompting one European to believe that there was 'a sort of rule which allows no other sort of wood to be used' (Anon. 1854, pp. 112-133; Sevea, 2020, pp. 141–143). When this was not available, a pawang would be able to produce the desired heat even from inferior wood. In all cases, however, supernatural cooperation remained crucial. In 1882 the Governor of the Straits Settlements, passing a deserted Malay smelting shed near Kuala Kangsar, noted that a 'kind of cradle' (ancak) had been hung up, containing miniature wooden models of mining tools, in the hope that the goodwill of the spirits would lead to success. ‘The forest we passed through’, he added, ‘is supposed to be haunted by a peculiarly malignant race of demons’ (Lovat, 1914, p. 350; Sevea, 2020, p. 143).

Koompassia malaccensis
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The Unsung Heroes: The Rattan Collectors
Mining in Malaya
Source: Cover of Mining in Malaya, by H. G. Harris, E.S. Willbourn, and A. G. MacDonald. Kuala Lumpur: Malayan Information Agency, 1940.

This passing remark highlights a third aspect of this alternative history, one that was critical to the success of mining ventures in the 19th century—the knowledge of rattans. These climbing palms, with their long flexible but durable stems, served so many purposes that in the pre-industrial communities of Southeast Asia 'it would be hard to imagine life without rattans' (Lock, 1907, p. 110; Dransfield, 1979, p. 1). Chinese miners employed rattans across the full gamut of mining activities, from pulley ropes and ladders to binding for water pumps and ties for sluice boxes (Khoo, S. N. and Abdur-Razzaq Lubis, 2005, p. 356). Older and thicker stems, often reaching extraordinary lengths while retaining their strength and flexibility, could be used for cables, suspension bridges, and hauling logs from the forest.  As more tin mines opened there was a seemingly insatiable demand for supplies of rattan and also for rattan products, especially the untold numbers of woven baskets required to lift dirt or tin sand out of a pit, or to transport the heavy tin to a smelting shed.

Though rarely identified in the sources, the most widely used rattans for basketry were probably the versatile rotan sega (Calamus caesius) or rotan lilin (Calamus javensis), both of which were well established in the Malay Peninsula. The rapidly growing giant palm, Plectocomia elongata (rotan dahanan), otherwise of relatively little value and therefore cheap, provided the framework for the larger mining baskets needed for transporting heavy tin ore (Notes on the Collection of Rattans, 1903, pp. 153-154; Ridley, 1907, p. 220). One of the most ingenious inventions of local basket weavers (usually women) was the raga jurong, loosely woven and shaped like a spoon, which served as a sieve to remove stones out from the sluice box; the raga sidik was a smaller version (Hale, 1885, p. 319)

Against this background, we need to be reminded that gathering rattan was no easy task, for in order to reach the sunlight the stems climbed the great trees of the jungle, their barbed thorns clinging tenaciously to the trunk. They could in some cases be pulled down from the forest canopy, but when this proved difficult, the collector had to climb up the tree to cut off the thorns and manually bring the vine down. Selecting rattans for the market also required specific knowledge, for they were differentiated in terms of use (mats, ropes, baskets, etc). Of the 96 species native to the Malay Peninsula, only a small percentage were suitable for the construction requirements of the tin fields, and because they grew in the wild, supplies could not always be guaranteed. The demand certainly encouraged collection by Malays, but by the 1880s rattans in more accessible areas were becoming scarce, and it was necessary to go deeper into the jungle (Studer, 1887, p. 659). For most Malays this meant moving into an unfamiliar world where they felt themselves to be intruders who could unwittingly incur the wrath of the spirits, the hantu hutan. The Malay rattan cutter was thus accustomed to address them as he would a king, perhaps using the Islamic salutation, 'Peace be with thee! Prince, whose sway is over this jungle land (yang memegang daerah bumi hutan sini)': while giving his assurance that he came 'as a friend, not as an enemy’, intending no ill-will, he should beg that 'no harm come to me or mine' (Maxwell, 1907, pp. 9-10; Gimlette, 1923, pp. 40, 237).

Because penetrating the recesses of the jungle also involved days away from their home, Malays preferred to draw on long-established networks with the unsung heroes of rattan collection, the forest dwellers, whose knowledge of the jungle environment, even in modern times, remained unparalleled. For centuries they had supplied valued products of the jungles to Malay traders, and it was they who were responsible for identifying and cutting desired rattans, climbing up to disentangle the thorny spines and often swinging across to a neighboring tree where the stem had become entangled, for dragging the heavy loads out of forest, and for stripping off the thorny outside sheaths to reveal the valuable cane beneath. Yet dangers lurked in the jungle canopy and in the high branches—nests of aggressive bees and hornets, poisonous tree snakes, and always the possibility of a disabling fall. Far more serious, however, was the army of spirits who

Rattan with thorns
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Rotan dahanan
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inhabited the jungle, jealous and hostile guardians of their domain, and quick to exact retribution for any infringement of their authority. They could be as present in an anthill or a disused mine as in a tualang or kempas tree, so desired for charcoal. Misadventure, illness, yaws, stomach complaints, death, miscarriage—all could be attributed to spirit anger. Rattan collectors were thus in constant danger, for the hantu hutan could be highly vindictive if collectors failed to obtain permission. The spirit of rotan dahanan (Korthalsia rigida), for example, could cause a painful skin rash to spread from the legs upwards, causing a fever that could last for several days. If angered, the hantu of the rotan buku dalam (Calamus ornatus) could inflict chest pains that made it hard to breathe (Werner, 1986, p. 537).

The willingness of forest dwellers to brave these dangers reflected their desire to obtain household items from Malay and Chinese traders, such as axes, knives, tobacco, salt, and cooking pots. More particularly, however, it demonstrated a conviction that, by complying with traditional aspects of jungle operation, and with the support of their own pawang and protective devices like a necklace made of porcupine spines, or a particular kind of charmed root, they could fend off any danger.

At the same time, the forest dwellers’ ability to supply rattans brought them into the commercial world to an unprecedented extent, as formerly isolated groups became aware of different prices. In Perak, some would even take the train from Pulau Tiga to Teluk Intan, where the market was better for them (Skeat and Blagden, 1906, p. 529). Indeed, worldwide demand had expanded so rapidly that in the early 20th century, rattans were considered 'one of the most important products of the Malay Peninsula' (Notes on the Collection of Rattans, 1903, 153). Yet even with some commercial cultivation, the best rattan was still found in the deep jungle and harvesting still depended on the climbing skills of the people to whom the jungle was home.


The history of tin mining in Malaysia in the 19th and early 20th century has been much studied. The focus has largely been on mining methods and innovations that helped to increase production, a scenario in which the major players were Chinese and, subsequently, Europeans. An approach that was more concerned with the changes in local society might uncover other 'theatres of action' in which the actors would be rather different. The Malay pawang kelian, for instance, might assume the lead role because of his key contribution to the opening of mines and his support when the ore proved recalcitrant. By the 1890s, improved methods of testing for tin deposits lessened Chinese reliance on pawang knowledge, but they could still be recruited when a mine faced difficulties or when a new mine was opened. In an implicit testimony to the strength of this tradition, the Chinese men who operated their own smelting operations were still called 'pawang'. The commercial planting of rattans and the use of mechanized tools is relatively recent, but modern researchers till express amazement at the encyclopaedic botanical knowledge of orang asli, and their range of jungle skills; even children acquire the dexterity, toleration of heights, and physical strength that enable them to swing from branch to branch in the jungle canopy (Pasqual, 1895, pp. 293-294; Kraft et al., 2014, p. 107). Such anecdotes may be the key to writing new scripts for what are otherwise shadowy histories, serving as a reminder that although the development of the tin industry in Malaysia has been much studied, there are still many stories to tell.

Further reading:

Andaya, B. W. 1979. Perak, the Abode of Grace: A Study of an Eighteenth-Century Malay State. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press.

________ 1993. To Live as Brothers: Southeast Sumatra in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Anon. 1854. ‘Tin Mines of Malacca’. Journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia, v. 8.

Collins, W. F. 1916. Mineral Enterprise in China. New York: Macmillan.

Dransfield, J. 1979. A Manual of the Rattans of the Malay Peninsula. Kuala Lumpur: Forest Dept., Ministry of Primary Industries, Malaysia.

Emerson, R. 1957. 'Foreword’, in F. H. H. King, The New Malayan Nation. New York: Institute of Pacific Relations.

Furnivall, J. S. 1939. Netherlands India: A Study of a Plural Economy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gimlette, J. D. 1923. Malay Poisons and Charm Cures. London: J. & A. Churchill.

Hale, A. 1885. ‘On Mines and Miners in Kinta, Perak’. Journal of the Straits Branch, Royal Asiatic Society, v. 16.

Khoo, S. N. and Abdur-Razzaq Lubis. 2005. Kinta Valley: Pioneering Malaysia’s Modern Development. Perak Darul Ridzuan: Perak Academy.

Kraft, T. J., Venkataraman, V. V., and Dominy, N. J. 2014. ‘A Natural History of Human Tree Climbing’. Journal of Human Evolution, v. 71.

Lock, C. G. W. 1907. Mining in Malaya for Gold and Tin. London: Crowther and Goodman.

Lovat, A. 1914. The Life of Sir Frederick Weld, G. C. M. G.: A Pioneer of Empire. London: John Murray.

Maxwell, G. 1907. In Malay Forests. Edinburgh: Blackwood.

‘Notes on the Collection of Rattans in the Straits Settlements Court’. Bulletin of the Imperial Institute. 1903.

Pasqual, J. C. 1895. ‘Malay Mining Pawangs’. The Selangor Journal, v. 3, No. 18.

Ridley, H. N. 1907. Materials for a Flora of the Malayan Peninsula, Volume II. Singapore: Methodist Publishing House.

Sevea, T. 2020. Miracles and Material Life: Rice, Ore, Traps and Guns in Islamic Malaya. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Skeat, W. W. 1900. Malay Magic. New York: Dover Publications.

Skeat, W. W. and Blagden, C. O. 1906. Pagan Races of the Malay Peninsula, Volume I. London: Macmillan.

Somers Heidhues, M. F. 2003. Golddiggers, Farmers, and Traders in the "Chinese districts" of West Kalimantan, Indonesia. Ithaca, N. Y.: Southeast Asia Program Publications, Southeast Asia Program, Cornell University.

Studer, A. G. 1887. ‘Straits Settlements’ in Reports from the Consuls of the United States, 23, July–September 1887. Washington: Government Printing Office.

Swettenham, F. A. 1893. About Perak. Singapore: Straits Times Press.

________ 1907. British Malaya: An Account of the Origin and Progress of British Influence in Malaya. London: J. Lane.

________ 1942. Footprints in Malaya. London: Hutchinson.

Tomlin, J. 1844. Missionary Journals and Letters. Written during Eleven Years’ Residence and Travels among the Chinese, Siamese, Javanese, Khassias and other Eastern Nations. London: Nisbet.

Werner, R. 1986. Bomoh-poyang, Traditional Medicine and Ceremonial Art of the Aborigines of Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur: Dept. of Publications, University of Malaya.

Wong, L. K. 1965. The Malayan Tin Industry to 1914, with Special Reference to the States of Perak, Selangor, Negri Sembilan and Pahang. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press.


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