The Soul of Tin

How tin mining struck deep into Malayan soil and left its mark upon a nation

by Muhammad Adib Mohd Faiz

To the average modern person, tin is merely a metal – dead matter fit for industrial purposes. The Malays, however, traditionally believed that tin possesses a soul. The ‘soul of tin’ took the shape of a water buffalo, an animal used to plough the rice fields that were a major source of provision.[1] Whatever our personal beliefs may be, there can be little doubt that tin would plough its way through 19th and early 20th century Malaya, becoming a source of wealth for those involved in its production. The important economic role of tin in this period would have a long-lasting effect on the social, political, and infrastructural landscape of Malaya.

Collection of tin hat and animal money at Muzium Negara (Galleries C and D)

Tin mining had existed amongst the Malays as early as the 15th century, with tin currency going back to at least the time of the Melakan king Sultan Muzaffar Shah (1445-9). Other than the simple method of panning for tin with a dulang, Malays used a combination of pits, dams, sluice boxes, and other components to extract tin ore. This system could produce an amount “sufficient for local use as well as export”.[2] However, the Malay rulers often lacked funds to open these mines and began to rely on Chinese merchants for capital in the early 19th century. The Malay chiefs then used Chinese labour to work the mines, with the Chinese having been involved in tin mining as early as the late eighteenth century. While the initial numbers were small, the rise of the tin canning industry after 1830 and the discovery of rich tin deposits in Selangor and Perak in the 1840s led to a massive influx of Chinese immigrants, swelling the population of the mining towns.[3] It seems likely that the sudden increase in demand would have influenced the decision of Chinese mine owners to switch to new forms of technology such as opencast or lombong mining. For instance, Chinese mine-owners began to use the chin-chia, a chain pump that drained water from the mines more quickly than traditional methods.[4] Yet in spite of the technological changes and diaspora population, tin-mine opening ceremonies remained “purely Malay in character”. A pawang or “mining wizard”, often a Malay and occasionally a Sakai, was often called upon to use a combination of spells and talismans for protection and an auspicious start.[5] This contrast between the old and the new embodies the nature of tin mining in this period: a modern industry in the midst of a traditional world.

An Open Cast Tin Mine in Selangor (KITLV Universiteit Leiden)

The involvement of Chinese merchants and the large influx of Chinese labour had a number of social consequences. While immigrants may have initially intended to be temporary, direct settlement eventually arose, with family structures emerging in the early 20th century in places such as Ipoh. The accounts of an Englishwoman living in Ipoh in 1914 bear witness to the role of female miners, who played central economic and social roles in the town. Waking up before dawn, these women would prepare the day’s meals, chop wood, and “[draw and carry], often from a distance, quantities of water”. Breakfast with their husbands was followed by “very thoroughly” bathing and dressing their “generally numerous” quantities of children. They would then see to the grandfather and grandmother, “who will then look after the babies” as the women work on the tin mines alongside their husbands.[6] This last piece of information clearly indicates the presence of extended families, showing that large social structures existed in mining towns. The ability to raise families was made even more remarkable by the sheer difficulty of the work in question; these people laboured for hours in cold, stagnant water up to their ankles, with the female dulang washers having to bend over to obtain tin ore.

Paraphernalia at the Story Museum,  SJK (C) Serdang Baru 1

However, there was a less admirable side to this history of immigration, namely the exploitation connected with the kongsi organizations, the colonial authorities, and the system in general. Though often referred to as “secret societies”, the kongsi had a public political and social role in nineteenth century tin-mining areas. They were cooperative associations that originated from China’s “illegal mining communities and sea-merchant kingdoms”. Theoretically, the kongsi were democratic organizations designed to share profits between members and “[enable] immigrants to pursue their primary purpose of making a living and supporting their families in China”. As Tan Pek Leng notes, the lack of “effective formal governance” caused these societies to act as arbitrators in the midst of disputes, while the “bonds of brotherhood” in a kongsi provided a formidable force against the colonial authorities. However, the ideal form of the kongsi was rarely realized in Malaya, with these powerful organizations exploiting others for personal economic gain. The various kongsi often controlled labourers before they had even left China, with recruiters placing labourer’s names on kongsi membership rolls “without their knowledge”.[7] Once in Malaya, the labourers were totally dependent on the “advancers” for everything from food to opium, all of which had to be bought at the advancer’s price. The colonial authorities were complicit in the exploitation. Though the British had some admirable officials who introduced some regulations, British law courts recognized the fines imposed by advancers. Colonial contradictions could be jarring; although the Perak Government insisted on a “discharge ticket” so labourers could “seek employment elsewhere” upon contract completion, they subjected labourers who absconded to “a fine, flogging or imprisonment, and to have the wages due to them forfeited”. This last detail meant that such workers would have to start from scratch, locking them into their contract for an even longer time. It is difficult to disagree with Ho Tak Ming’s conclusion that this “was no better than a modified form of slavery”.[8]

Paraphernalia at Falim House, Ipoh

Power leads to conflict, and rival kongsi often came into armed conflict with each other “to protect the interests of their towkays and headmen”.[9] In a world mostly centred on kongsi control, these confrontations were effectively civil wars, engulfing whole towns in chaos. The most famous of these were the Larut wars in Perak (1861-74), where the Ghee Hin and Hai San societies engaged in bloody battles over tin mines. With the Malay rulers lacking control of the situation – the Mentri Larut “was forced to side with whichever side was mining at the time” – the British eventually stepped in to settle the disputes. The result was the signing of the Pangkor Treaty in 1874, which forced the rival factions to maintain peace at the expense of a $50,000 penalty and demanded that the Sultan follow the “advice” of a British officer called a “Resident” in all matters except Malay customs and religion. The treaty also stated that British residents would regulate “all revenues and the general administration”.[10] This began a pattern of indirect rule that would spread to other states in Malaya.

Diorama showing the signing of the Pangkor Treaty by Raja Abdullah and Sir Andrew Clarke (representing the British Crown). Photo taken at Pasir Salak Historical Complex.

It was with the introduction of the dredge ship that European power would gain a firm foothold in Malaya’s tin mining industry. In the years after 1915, the earlier sources of tin were gradually depleted. With fewer “easily accessible deposits”, it became necessary to dig deeper into areas that could not be reached through existing methods. Around this time, European companies began introducing new forms of technology that could reach the “deeply buried deposits” that were previously inaccessible.[11] An example of such technology was the dredge or kapal korek, with the example referred to in the National Museum being capable of digging 31.5 meters deep.[12] Moreover, the dredge could do the same work with a far smaller labour force, shifting the tin mines away from labour-intensive methods to capital-intensive methods. Coupled with the increase of British administrative control over Malaya, the dredge and other machines gradually weakened the Chinese hold over the industry.[13] Although they did not have the same societal effect as the Chinese, European economic domination would have a developmental – and environmental – effect. In an attempt to link the economic centres of Malaya together, a system of transportation was eventually devised with trunk roads and railways connecting tin mining areas on the West coast. Yet while Malay transportation systems had been developed in harmony with nature, the new modes of transportation were built with little concern for environmental effects. While seas and rivers had previously served as “natural highways”, railways were an artificial imposition that altered the landscape. While elephants had previously been used to transport goods, wild elephants were now injured by oncoming trains.[14] Though hardly matching the environmental catastrophe that exists in Malaysia today, these early developments may be seen as beginning a venomous trend, namely the love of “progress” with no regard for the earth and its creatures.

Tanjung Tualang Dredge No.5 (TT5), located south of Batu Gajah, was originally operated by the Southern Malaya Tin Dredging company.

The soul of tin turned the soil of Malaya into a dramatic history, with a cast of immigrants, mothers, bullies, and machines. What traces remain of that drama today? The tin mines of Malaya are now mere pools of water, and Malaysia’s economy is a whole other beast. The soul of tin has clearly moved on, perhaps to plough other fields or else to rest in a faraway swamp. Yet in its wake, it has left a furrow filled with the experiences and emotions of an era. Out of that furrow, new crops have grown, surrounding us as a part of our Malaysian experience.

[1] Loh, “Early,” 20.

[2] Loh, “Early,” 20-1.

[3] Champion, Odyssey, 102; Loh, “Chinese immigration,” 72.

[4] Loh, “Chinese immigration,” 73.

[5] Skeat, Magic, 250; Tin Animal Currency display board, Gallery C, National Museum, Malaysia.

[6] Mrs JG Withycombe. Lady. 1914. As quoted in Ho, Ipoh, 381.

[7] Tan, “Chinese secret societies,” 48.

[8] Ho, Ipoh, 31-4.

[9] Tan, “Chinese secret societies,” 49.

[10] Tan, “Long Jaafar,” 47.

[11] Tan, “Long Jaafar,” 47.

[12] Tin Dredges display board, Gallery C, National Museum, Malaysia.

[13] Loh, “Chinese immigration,” 73.

[14] Ho, Ipoh, 2; Kaur, “railways”, 120.


Champion, Marissa. Odyssey: Perspectives on Southeast Asia – Malaysia & Singapore, 1870-197. Singapore: SNP Panpac, 2001.

Ho, Tak Ming. Ipoh: When Tin Was King – Volume 1. Ipoh: Perak Academy, 2014.

Kaur, Amarjit. “The development of railways.” In The Encyclopedia of Malaysia: Early Modern History [1800-1940], edited by Cheah Boon Kheng, 120–1. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, 2001.

Loh, Francis Kok-Wah. “Chinese immigration and tin mining.” In The Encyclopedia of Malaysia: Early Modern History [1800-1940], edited by Cheah Boon Kheng, 72–3. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, 2001.

Loh, Francis Kok-Wah. “Early Malay tin mining.” In The Encyclopedia of Malaysia: Early Modern History [1800-1940], edited by Cheah Boon Kheng, 20–1. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, 2001.

Mrs JG Withycombe. Lady. 1914. As quoted in Ho Tak Ming. Ipoh: When Tin Was King – Volume 1. Ipoh: Perak Academy, 2014.

Skeat, Walter William. Malay Magic: An Introduction to the Folklore and Popular Religion of the Malay Peninsular. London: Frank Cass and Co. Ltd., 1900.

Tan, Pek Leng. “Chinese secret societies.” In The Encyclopedia of Malaysia: Early Modern History [1800-1940], edited by Cheah Boon Kheng, 48–9. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, 2001.

Tan, Pek Leng. “Long Jaafar and the Chinese tin miners in Larut.” In The Encyclopedia of Malaysia: Early Modern History [1800-1940], edited by Cheah Boon Kheng, 46–7. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, 2001.

Tin Animal Currency display board, Gallery C, National Museum, Malaysia.

Tin Dredges display board, Gallery C, National Museum, Malaysia.



Author: Museum Volunteers, JMM

Museum Volunteers, JMM Taking the Mystery out of History

One thought on “The Soul of Tin”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s