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HISTORY | Malay chiefs and Chinese tin miners

HISTORY: TOLD AS IT IS | The tin mining industry in Peninsular Malaysia was dominated by the Chinese for more than half a century beginning from the middle of the 19th century. Indeed, William Tai Yuen, an authority on Chinese capitalism in British Malaya, describes the period from 1874 to 1914 as the ‘golden age’ of the Chinese tin mining industry.

Similarly, Frank Swettenham – the first Resident-General of the Federated Malay States (FMS) comprising Perak, Selangor, Negeri Sembilan and Pahang – writing in 1906, states that it was Chinese capital and labour that “succeeded in producing more than half of the world’s tin supply” at the end of the 19th century. He adds further: “Their energy and enterprise have made the Malay states what they are today.”

Regrettably, the vital role of the Chinese in the development of Peninsular Malaysia’s tin mining industry, which in turn, greatly impacted the nation’s economic and infrastructure development is dismissed in about two to three sentences in the Form Three school history textbook. Hence, this article seeks to highlight the major contribution of the Chinese to the tin mining industry and its impact on the development of our nation.

Historically, tin mining had been carried out in Peninsular Malaysia since the early centuries of the Common Era (CE). According to Arab writers, tin ore had been traded since the 9th century CE on the west coast of the Malay peninsula, most likely Kedah. Further, Chinese records indicate that tin was a minor product of Kelantan and Pahang in the 13th century and one of Malacca’s principal exports in the 15th century.

Until 1820, tin mining was almost entirely a Malay enterprise with limited production. The two main Malay methods of mining tin were lampan mining (ground sluice) and the dulang method (panning of alluvial tin with a large wooden dish). The main areas of tin production were Kinta and Batang Padang districts in Perak, Pahang, and parts of...

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