Conrad and Coal

By Douglas KammenDecember 11, 2019

Conrad and Coal
Banner image: An aerial view of Tanjung Redeb from 1901, showing where Olmeijer/Almayer’s "folly" was


IN HIS FIRST NOVEL, Almayer’s Folly (1895), Joseph Conrad told the tale of a hapless European trader on the banks of the Pantai River, in Dutch East Borneo, who, faced with a dwindling market in forest products, dreams of finding a massive gold deposit in the interior while struggling to foil his “native” wife’s plan for their beautiful daughter Nina to marry a Malay prince. The central character was based, with some liberties taken, on a Eurasian from Java named William Charles Olmeijer whom Conrad met on several brief stops at the backwater trading post of Tanjung Redeb, located at the confluence of the Segah and Kelai rivers, in 1887.

Conrad made use of the location and a few of the same characters in other works written over the next two decades. His second novel, An Outcast of the Islands (1896), is also set in Tanjung Redeb, now fictionalized as Sambir. It tells the stories of a Dutch trader who, fleeing his past, betrays his Malay benefactor; a Dutch captain who, having “discovered” the river, fights off pirates; and, on the margins, a third foreign agent, the Singapore-based Arab Syed Abdulla, who at the end of the tale sends his small steam launch upriver “to make some discovery or other.” Of greatest fame among Conrad’s Borneo novels is Lord Jim (1900), which recounts a young British sailor’s attempt to escape his shameful role during a storm in the Indian Ocean, when the captain and crew abandoned their cargo of 800 passengers on their way to Mecca for the haj. Jim finds work at chandleries in various ports in Southeast Asia, but word of his past keeps catching up with him and he flees further east, eventually settling in the fictional Patusan, whose topography closely resembles Tanjung Redeb but whose cartography remains disputed.

The European protagonists of Conrad’s Borneo novels wound up in the “miserable swamp” of Sambir/Patusan/Tanjung Redeb either in search of elusive fortunes or to escape their pasts, in some cases both. But what were Conrad and the ship on which he briefly served as first mate doing 34 miles upriver in this “God-forsaken hole”? The answer is coal — a commodity to be bought or appropriated by legal means or by outright force, and also one requiring labor that, likewise, could either be “free” or coerced.

One hundred and thirty years after Conrad was in Tanjung Redeb, Borneo’s vast coal deposits are at the center of appalling environmental degradation. Coal has become the new flashpoint in debates about political corruption in Indonesia. And, in a rapidly warming world, these deposits have even prompted global financial institutions to at least pay lip service to the idea of curtailing lending that facilitates the construction of coal-fired power plants. Conrad was there when it all began, with chicken scratches in a vast sea of green; today, viewed from above, the Indonesian province of East Kalimantan is pock-marked with mines, and the dirt roads of palm oil plantations stretch out in interminable wriggles like a deranged topographic map.


Coal was central to Conrad’s experience of the sea — or, perhaps more precisely, to the rapid change in how the sea was experienced during his two-decade career in the merchant marine. The rise of the steamship during the second half of the 19th century not only reduced oceanic travel times, it also freed vessels from the dictates of seasonal winds. With it, Conrad lamented, the skill of the sailor was overtaken by the brute force of the boiler. But steam required coal, and the new vessels could not carry enough of this resource for return voyages from Europe and North America to the objects of Western desire in Asia and Africa, at least not if they wished to maximize cargoes of passengers and commodities. Nor, for some time, could steamers compete with the lower coast of sail on longer routes. The smaller, steam-powered launches that facilitated exploration for resources also required coal and often could not rely on deliveries from larger ports.

The solution, where possible, was the establishment of coaling stations and, when that was not possible, the transport of coal great distances to service ships on their return voyages as well as smaller vessels plying regional routes. Conrad had plenty of experience with cargoes of coal. He served on a French ship, the Saint-Antoine, that transported coal from St. Thomas to Haiti in 1876. Two years later, he was on Skimmer of the Sea, a coastal collier shuttling between Lowestoft and Newcastle. In 1881, he joined the crew of the barque Palestine, which had been engaged to transport 557 tons of coal from Newcastle to Bangkok. And he also served on the Swedish vessel Tilkhurst, which sailed from Cardiff to Singapore in 1885 with a cargo of coal.

It was the third of these voyages, during which the cargo “spontaneously combusted” off the coast of Sumatra, that provided the material for his novella “Youth” (1902). An investigation cleared the crew of responsibility, but the fire was a disaster for the vessel and the corporation shipping the coal. Conrad’s Polish biographer, Zdzisław Najder, notes that at the time “coal was considered the most dangerous cargo other than grain.” But the real senselessness in the novella was the Palestine — and its fictional twin, the Judea — bringing coal from Newcastle to Bangkok. There was more than enough coal in Southeast Asia, if only one knew where to look and how to extract it.

The Netherlands Indies government and private Dutch companies intensified exploration for coal in the mid-19th century, focusing attention on Sumatra and Borneo. One promising site was Pulau Laut, an island off the southeast coast of Borneo, which was strategically located on major shipping routes. In A Personal Record (1909), Conrad recounts having once visited Pulau Laut, where he met “a half-caste gentleman” — the real Olmeijer — “who described himself as the manager of a coal-mine; which sounded civilized and progressive till you heard that the mine could not be worked at present because it was haunted by some particularly atrocious ghosts.” A few years later, Conrad used Pulau Laut as the setting for his novel Victory (1915). The island, he wrote,

was not merely a coaling-station. There was a coal mine there, with an outcrop in the hillside less than five hundred yards from the rickety wharf and the imposing blackboard [of the Tropical Belt Coal Company]. The company’s object had been to get hold of all the outcrops on tropical islands and exploit them locally. And, Lord knows, there were any amount of outcrops. It was Heyst who had located most of them in this part of the tropical belt during his rather aimless wanderings, and being a ready letter-writer had written pages and pages about them to his friends in Europe.

A coal loading dock on Laut Island, where Conrad’s novel "Victory" (1915) was set


In 1887, finding himself ashore in Singapore after being hit by a spar on the outward journey to Java, Conrad finally found work as first mate on the 206-ton, Scottish-built steamship S.S. Vidar. “She traded,” he wrote in The Shadow-Line (1917), “among dark islands on a blue reef-scarred sea, with the Red Ensign over the taffrail and at her masthead a house-flag, also red, but with a green border, and with a white crescent in it. For an Arab owned her.”

Arabs from the Hadhramaut (present-day Yemen) had played a leading role in shipping in the Malay Archipelago until the onset of the steamship, when they were outpaced by Western capital. But there were Arabs, including the Vidar’s Singapore-based owner Syed Mohsin bin Salleh al Jooffree, who made the transition to steam. According to Jeffrey Meyers, the Vidar’s route took it from Singapore to Banjarmasin, the largest city in Dutch Borneo, to Pulau Laut to take on coal, across the Makassar Strait to Donggala in the Celebes, and back to Borneo, putting in at Tanjung Redeb on the Berau River, and to the north at Tanjung Selor.

Conrad’s brief stops at ports in Borneo provided remarkably fruitful material for the future novelist. He doesn’t tell the reader what cargo the Vidar transported, but it is likely that consumer goods for the local population and the collection of Borneo’s famed forest products that the fictional Almayer traded — gutta-percha, damar resin, bird’s nests, rattan, et cetera — were not the primary reason Tanjung Redeb was one of the ship’s ports of call. In her 2017 study The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World, Maya Jasanoff notes Dutch complaints about the rampant smuggling of guns, gunpowder, and slaves in the region, but what Conrad really knew of this illicit trade is not clear, and the specifics of why the Vidar was in Tanjung Redeb are never revealed in Jasanoff’s book.

Men loading coal onto a steam launch in Tanjung Redeb in 1901

The “prize,” to borrow Daniel Yergin’s title about another source of energy, was coal, the mining of which had begun in Berau 15 years before Conrad’s visits. In 1872–’73, Dutch naval vessels steamed upriver to Tanjung Redeb to address the problem of piracy, which was centered on the offshore Derawan islands; during one visit, these vessels purchased coal from the Sultan of Gunung Tabor to refuel their boilers. Word spread quickly, and two years later the Dutch assistant resident of Samarinda issued a letter requesting the Sultan of Gunung Tabor to prepare 3,200 piculs of coal — or approximately 200 tons. In 1882, the East Borneo Coal Mining Company was established, though it was not yet operating in Berau when Conrad visited. In 1883, The Straits Times of Singapore published a translation from the Dutch-language Batavia newspaper Java-Bode:

The coals in the Berouw district are very conveniently situated for shipment; the Berouw river being navigable for vessels drawing about 13 feet, ships can be mooned [sic] there almost alongside the banks. The quality of the coal at Sambaliung and Gunong Thabor (Berouw) is highly praised. From several reports on them by the commanders of the H. M’s men-of-war, the authorities can see that these coals are not inferior to English coal in intrinsic worth. The Marine department paid 16 guilders per ton for them to the Sultans of Sambaliung and Gunong Thabor, who supplied them in turn. The output of the mines has hitherto not been considered worthy of special notice. The stock on hand seldom amounted to more than 100 tons, which was soon cleared away by cruisers in their expeditions along the East Coast.

So, when the Vidar visited in late 1887, Gunung Tabor, Sambaliung, and the growing new settlement of Tanjung Redeb, where the agents of several foreign trading houses had established themselves, were not quite the unprofitable hole Conrad depicted in Almayer’s Folly and An Outcast of the Islands. Further upriver, where Conrad’s fictional Syed Abdulla’s launch was hoping to make “some discovery or another,” lay a significant new mining operation. And the Vidar was among the cruisers participating in the coal trade! Squalid it might have been, but the confluence of the Segah and Kelai rivers was bustling and labor was in great demand. The Straits Times translation from Java-Bode continued:

Gunong Thabor and Sambaliung, formerly forming together the State of Berouw are situated right and left on the Berouw river. The villages therein are insignificant; even the Sultan’s house appears miserable. In 1879 only one European resided there, he being a storekeeper from Macassar. There is very little trade, though the soil is very rich and fruitful. Rattans, gutta percha, and coals are the principal products. The inhabitants are lazy and unenterprising. Labour is for women and slaves only. Slaves are met with in almost every house. On the lower river, there is even a large village wholly inhabited by slaves. The authorities allow this, in spite of Art[icle] 115 of the Government Regulation, whereby slavery in Netherlands India has been abolished. Most of the slaves are fairly well off excepting those who have to work in the mines. The number of these unfortunates yearly sold at Gunong Thabor is estimated at 300. These people are bought in or kidnapped from the islands of Sooloo and the other Philippines’ and then bartered for gunpowder, muskets, revolvers, lillas, cloths, calico, opium, Dutch candles &c.

The real story in Tanjung Redeb, therefore, was that guns were smuggled to trade for slaves, and slaves were used to dig for coal. A byproduct of the slave trade was that domestic slaves enhanced the status of rival sultans staring at one another across a muddy river. But for the novelist, the presence of coal in Berau — which was no secret at the time — would have spoiled the symbolism in a psychological tale about a down-on-his-luck European in darkest Borneo dreaming of redemption for himself and salvation for his metis daughter. Conrad’s novel depends on dichotomies. To create the sharpest contrast between commodities — common forest products versus a massive gold deposit — Conrad excised coal. To highlight the psychological travails of his (Western) protagonist, Conrad excised actually existing slave labor. To emphasize the (im)possibility of sudden, immense riches, Conrad excised the primitive accumulation of capital.

Coal mining in Berau expanded rapidly at the start of the 20th century. In 1904, the Dutch businessman V. A. Cools concluded an agreement with the Sultan of Sambaliung to open a mine, with the Sultan to receive a fixed payment for each ton of coal sent down river. In short order, Cools’s company received a contract to supply coal to the Dutch shipping company Koninklijke Paketvaart-Maatschappij, and by 1912 he was transporting 15,000 tons of coal per year down the river in longboats and local praus, whereupon it was loaded onto passing steamers. That year, another Dutch firm obtained a vast concession at Teluk Bayur — 10 kilometers upriver from Tanjung Redeb — and by the 1930s, a modern town had sprouted in the middle of the rainforest, built on the backs of “free” labor, that included a movie theater, a ballroom, a gambling hall, and a railway. In Berau, the Dutch placated rival sultans with the fiction of zelfbestuur (self-rule). Coal was king.

Loading coal in Teluk Bayur (upriver from Tanjung Redeb), circa 1923


In the crowded field of Conrad studies, Jasanoff’s award-winning book is a biography for the present, seamlessly and elegantly interweaving Conrad’s life, a selection of his novels covering four continents (The Secret Agent [1907], set in England; Lord Jim, in Borneo; Heart of Darkness [1899], in the Congo; and Nostromo [1904], in South America), and themes of migration, technological disruption, multinational corporations, and terrorism. Jasanoff addresses the shift from sail to steam in the mid-19th century, the changing sociology of seamen in the British merchant marine, and Conrad’s lament about the decline of “The Fine Art” and “the fellowship of the craft.”

“The taking of a modern steamship about the world,” Conrad wrote, “has not the same quality of intimacy with nature. It has no great moments of self-confidence, or moments not less great of doubt and heart-searching.” In his autobiographical essay on his first career, A Personal Record, Conrad recounts how the captain who examined him for his Board of Trade master’s exam had concluded with a piece of advice: “I don’t know what may be your plans, but you ought to go into steam.” Conrad tells his reader that he never did so. But as Jasanoff rightly notes, this “made for tidy rhetoric, but misleading history. […] Conrad did go into steam, first in Asia, then in Africa, and he did so as a conscious choice.”

In fact, despite his avowed love of sheets and lines, coal was of at least equal importance in Conrad’s thinking. Conrad, according to biographer Jeffrey Meyers, “used the metaphor of coal-mining to symbolize the exploration of the unconscious.” And, on the writing process, Conrad himself wrote in a letter to a friend: “I had to work like a coal-miner in his pit, quarrying all my English sentences out of a black night.” But metaphor and analogy are best left to the literary critics, for it is Conrad’s understanding of his age that concerns us here. And on coal he was absolutely certain:

There is, as every schoolboy knows in this scientific age, a very close chemical relation between coal and diamonds. It is the reason, I believe, why some people allude to coal as “black diamonds.” Both these commodities represent wealth; but coal is a much less portable form of property. There is, from that point of view, a deplorable lack of concentration in coal. Now, if a coal-mine could be put into one’s waistcoat pocket — but it can’t! At the same time, there is a fascination in coal, the supreme commodity of the age in which we are camped like bewildered travellers in a garish, unrestful hotel. And I suppose those two considerations, the practical and the mystical prevented Heyst — Axel Heyst — from going away.

Faster than the blink of an eye, “the supreme commodity of the age” is turned into a mystical consideration. More tidy rhetoric.

Coal was simultaneously the fuel that powered the new steamers and a hot new commodity that geologists sought, companies mined, and owners of ships transported as cargo, and that was then sold back to steamships, to the new “fire carriages” that were rapidly crisscrossing Java (kereta api) and China (huoche), and to the power stations that made possible the new electrical lights of cafés in Amsterdam and London. Had Conrad happened to open The Straits Times in November 1887, when he was in Singapore, he would have seen an article titled “The coal trade between Australia and the East,” which covered not only the booming trade out of Newcastle-down-under but also the exploration for coal in Borneo, and also another article that praised Borneo coal for “its excellent quality and cheapness.” Had he arrived in Singapore a bit earlier, he might have read news about a geological researcher who believed Borneo to be “one vast mass of excellent coal.” Coal was indeed the supreme commodity of the time.

Conrad’s narrators condemn the violence and robbery of imperialism, but, as Jasanoff notes, Conrad himself had “an enduring distaste for organized labor and radical politics.” His critique of capitalism came not in the form of a call to arms but instead, in his patented literary guise of the story within a story, from Marlow and other narrators who relate the chain of interests that stretch outward from shareholders, company offices, and directors through lawyers and accountants and ship captains to his protagonists at the extractive and transactional end of imperialism. Coal was embedded not in abstract markets but in the long reach of corporations. On the first page of Victory: “The Tropical Belt Coal Company went into liquidation. The world of finance is a mysterious world in which, incredible as the fact may appear, evaporation precedes liquidation. First the capital evaporates, and then the company goes into liquidation.” The personal shortcomings, dilemmas, and torment of Conrad’s characters are almost always linked to capital.


The coastal “outcrops” in East Kalimantan that allowed for easy surface mining in Conrad’s day are long gone. So, too, is so much of the tropical rainforest that once loomed along the banks of the Segah and other rivers, cut down with abandon during the first decades of Suharto’s rapacious New Order. But vast wealth remained beneath the ground across much of Kalimantan. Coal concessions were granted in the 1980s and 1990s, but in small numbers. The real rush came, following Suharto’s fall in May 1998, with the introduction of regional autonomy laws that gave the districts authority to grant natural resource concessions and guaranteed revenue sharing. The result was a mad rush, with district heads and legislators receiving kickbacks from the national and international companies. Revenue sharing resulted in vastly expanded district budgets, which in turn were ripe for the picking.

The 2008 financial crash and subsequent recession in the West created a super-cycle of commodity prices, of which the BRIC economies as well as Indonesia were the great beneficiaries. Indonesian coal production and exports skyrocketed. In 2007, Indonesia produced 217 million metric tons of coal, of which 163 million tons were exported; by 2013, production had reached 474 million metric tons, of which 402 million metric tons were exported, with the primary buyers being the People’s Republic of China, India, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea. Since 2013, however, coal prices have fallen sharply, and the government has attempted to enforce domestic market obligations to meet President Joko Widodo’s ambitious plan to increase domestic power generation by 35,000 gigawatts.

Brave activists, both domestic and international, have long waged a struggle against the environmental degradation, safety and health hazards, and political corruption that stem from coal mining in Indonesia. Their efforts recently received a major boost from a riveting, depressing, yet oddly beautiful new documentary produced by the Indonesian organization WatchDoc titled Sexy Killers (2019). The film was released a few days before the April 17 national elections, leading to charges that it was meant to influence the outcome. The documentary does take sides, but not in the usual way. It provides detailed information on the corporate entities through which both incumbent President Joko Widodo and his rival, the ex-general, ex-Suharto-son-in-law, and loser of the 2014 and 2019 elections, Prabowo Subianto, are deeply implicated in the coal industry. In the recent election, the producers of Sexy Killers supported Golput — a longstanding Indonesian portmanteau for the movement to boycott elections — on the grounds that, when it comes to the environment and health, voters were not being offered a meaningful choice.

Sexy Killers caused a major political stir. In some districts in the country, the documentary was banned by authorities. But within a month of its release, the film had been viewed more than 20 million times on Youtube, where it is available in its entirety, a must view for anyone concerned about the environment, political corruption, and the corporate and political linkages that fuel dirty coal.

Today, there are 84 coal-mining concessions in Berau District alone, covering 15 percent of the district. However, only 23 of these, with a combined area of 68,000 hectares, are currently in operation. A single company — PT Berau Coal — is dominant in the region, producing 26.6 million tons of coal out of the total district production of 35.1 million tons. If the remaining 60 concessions start production, output could double or even triple.

Every morning, stout tugs pull enormous barges laden with coal down the river, past the Tanjung Redeb jetty, and on to the coast, where the black mountains are loaded onto larger vessels for export. On the south bank of the river sits the stately, wood Sambaliung Palace. Mrs. Aida Syariani, a cheerful grandmother of a descendant of the last Sultan, welcomes visitors and acts as tour guide, keen to discuss local history. When I visited recently, she engaged in playful banter as we went from room to room, at one point agreeing to pose with a six-foot sword. But she had never heard of Conrad or his novels, and she thought that coal-mining in Tanjung Redeb had begun only in the 1930s. In front of the palace, however, she noted a massive black kettle — perhaps a meter across at the lip — that she said had been used on a steamship, and then, pointing to the river, said there is a story about an English ship that sank and has never been recovered. She is eager to study the Conrad connection and to educate school children about their history, but she has few resources and little institutional support.

Coal barges

Conrad lamented the deplorable lack of concentration in coal. Today, one would like to think, he would lament the deplorable concentration of ownership of mining concessions and power plants and the financial institutions behind them — and the devastation they have wrought. One cannot help but be reminded of that other great author of the sea, Melville, of whom Conrad was famously dismissive: “It’s a mutual, joint-stock world in all meridians.” For Melville’s Queequeg, the call was for cosmopolitanism-from-below — “we cannibals must help these Christians.” For Conrad’s Marlow, it was just “the horror.” Today, for the enterprising team behind Sexy Killers and the good people of Borneo, perhaps it is both.


Douglas Kammen writes on the history and politics of Indonesia and East Timor. He teaches at the National University of Singapore.

LARB Contributor

Douglas Kammen writes on the history and politics of Indonesia and East Timor. His most recent books are Independent Timor-Leste: Between Coercion and Consent (Cambridge University Press, 2019) and Cina Timor: Baba, Hakka, and Cantonese in the Making of Timor-Leste (Yale Council on Southeast Asia Studies, 2019). He teaches at the National University of Singapore.


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