Kongsi: The large mining collectivities of Borneo

8 November, 2021

Kongsi in Soengeiliat ca. 1900 - ca. . 1920
Kongsi in Soengeiliat ca. 1900 - ca. . 1920

The kongsi were collectively owned Chinese proto-states in Borneo in the 18th and 19th centuries. These territorial collectivities are sold today in Asia as the first bourgeois republics in history, before the American and French revolutions, but in reality they were something much more interesting.

Table of Contents

What the Kongsi were not: the essence of a republic

Since antiquity, the term republic has described a commonwealth of private owners, with or without a sovereign. There have been many republics since antiquity, from Athens to the French republic via the medieval republics of the Italian peninsula, but they were all based on more or less aristocratic versions of the same principle of the primacy of private property and – effective – government by the property-owning class. This was clear to its advocates, from the staunchest admirers of the Medici to the radical bourgeois revolutionaries of the French republic:

The civil laws of France will seem admirable to anyone who can delve into the resources that nature has left to men in reason, so infinite, harmonious and inexhaustible this one is. […] Indeed, civil law is the system of property. Could it be believed that man has so far removed himself from that kindly disinterestedness which seems to be the social law of nature, as to honor this sad [feudal] property with the name of natural law? […]

I do not intend to daydream; I mean that the earth is to be divided among human beings after the death of their common mother, and that property has laws which may be full of wisdom, which prevent corruption from dissolving, and evil from abounding. Forgetfulness of these laws had given place to feudalism; their remembrance overthrew it; their remnants stifled slavery; they restored man to himself, the people to the laws.

Self-interest has been respected, and rightly so: property renders men careful; it binds ungrateful hearts to the fatherland.

It is never bravery that the peasant lacks, but arms; let him have his sons, of whom you made bad soldiers; let the good rural dwellers masquerading as serfs go free; let him be enriched by himself and not by intermediaries; his virtue will soon fertilize his furrows, and you will see no more poor; agriculture, made a source of plenty, will be honored as it deserves to be; the rich landowner will no longer seem a strange sight, plowing his fields and mixing his own sweat with the sweat of his fathers.

L’esprit de la Révolution et de la constitution de la France, Louis Antoine Léon de Saint-Just (1791)

History is represented today as a timeless tension between centralized forms of political power and republican forms of commonwealth ownership, forcing all past states to fit the predetermined mold.

But not all social organizations with territorial extension and rule actually fit the mold of the dominant ideology, and this is the case for the kongsi of West Borneo.

The world of Chinese guilds

Layout of the main building of the Lanfang Kongsi in 1822
Layout of the main building of the Lanfang Kongsi in 1822

It makes no sense to talk about the Kongsi without first touching on the type of organizations from which they originated. The Kongsi were settled in Borneo by Chinese migrant workers from the early 18th to the 19th century, at the height of the Chinese guild world.

Although guilds have existed in China since at least the 8th century, they were established by imperial order and subject to strict control. It was not until the Chinese commercial revolution – beginning in the 16th century and accelerating in the 17th century – that payment in kind and in labor was abandoned for payment in currency thanks to the arrival of sufficient silver from the american continent.

The new guilds formed in response to the huge population movements caused by the new commercial and manufacturing activity, accommodating in mutual aid societies migrant workers or tradesmen from a given region in provinces far from home:

In addition to huiguan in its meaning of “meeting houses” and gongsuo meaning “public halls”, Chinese guilds were called bang, or “mutual aid associations”, or named after their meeting places, and shuyuan, which were Confucian academies, or Taoist and folk religious places of worship. […]

Most huiguan outside Beijing increasingly acquired economic functions as places where merchants’ or artisans’ associations met to coordinate their activities, and functioned as hostels, restaurants, entertainment centers, and places of reference for those seeking work.

This means that they are important indicators of migration patterns between specific regions. In the Upper Yangzi, especially in Sichuan, the huiguan channeled peasant immigration from other provinces […]

As a general rule, guilds [under the Qing dynasty] were organized into boards of directors, with directors recruited from among the members. Instances of rotating leadership are known, as are cases in which guild offices were hereditary. A British observer in the late nineteenth century considered the rotating system to exhibit features of “almost pure democracy,” unlike the English guilds which were subject to oligarchic rule.

Chinese Guilds from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Centuries: An Overview; Christine Moll-Murata (2008)

Because of this combination of factors, Chinese guilds were quite different from the guilds of European trading cities. The Chinese guild did not serve to segregate and delineate strictly the artisans of a city, like the European guild which required a minimum of compulsory census registration, but served as an association of outsiders.

In fact, the guilds and kongsi came to prioritize newcomers in decision-making over those already established locally – unlike the European associations. Several of them maintained a more or less democratic structure until their final destruction in China with the desperate reforms of the Qing empire in the 19th and the Chinese revolution in the early 20th that would raze them to the ground and turn them into chambers of commerce.

It will be from this original seedbed that the kongsi will be born. Commercial activity in China was concentrated on the Long River (Yangzi) and especially on the southern coast, from where the workers who ended up in Borneo would come from.

The rise of the kongsi

Kongsi of West Borneo during the early 19th century
Kongsi of West Borneo during the early 19th century

In the 18th century, the three Malay sultans of western Borneo (Kalimantan to Indonesians) decided to import Chinese miners to replace the local Dayaks, subsistence farmers with a very primitive mining technique and who were not easily exploitable by the Malays due to their poor “motivation”.

This was quite challenging, gold in Borneo is not found accumulated in large gold-bearing veins, but rather scattered in the form of small gold nuggets in the mud of the rivers. Where the Dayak used plates and sieves, the Chinese workers organized their work on a much larger scale and built reservoirs, canal systems, and pumps:

To work in the mines, the constitution of cooperative units was really essential, given the strenuous but relatively unskilled work that had to be done, and the need to divide responsibilities and profits.

Small-scale mining in China was organized on a similar cooperative basis; joint-stock companies also have a long tradition in the mercantile and maritime communities of southern China.

Accounts of Chinese mining in the Bangka tin mines show the importance of cooperative forms: miners shared the work and elected their leaders – chief, cook and treasurer – at regular intervals. Bangka mine chiefs who had served their term of office returned to being ordinary miners.

Golddiggers, farmers and traders in the “Chinese districts” of west Kalimantan, Indonesia; Mary F Somers Heidhues, 2003

At first, the sultans had planned to keep the Chinese as a separate caste of workers dependent on them for food and other goods, which they would sell to them at inflated prices, but the much greater degree of organization of the Chinese workers enabled them to circumvent the tolls and legal restrictions of the powerless sultanates.

Instead of building their settlements along the rivers controlled by the sultans, they built them on secondary rivers without tolls; instead of buying food from the sultans, they set up their own farms in the form of collectivities.

With armed militias, territorial control, collective ownership of mines and elections of leaders every few months, the mature kongsi of the late 18th and early 19th can be safely defined as a mining collectivity

This happened because the form that mining societies took was an extension of the original collective form of mining. The small mining collectivities gradually merged and centralized, forming new settlements around a community house from which axes and streets began to be laid out.

The community houses and barracks for single workers that stood at the center of the new settlements were eventually fortified, confusing the Dutch into thinking they were castles, and these towns eventually controlled a whole series of secondary villages, ports and towns.

With armed militias, territorial control, collective ownership of mines and elections of leaders every few months, the mature kongsi of the late 18th and early 19th can be safely defined as a mining collectivity.

The sultans eventually lost whatever little territorial and economic control they had at first and reverted to piracy, while the power of the Kongsi rose.

Each was a different world, the smaller kongsi were egalitarian and “democratic”, while the larger kongsi were more complicated. Some became aristocratic, like Lanfang, ironically the model for all authors who celebrate it as a “democratic republic”. Other kongsi however, retained rotating elections every four months and collective ownership, such as Monterado.

The-fall-of-the-kongsi

Coins minted by the kongsi of Santiaogou, heirs of Monterado. The kongsi were undermined by the commodification of their internal relations.
Coins minted by the kongsi of Santiaogou, heirs of Monterado. The kongsi were undermined by the commodification of their internal relations.

However, no matter how much some big kongsi maintained collective ownership and elections, the system could not last long under full rising capitalism.

To begin with, the Kongsi were mining colonies with a basic demographic dilemma. They needed far more male workers than they could generate, forcing them to rely on foreign traders and capital to obtain and transport miners. Quite a few kongsi became completely dependent on outside capital and capitalists.

Even more dangerously, the kongsi had finished off the sultans but were too small to survive against the onslaught of the colonial powers.

The Netherlands, much more interested initially in Java and Sumatra, “rediscovered” Borneo and its gold during the Napoleonic wars. From that moment on, Holland designed a whole strategy to generate internal tensions and ended up launching a military attack on the kongsi during the 1850s. The island was split between the British and Dutch dominions reflected by the current borders. The kongsi continued as a form of Chinese workers’ associationism in Borneo but never raised its head again.

The kongsi, like all collectivities at the time, could not last long. As long as commodification and large-scale capitalist social relations persist in the world, there is no chance for a few “communist islands” to impose new relations on a territory, no matter how small or large, on the fringes of the system.

They can however pave the way and represent a battering ram against mercantile relations. This is what happened during workers’ revolutions, such as the Spanish one of 1936. But the kongsi were internally undermined by commodification. They could only have strengthened themselves and gained a perspective had they been able to align themselves with a general movement of class struggle that would still take long decades to mature and express itself.

That said, they proved once again that collective ownership is not just a matter of scattered peasants or small groups of workers struggling against atomization. The kongsi are an example that in the not so distant past, workers, on the basis of common work, knew how to build collectivities that went far beyond the anecdotal in very large territories. For this reason alone it would be worthwhile to rescue them, they are a historical example that allows us to glimpse future possibilities.