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Chinese Tin Mining

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How the Chinese mined tin!

For many centuries, the Malays had mined for tin but their methods were crude and ineffective. Between 1820 and 1830, the 2 states of Selangor and Negri Sembilan produced 200 tons of tin annually; in the 1880s Selangor alone produced 4000 tons annually. This increase was due to the arrival of Chinese miners who had new mining methods.

The main Malay method was panning (also known as lampan). First, the miners chose a narrow valley with steep grounds on both sides, soil was pulled down with a changkol into the stream. The running water washed away the earth, leaving the tin ore at the bottom of the stream.

An open-cast tin mine with workers carrying their loads on a primitive wooden structure.

The Chinese developed the open-cast method (or lombong). Tin-bearing soil (karang) was dug from the ground and puddled in a washing-box (lanchut) to separate the ore from the soil. This method was however prone to flooding, and was aggravated by the fact that ore-rich lands were usually on low ground. This method of mining was labour intensive, and it needed skill in the control of water supply as well as the efficient extraction of tin ore.

To tackle these problems, the Chinese ingenuously adapted devices like the chain-pump, water-wheel and bamboo water-pipes, used in the rice fields of Southern China. With the arrival of the steam engine in the 1880s, flooding became more effectively controlled.

Tin ore was smelted twice a year in a furnace. The furnace was filled with alternate layers of mangrove-wood and charcoal. Tin ore was fed in once the fire was ready, and more fuel and tin ore were added in as required. Molten tin was then drained off through a pipe at the bottom of the furnace.

Picture of a miner and the tin-refining furnace.

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This page was last modified on September 12, 2000