The tin frontier: mining, empire and environment in Southeast Asia, 1870s-1930s

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This article investigates the interactions between culture, technology and environmental change during the tin mining boom in colonial Southeast Asia, the world’s dominant tin-producing region in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It approaches the explosive growth of the industry—above all in western Malaysia and the ‘tin isles’ of the Netherlands Indies—as a variation on the concept of the commodity frontier: namely, one whose topography comprised not just the surface landscapes over which it expanded but also the various grades and depths of ore beneath them. Like most commodity frontiers, this one presented a series of resource windfalls tapped by successive waves of entrepreneurs producing for a rising international market. But beneath these overarching commonalities, two interrelated factors lent it a distinctive dynamic: first, the central role of new technologies in repeatedly pushing the frontier into new underground strata and types of terrain; and secondly, the ways in which this three-dimensional expansion was animated by colonial ideologies of nature, race, waste and industry that were deeply embedded in the project of European imperialism.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)454-479
Number of pages26
JournalEnvironmental History
Issue number3
Early online date30 May 2014
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2014


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