Tropical milestones: Australian gold and tin mining investments in Malaya and Thailand, 1880-1930
AuthorBirch, Francis David
AffiliationFaculty of Arts
Document TypeMasters Research thesis
CitationsBirch, F. D. (1976). Tropical milestones: Australian gold and tin mining investments in Malaya and Thailand, 1880-1930. Masters Research thesis, Faculty of Arts, The University of Melbourne.
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© 1976 Francis David Birch
This study is concerned with Australian overseas investment in the tin and gold-mining industries of Malaya and Thailand before the Second World War. The idea was suggested by the reading of Tome Miles’s manuscript biography of his father, Captain Edward Thomas Miles, who was responsible for the formation of the first bucket-dredging company to successfully mine for tin on the Asian mainland in 1907. It seemed valuable to investigate the genesis of this direct investment, since Miles was a native-born Tasmanian, while the mining company he formed was owned and controlled by Australians. The study became of more than merely antiquarian interest when research revealed the surprising fact that before 1930, Australian-owned and –controlled companies accounted for a sizeable proportion of foreign mining companies in Malaya, and indeed, the majority of foreign mining companies in Siam. Not only were they among the most numerous of the foreign tin-mining companies, but they were among the first to invest there. The only major gold-mine in Malaya was run by Queensland enterprise from the 1890’s to the 1960’s. As work proceeded, there became apparent an embarrassing richness of examples of Australian mining investment in the mining industries of many other Pacific and Asian countries before the Second World War. It became so easy to go walkabout through different countries ranging from New Guinea to Burma to Madagascar, through different metals from chrome and nickel, gold and tin, to antimony and wolfram, that it was necessary to restrict the study to the area where investment was most significant outside Australia’s own territories. With the possibility of aggregating a number of investments in the same geographical area and in the same geographical area and in the same industry came also the possibility of making general statements which help to illuminate the causes of this outflow of enterprise and capital. In effect, the thesis is based on the idea that, although Australia’s relationship with its northern neighbours was not strong in commodity trade (Australia’s economy was competitive with the economies of Asian countries rather than complementary), it was strong in technology trade. Australia’s comparative advantage in the region was not measureable in commodities but in knowledge. The mining industry of Australia had created a pool of human skills and technical knowledge which were demanded when other countries began to expand their own mining industries. Australian entrepreneurs were quick to realise that Australia had a valuable, tradeable commodity in its stock of mining knowledge, and overseas investment in the mining industry stemmed from this realization. Why was it surprising to find that so many Australian companies had invested overseas? It was surprising because conventional interpretations of Australia’s economic development ignore excursions of Australian capital into other countries, particularly into Asia. Australia’s economic development has been seen as a slow process of evolution. Australia, at first a colony of Britain, then a Federation and by the mid-1930’s a fully fledged Commonwealth, is seen as slowly wresting itself from the apron-strings of the Imperial government. Australia’s economic and political policies were designed to keep it within the Empire nexus and the Anglo-Saxon race. Social, political and economic contact with Asia remained minimal. However, Britain’s slowly receding position in Australia’s trade and growing fears about Australia’s vulnerability in the Pacific area in the 1930’s united to force Australian governments to take stock of the nations to the north. By the time Japan entered the Second World War, Australia had established diplomatic posts in China and Japan. Soon after the War, posts were opened in Malaya, Indonesia and Thailand. The British and Dutch Imperial networks began to disintegrate in South-East Asia. The Vietnam War, the Malayan Emergency, Confrontation and new national liberation movements continued Australia’s trend away from Britain towards regional alliances in a new era of political instability. (From Introduction)
KeywordsAustralian investments in Thailand and Malaya; tin mines and mining in Thailand and Malaya; gold mines and mining in Thailand and Malaya; history
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