The Muara Coalmine in 1883

Bandar Seri Begawan
Sunday, February 14, 2016

IN SINGAPORE’S newspaper The Straits Times dated March 19, 1883, a short article was published entitled “The Muara Coal Mines (Brunei)” written by an unnamed correspondent who had visited the Muara Coal Mines in Brunei in the early 1880s.

The correspondent noted that, “on the 13th March 1882, these mines were ceded to Mr C by the Sultan of Brunei for 20 years. They had been surveyed and partly worked by the first Labuan Coal Mining Company. They extend about 30 square miles. Mr C has full mining rights, no duties to pay, and the right to wood, &c. He is allowed to erect buildings, wharves, and piers, which he can remove at the expiry of the lease should it be desirable to do so”.

The anonymous Mr C was actually Mr W C Cowie. In his notes, in the book “Report on Brunei in 1904 by MSH McArthur”, AVM Horton noted that it was in March 1882 that W C Cowie obtained a concession to work coal in Muara Damit. Mr Cowie obtained the concessions to the mine at a cost of $1,200 per year, quite a princely sum in those days.

Before the 1900s, the hamlet of Muara was inhabited by a small group of Malay fishermen. However, it was the coal at Serai Pimping in Muara that attracted the Europeans to come here.

The coal mine in Muara was described and quoted in the book “British Borneo Sketches of Brunai, Sarawak, Labuan and North Borneo” published in 1891 written by W H Treacher, the Reverend J E Tennison-Wood, well-known in Australia as an authority on geological questions:

“… About twenty miles to the South-west of Labuan is the mouth of the Brunairiver. Here the rocks are of quite a different character, and much older. There are sandstones, shales, and grits, with ferruginous joints. The beds are inclined at angles of 25 to 45 degrees. They are often altered into a kind of chert.

“At Muara there is an outcrop of coal seams twenty, twenty-five and twenty-six feet thick. The coal is of excellent quality, quite bitumenised, and not brittle. The beds are being worked by private enterprise. I saw no fossils, but the beds and the coal reminded me much of the older Australian coals along the Hunter river. The mines are of great value ...”

It was this mine that the article in The Straits Times was referring to. The correspondent began the article by describing the journey to the mine:

“On the morning of the 5th of this month, we left the s.s. Borneo, and embarked on board the steam launch of the Sultan of Brunei, which had been kindly lent us for the trip. We steamed away at a great pace, and were soon clear of the difficult and tortuous bar of the Brunei river, when we stood almost direct for Muara.

“Muara is situated N.W. of the entrance of the river. By 11.30 we had moored alongside the long wooden pier on which were numerous baskets full of coal ready for shipment; a tongkang was on the shore being made ready for a voyage to Labuan with coal. The Royalist had not ayet (sic) arrived.”

The coals then were most likely to be exported to Labuan. The Royalist, a ship belonging to the Rajah of Sarawak or the Sarawak Government, must be at that point in time running a shipping line between Brunei, Labuan and Sarawak.

The correspondent continued: “On landing we were met by Mr D, the manager, a rather rough and ready sort of man, but one who appeared to know what he was about, and we started at once for the mines 1 1/2 miles distant. The commencement of the walk was rather heavy, through sandy soil, but as we advanced, we came to a slight ascent, and the ground became harder.”

The coal mine was located at Serai Pimping. Today that area is located where the big roundabout is at the end of the Muara-Tutong Highway. It is quite a fair distance from Serai Pimping to the Muara Port. The wooden pier referred to in The Straits Times’ article was left there, and modernised and then finally demolished when Muara Port was being built in the late 1960s.

According to the people who lived in Muara in the late 1960s, there were still remnants of a railway line running from the coal mine all the way to the wharf at Muara Port.

The correspondent noted that the mine operator of the railway line was needed as fast as possible. “We met some buffalo carts laden with coal toiling down to the shore. This is a slow mode of proceeding, but will soon be changed, as rails are now at Singapore and are to be sent immediately. Very slight traction power will then be necessary, and either buffaloes, horses, or steam can be used. Near the mines, a short line of rails is laid and trucks, each containing about 16 cwt, are running.”

There was actually not much physical description in print about the coal mine at Muara, despite it being written about extensively. The Straits Times’ correspondent did us all a favour by describing the coalmine: “On arrival at the pit's mouth we descended a short ladder and were at once amongst the coal, which is good even at this short distance from the surface. Being provided with candles we explored the seams.

“Towards the hill was a fire which had been smouldering some months and the water from which, flowing towards us, was warm; we did not feel enough curiosity to penetrate far in that direction. On arriving at daylight we proceeded a little further and descended another and more worked mine, having coal seams branching in four directions.

“The sides and roof were in some parts propped with wood, but were in others simply hewn through the coal. Some of the passages were low and narrow, being barely sufficient for one man to pass at a time. It was very hot here, with a certain suffocating sort of feeling, and we were not sorry to regain the light and sun; the latter was however very powerful, but we considered ourselves bound to accept Mr D’s proposal to go to a certain ridge, which ran round the portion of the mines being worked, and gave a general view of the works, as well as of the low ground on the other side which is used as a paddy sawah.”

The article continued about the mine workers, who were a mix of Chinese and Malay, with some having the experience of having been working in the Labuan coal mines.

The coal mine managers had been having difficulty in finding workers then due to an extensive wedding festival, and was prepared to pay so much per tonne to enable them to mine faster.

The article also described the mine based on what they can observe: “... the supply of coal is almost unlimited. The first seam we explored was 22 feet thick, running parallel with the range of hills. The other was 16 feet thick at the thinnest part, and also ran in the same direction N. and S. north to the sea and south to Bukit Pisang 650 feet high. The present mode of working is economical, there being no necessity to go deep; the coal being excellent where it is being taken from, just a few feet below the surface. The engineers and stokers who have tried the coal speak very highly of it, and it is to be hoped the enterprising owner will meet the reward his energy deserves.”

The Muara coal mine lease was eventually bought over by Rajah Brooke from Mr Cowie. Rajah Brooke renamed Muara Damit as Brooketon and continued to operate it until Muara Damit was redeemed by the Government in 1925.

The Brunei Times


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