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The French Tonkin Coal Mines - Workers and Conditions

Updated on September 29, 2017
Baie de Hạ Long, Thành phố Hạ Long, Quảng Ninh, Vietnam

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The location of the Bay of Ha Long

An enameled poster concerning the mines.
An enameled poster concerning the mines.

The bay of Ha Long may be a site famed for its natural beauty and a UNESCO world heritage site in the present day, but during the French colonial period it was more appreciated as a source for the export of large amounts of coal, produced in the northern Vietnamese coal mines. The French had built these coal mines from the 1890s onwards, eventually reaching the production of millions of tons of coal in the 1930s, the vast majority of which was exported abroad, in particular to Japan. This brought vast wealth to the French companies which were involved in these processes, and was a hallmark of French capitalism in Eastern Asia. However, working conditions in the mines were terrible, prompting them to be commonly referred to as hell, and often as modern-day slavery. In the Interwar, French journalists began to increasingly criss-cross the French empire, looking at humanitarian scandals like this, and writers and journalists would increasingly turn their pens onto the Tonkin coal mines. This would commence a process of gradual improvement of conditions at the mines in response to their critiques, although the mines remained places where coal was extracted from the ground with blood, sweat, and tears. One of the French works on this would Sur la route mandarine, intensely critical on the Tonkinese coal mines. SOS Indochine, by the French journalist Andrée Viollis would be equally hostile to the brutal exploitation carried out by French companies in the region.

Open pit coal mines at Hongay
Open pit coal mines at Hongay

Roland Dorgelès, Sur la route mandarine, Paris, Albin Michel, 1925

Cat-Bâ (island in the Along bay populated by Chinese fishers), is old Asia, Hongay civilisation : you choose. They are, I believe, unique in the world, these mines of Hongay where coal is extracted in pit mines. Campha, Hatu, Monplanet, these huge parts of amphitheatres sized at the same dimensions as small hills,. They are huge black stairs which ascent towards the sky and their faces are so smooth, so straight, that one would believe that the coal was cut in slices, like as if it was some monstrous sort of cake. Nothing is at the human scale. Everything is too tall, too vast, and the natives who dig on the slopes only appear like human specks of dust, on these jet-black terraces. The road leads from one quarry to another, along the sea, cutting through villages, crossing through passes, traversing the forests.

Collection Albert Kahn
Collection Albert Kahn

Who do all of these lands belong to, my dear reader..? To a false lord like the the Marquis de Carabas. But this is more than fairy tale of Puss in Boots with its imposter Marquis.. The Marquis de Carabas of this land is the company, the Carbonnages du Tonkin. The society possesses everything... the fields, the trees, the houses, the roads, everything down to the depths of the earth. The railroad is hers, this port, these jetties, these marked channels, they are hers too... this church with its pointed steeple, this big covered market, those are her as well. On 20,0000 hectares, everything belongs to the company, down to the smallest twig. If a village stands in the way of a road to be built, too bad... it is destroyed. And when it it is rebuilt further away, the native is payed part of the cost of his new hut, so much that henceforth, bounded to the earth, he will never leave it.

Collection Albert Kahn
Collection Albert Kahn

For the most difficult thing of all is finding the necessary coolies, the thousands of coolies needed, to retain them at Hongay, and to prevent them from fleeing. Everything has been tried, but nothing has succeeded. As soon as the Tonkinese has a few piastres in his pocket, he leaves the mines and returns to his rice paddy. During the epoch of Têt, when the harvest approaches, everybody wants to see their village again, and thus it is by the thousands that the workers join an exodus. All of the watchmen who are assigned can do nothing about this... in a few days, all of the mines are deserted. What is there to do? Other strategies are experimented with instead. The stratagems utilized increase in numbers to attempt to constrain the workers. Thus, the Tonkinese are only payed their salary on the second fortnight of the following month, so that, if the workers wish to have their paychecks, they are obliged to stay. However, so that they do not die of famine, and by pure philanthropical urges, they are given a piastre every ten days... it is what one calls here "making an advance." It is equally in the interest of retaining them that a large covered market has been constructed, as well as a cinema. What a shame that there is no hospital for them! A company administrator has doubtless found religion a better tool. Missionaries who reside at the mine will retain at least the catholics, they think. Thus there is an Annamite Father, and Spanish missions found there. A small church has been constructed, and the parish, just recently formed, already has some 700 coolies. The goat will graze where it has its bed, and where the converted have their church, they pray, and without any doubt, it is for the company that the yellow Father says his mass. When floods at times sweep away the dikes of the Red River, devastating the rice fields, and famine befalls the Delta, entire villages flee from their homes to the coal mines, coming to search for the livelihood that they no longer can find in their native land, and up to twenty thousand coolies come from between Campha and Nagotna. These are, for the mine, the good years. When I visited Hongay, the black quarries swarmed with workers, miserable beings dressed in rags. Diggers with scrawny arms, women with mouths so reddened by betel that they look as if they are bleeding. Ten year old "nhos" brace their skinny little bodies against carts to push them, their faces exhausted under the mask of coals. Fifteen pennies per day, were the only words of my guide. The dust in which their bare feet walk has turned their soles blacker than coal, and their rags are just as black. It is this that Tea Flower and Nguyen the herdsmen have become... no lotuses, no pagodas, no flower-bedecked hedges... modern work does not like such fantasies. There is more bamboo in front of the huts... stakes. More betel trees tall and thing... as chimneys. The torrent of noise comes from the grain sifters, and it is not incense which rises into the air, but rather burning briquettes. Inferior bituminous, spent grain, and soft coal, what exoticism! Transplant to the banks of the Chinese sea a little French town of the 18th century and dig a mine there, and you have Hongay! When an automobile, blaring its horn, enters into a street, old serfs bend down, broken in half and leaning on their bamboo. The ba-gia (old women), hide themselves in their hovels. But the Chinese merchant by contrast, steps out from the threshold of his boutique at smiles at us with all of his white teeth. He is with us, he is with the masters. At each new workshop, at each new shaft that one digs, with the first coolies having hardly arrived, the Chinese arrive with their four boards, their bowls of rice and their provisions. Not a single pickaxe is yet swung and they are already there, freshly arranged and smiling. He will be rich before the others, this cunning oily fellow. For him and for his partners in crime, Indochina is only a Chinese colony run by the French. Who is the master here? A mandarin? Ha! Nothing draws their attention to the coolies and the court at Hue mocks these poor souls. A french bureaucrat? You jest, he is but a policeman, although he dons pompously the title of a commissar.

Collection Brossard
Collection Brossard

The only master is the mine. Everything that my eye touches, from the heights of the hills, belongs to it. Everything, to the great bay which gorges itself upon millions of francs to try to construct an impossible port. It is because of the mine that the sailors arrive for their cargoes, that the Tonkinese work with their pick axes at the open pits, that the prospectors slip through the virgin forest, looking for new deposits. All along the wharf, cranes tirelessly raise their iron arms, trains fill themselves and them empty themselves, always renewed. Villages arrise from the earth, with hhuts all the same, constructed in series. It is for the mine... it produces everything for itself... the barges, the tools, the boilers, even the rize for the coolies. It is rich, very rich... twenty-nine million francs of total profits last year, more than its capital. Close to twenty million of admitted reserves, free stock distributed to shareholders, the title of 250 francs now quoted at 7-10,0000. Yes , formidably rich... the 74,000 stocks which at 7,000 per stock are valued today at more than half a billion francs!

Hongay, in 1938. The caption reads :Hongay (Tonkin) Coal mine. General picture of the Hatou open pit mine.
Hongay, in 1938. The caption reads :Hongay (Tonkin) Coal mine. General picture of the Hatou open pit mine.

And do you know how much this kingdom of coal benefits Indochina, benefits France? Nothing... I say nothing, because I am not going to count the few francs in superficial taxes, the pennies of the mining tax. In coal ming, as with the majority of rich enterprises there, unknown powers share among themselves the benefits, suck the marrow out of the bones of this country, and the colony gains nothing, and France has nothing, she who had paid this soil with so much blood. Hongay at least gives Indochina all of her coal? Not even, almost all of it is for Japan, who pays well. Saigon begs for her share in vain, the factories must order coal from Cardiff, and the railroads burn wood for the steam, devastating the forests. Neither money or coal... Hongay does not bring us anything, nothing but the hatred of thousand of coolies. Down there, in the south, behind the Cat-Bâ, filled with water buffalo, behind the blue hills of Dong-Trieu, there runs the Cua Nam river, which discharges into the gulf its thick red waters. It was there, fifty years ago, that our first gunboats operated, when Francis Garnier fought at Hanoi. It was there, ten years later, that our marines and sailors of Henri Rivère passed by so quickly on their way to to the massacre at Sontay. It was by this channel bordered by mangrove trees that gaunt little children, soldiers of Courbet and of slave ships, who took the road of Langson and Tuyen Quang. The conquerers... My eyes search vainly, among the crumbling isles of the Along bay, the island of the cemetery where under the sand, some sailors take their final rest. The conquerers... And later, again, how many enthusiastic young men, clad in canvas and white hats, had passed before Haiphong, where around a barracks the first houses had sprung up, believin that fortune awaited them in the deadly swamps of the Delta or the woods of the High Region. The conquers... what have they gained? All of that? Was Pierre Loti right when he doubted grandeur, the duration of the distant consequences and he cried for the thousands of soldiers whose precious lives should only have been risked "for the ultimate defense of our dear French soul?" But non, this dreamer was mistaken, for the numbers are there to respond... a half a billion of stocks... and thirty-two millions of gross profits.

SOS Indochine by Andrée Viollis written in 1932 (find the entirety elsewhere)

We returned, because we must lunch with the members of the management of the famous Charbonnages du Tonkin. I expected nothing. Suddenly, at a bend in the route, an unexpected spectacle, almost terrifying... erected against a washed out sky, a gigantic wall of coal, a wall for cyclops or Titans, shining gloomily under the all-consuming sun. Overwhelmed, at first nothing can be distinguished. Then one perceives that this monstrous wall is inhabited. Minuscule isolated points crawl across it, these human ants... or else they advance in great processions in lines on the gleaming slopes of diamond black. The length of the wall is so smooth, and the the carriages of little carts creep across it like serpents. Wagons climb there like caterpillars.and others are suspended like spiders on the tip of their threads, below, trains wait for them, and further away, at port, ships as well. Specks of men in the gloomy dust of the coal. A dismal life and sad bustle and pain from the highest speck to the lowest level of the gigantic ditch. This mine is not the only one... others exist on other slopes, above the sea or in the forest, dispersed on a domain of more than 20.000 hectares. And the quarries, the forests, the railroads, the roads, the villages, the houses, all of this is the fief of the mines of Hongray, one of just a few, I believe, where coal is extracted in an open pit, the richest of the entire world I have been told. The mines have had up to 40,000 workers, and still have 23,000. This company has experienced and still experiences an incredible prosperity. Its dividents, during the war, and in the years which followed, accrued in proportions and in a rapidity which were extraordinary, as a colleague in Hanoi confided to me... 2 million 1/2 of stocks in 1913, 36,200,000 in 1925, an epoch during which they reached their maximum, more than twice the initial capital... as for the added value of the stocks, it is msome 100 times the capital invested. I remember having long ago read in the Route Mandarine of Roland Dorgelès a striking indictment of the mines of Hongay. Since then, the conditions hardly seem to have changed. I have been informed by a company engineer that the worker's salaries... for the men, range from 3.50 francs to 4.50 francs by day, for the women, 2.20 fracs to 2.80 francs, and for the children - because there are always children and in large numbers! - from 1.50 francs to 1.80 francs. The same colleague assured me that these prices are a maximum... or rather that, if the company pays them, the workers do not always receive them, because they are the slaves of supervisors or guards (cais in the local terminology) who recruited them and to whom they belong both soul and body. These people, brutes for the most part, serve as intermediaries between the European engineers and the workers that they extort and tyrannize. The situation is so pitiful that some workers only receive 1.25 to 2 francs daily, and one can see 10 year old children pushing wagons for twelve hours for .75 francs. Because if, in principle the work day is 10 hours, in reality, the formen attempt daily to deliver a certain quantity of coal, with the miners working however long it takes to finish their demands, often 12-14 hours by day. In addition no social legislation has been passed which would lighten this crushing burden. There is no weekly day of rest, sick days are not paid, and accident compensation only is provided if the case of accident did not arrive as a result of the imprudence or the indiscipline of the worker and are poorly paid in any ccase. Workers have the right to a daily ration of 1 kilo of rice of which the price is each month deducted from their pay, a salary which is paid the 21st each month for the past month, such as for example the 21st of november for october's work. This is done so that these unhappy workers are not capable of fleeing. There are no independent houses... in the mining places, the company rents to recruiting personnel, the cais, huts that they then sub-rent at a profit and where the coolies are crammed into disdainful human and hygiene conditions. I have been told taht there exists aa labor inspection in Indochina. If it does, it seems to me truly impotent. What can it be otherwise since it cannot enforce the law? I am dismayed. It is almost as distressing as the famine in the Vinh province. The director, who I regard with dread, had brought us to visit a new and well organized hospital. Until its construction wounds and illnesses remained without treatment and the poor coolies died in their huts, in the same atmosphere of misery that their companions shared, spreading the same misery and disease. I search to know what is, in these mines, the mortality rate. Nobody could inform me it. I suppose that nobody worries about this detail. By contrast, one of the engineers, wanting without doubt to take the defense of his Company, declared to me that excepting the big cities, worker salaries hardly ever surpass 2 francs to 2.50 francs by day. In the textile factories, where the work day starts at 7 in the morning and ends at 9 in the evening, the wage is 1.75 to 2 francs for men, and 1.25 to 1.50 francs for women, and .75 francs for children aged 8-10 years. I learned as well that in the plantations, and particularly in the rubber plantations which are generally found in extremely unsanity regions, 15 to 16 hours of work is worth 1.20 francs to 2.20 francs by day! This wos otherwise told to us by the famous director, in a speech which ended the sumptuous lunch. He only broached with prudence the traditional subject for lamentation, the crisis, but in contrast he complained bitterly about certain journalists and notably of Roland Dorgelès and Luc Durtain who had, he said, slandered the mines by calling them slave colonies. For the first time since I arrived in Indochina, I found again pride in my trade. It was to these journalists that are due the few reforms that have been extracted in this direction from the slavers of industry - the hospital in particular. Other members of the administration rose to allege that the work conditions for the coolies were very sufficient in a region where tha peasant does not earn more than 1.50 francs per day. A pretty excuse! As if the famine from which part of the population suffered justified the enslavement of the other! I note with pleasure that, despite the good fare and the champagne, a certain coldness welcomed these explanations and remained at the end of the meal. The short speech of the minister marked this reserve.

It is easy to see why, amid such terrible conditions, revolution broke out in French Indochina as soon as French authority lapsed. The attempts that came to improve the situation in the coal mines would always be too little too late, and throughout Indochina, countless faceless coolies faced their sad lot on plantations, mines, and factories, toiling away for pennies in dangerous and hard conditions. The mines extracted coal in pits, but they were pits of despair as well.


This is a translation of the article "Les Mines du Tonkin", found at BelleIndochine, and translated by myself with the appropriate permission of the site's manager, Francois Denis Fievez.

© 2017 Ryan Thomas


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