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The French Tonkin Coal Mines - Economics and Development

Updated on April 13, 2018

From as early as 1865, the Chinese had exploited the bituminous coal deposits of the Bay of Halong. Almost all of the officers of the numerous warships which had sheltered in the Halong Bay had signalled the existence of coal at Hongay and the exceptional importance of this region for the resupply of ships and for the security of their anchorage.

Two French mine engineering missions in 1881 and 1885 studied the coal basin and compiled the first documents concerning the mineral riches of Tonkin. After long negotiations with the Annamite government and the representative of the French government at Hanoi, the Société Française des Charbonnages du Tonkin (SFCT) was created and acquired the Hongay concession on April 27th, 1888. Thus commenced the story of the Hongay coal mines.

A bloc of anthracite from Tonkin presented at the Nogent colonial exposition in 1907
A bloc of anthracite from Tonkin presented at the Nogent colonial exposition in 1907

85,000 people worked in the carbon mines by 1939, equivalent to 31% of industrial employments and plantations (according to J-P Aumiphin). If the Tonkin coal mines constituted the most profitable economic activity in 1924, the activities linked to rubber plantations, finance (the Banque de l'Indochine), and textiles (la Cottonière de Tonkin - Tonkin cotton mill) had surpassed it in profitability by 1939. From a social point of view however, the "Hongay hell" of the start of the century had improved over the years, thanks to the implementation of social laws and the direct recruitment of workers by the companies without the utilization of local intermediaries.

Below are some texts about this subject. Another source utilized was La Présence financière et économique française en Indochine (1859-1939), by Jean Pierre Aumphin.

In addition, thanks to Alain Léger for his contribution to the original article at BelleIndochine.

In 1894 the discovery of significant coal strata on the surface at Hatou was the occasion of the first carbon exploitation at this site. This expansion would expand quickly thanks to the easy technical nature for working these mines, and in addition the small amount of specialized manpower which was required for it. In 1890 production was only 2,000 tons, but it grew to 501,000 tons in 1913, 1.7 million tons in 1929, 2.3 million tons in 1937, and 2.6 million tons by 1939.

The largest mining activity in Indochina, coal was after rice the principal export production. The exploitation of coal deposits was the most important manifestation of the French presence in Indochinese economic activities.Two corporations produced the quasi-totality of carbon : Les Charbonnages du Tonkin and les Charbonnages de Dong Trieu. These societiies each had significant infrastructure for transporting their coal port installations, a railroad, and electrical center, but the coal production process itself was rudimentary (extraction was carried out almost entirely by hand).

Excepting the period 1929-1932 marked by the partial closure of Far Eastern markets, the production of coal continuously grew rapidly. A very large quantity was destined for exportation. In 1939, 68% was exported, principally towards Japan and China. France itself bought 10-20%, an amount varying by time period. Among the five countries of the Indochinese Union, only Tonkin produced a large amount of coal. It was even the only coal producer if one leaves aside the small fields of Nong Son close to Tourange which had produced 1,100 tons in 1927.


Chapter 10 L'Indochine.. de la conquête à la colonisation (1885-1914) seconde partie]par Daniel H´EMERY (in Jean Ganiage, L'Expansion colonial de la France sous

The development of the Asian coal market caused the birth of the carbon industry, the most important of all of the mining industries. In 1900, more than 3 million tons of Carbon were sold between Shanghai and Singapore. The high price of shipping from Australia and from Europe, and the soft sulfurous nature of Japanese coal, both benefitted Tonkinese deposits. The low quality coals produced there were particularly well suited to steamer and locomotive boilers. Indochinese production attained 430,000 tons in 1912, of which the vast majority came from the mines of Hongay, managed by one of the most succesful French businesses in the Far East, the Société Française des Charbonnages du Tonkin, founded in 1896.

Philippe Devillers, Français et Anamites, Denoël, 1998, pg 558

It was at this time period as well that there commenced the exploitation of the Tonkin coal mines. The concession given in April 18888 to the Société française des Charbonnages du Tonkin entered into production, in January 1893, with a production of around 2000,000 tons by year. The society recruits its miners principally among the former pirates of the Dong Trieu, but quickly was in financial distress. The company created in 18999 by Jean Dupuis for the exploitation of the deposits of the Isle of Kebao, further north, inaugurated at the same time its first shaft, but this was quickly exhausted, and the company faced bankruptcy. However, this quality coal was destined to become the base of industrial developments in Tonkin. February 1st, 1893, public electrical lighting commenced at Haiphong, followed by the same on the 6th of January, 1895, at Hanoi. Before 1891, it did not exist in Annam and and in Tonkin practically no industrial enterprise outside of the two mining aforementioned mining companies utilized it.

Mine Shareholders

The principal shareholder of Charbonnages du Tonkin was the Crédit industrial et commercial (CIC), which later passed into the fold of Suez (1971), assurances GAN (1985), and finally (1997) of Crédit mutuel.

Charles Robequain, the Economic Evolution of French Indochina, Paris, 1939

Coal mining was one of the new economic activities in Indochina. The basin of Quang Yen had permitted one of the most formidable realizations of French capitalism in Indochina. There exist there numerous small coal mines, each producing several thousands or several dozen thousands of tons, with often intermittent exploitation. The largest fraction of the anthracite is extracted by two large companies, the Société des Charbonnages du Dong Trieu, the outfitting of which has not been truly effectuated since the war, and which produced i, in 1937, 484,000 tons of anthracite, and the Société des Charbonnages du Tonkin. This one, the oldest, had had difficult early yes, due above all else to the difficulties of sales. It did not start to distribute dividends in 1900... since then, its success ihas been established, to the point of permitting it to recently absorb (in 1933) other enterprises, such as the Anthracites du Tonkin and that of Ké Bao, a mining island, disrupted by the financial crisis of 1901, and which had only been reorganized in 1924.

Hongay Port
Hongay Port

The production of the Tonkin coal mines reached 1,638,000 tons in 1937, thus 71% of the total production of Indochina. For the entirety of these two principal companies, Charbonnages of Tonkin and Dong Trieu, this percentage iwas 92%. These enterprises have started to practice mechanical mining, utilizing hammer drills and hewers, and even cutting machines, including compressed air striking machines, and electric chain cutting machines. However, the tonnage mined mechanically is still veryy small... in the entirety of Indochinese coal production, it only represented 6% in 1937. The reinforcement of galeries is done with wood coming from Tonkin, Annam, and Japan, but the two big companies employ an increasing amount of metallic frames. The dangers of gas explosions are rare. It is however, necessary to take precautions concerning water flooding, especially after heavy rainful which occurs between May to September. Most underground mines are lighted by acetylene lamps. The number of accidents is relatively small and can compare itself advantageously to the situation in the mines of many other countries. This is a rather remarkable result if one considers the instability of the workforce, as well as the carelessness and the lack of professional consciousness which it often demonstrates. The external installations of the Quang Yen basin are often endowed with excellent infrastructure. Railroad tracks of either 600mm or 1 meter carry the coal to the embarkation ports. These, for the Dong Trieu coal mines, are situated on the Da Bach, a river which runs along the southern slop of the Mao Khê mountain chain. The principal port is Port Redon, where a 20 kilometer long line terminates, driving into the interior to the mines of the central mountain chain. Ships with a draught of up to 8 meters can dock at Port Redon, where they are filled by intermediary barges. As for the coal of the Eastern zone, except for those of Ké Bao which are delivered to Port Wallut, they are exported by two ports situated on the same golf, the venerable port of Hon Gay, and the recently created port of Campha, which is accessible to boats of up to 9 meters of draught. These ports are equipped with quays and cranes. The quay at Campha is even equipped with four gantries moved electrically and which can supply in total, for two ships at the same time, 500 tons an hour. The sieving workshops and cleaning installations have been constantly expanded and improved. Factories for coal concentration - briquettes and balls - permit the mixing of the local product with the soft and crushed coal imported from Japan. The principal factory of this sort is at Hon Gay. A central coal plant of 4,000 kilowatts is connected by a high voltage line to Hon Gay, Hat, and Campha, from where the electricity is distributed by secondary networks of the Tonkin coal mines. The coal mines of Dong Trieu have as well their electrical plant at Uong B, at the north of Port Redon. At this location, the mines of Quang Yen have remained as a whole superficial. The attraction and the size of the deposits in depth are not exactly known, but "it is without doubt that present annual production could be augmented considerably without the reserves ceasing to be considered as practically inexhaustible." The large companies are already equipped for an extraction which is significantly larger than the current possibilities for sale : it is the expansion of prospecting which commands the future development of the mines.

Indigenous village close to the mines
Indigenous village close to the mines

2)The secondary deposits

The two other carbon mines which are currently productive, those of Phan mê and Tuyen Quang, are situatedi n the middle region of Tonkin, at the north of the Red River. They had only produced 43,400 tons in 1937, thus hardly 2% of the quantity of coal extracted in Indochina. They are deposits of small significance, and the conditions of mining and transport are much less favorable there than in the Quang Yen basin. Their principal interest is in furnishing the sorts of combustibles that one does not find in the other region. The basin of Phan Mé is located 15 kilometers to the north-west of Yhai Nguyen, in the western extension of the Quang Yen basin, at the site which displays a post-triassic arch. This site had been exploited since 1910, with interruptions, a body of soft layers from the Rhaetian epoch. These deposits are in a vertical dip with a generally lenticular appearance. The extraction is done by shafts, which extend to around 100 meters of depth. The coal is transported by a 600mm railroad, then by a water way (song Cau and the canal of song Cau to song Thuong), towards the delta. Among the numerous small deposits of lignite, sediments of lake origin deposited during the Miocene, in the synclines in Northern Indochina, parallel to the direction of the Red River, only that of Tuyen Quang, is exploited. Work here started in 1915 and a depth of 70 meters has been reached. The lignite is loaded on junks which descend the Claire river. The coal, soft or semi-soft, is found on the southern border of the Tonkinese delta, all along a band which stretches around 125 kilometers, from Nih Binh to Yan Yen. Exploitation had been attempted at north at Phu, in particular ion the region of Dam Dun, where a shaft had been dug to 135 meters deep in a body of thin and very creased coal strata, and discontinued... it had been in 1931 that this occurred. Outside of Tonkin, there exists ananalogous anthracite deposit to that of Quang Yen, 40 kilometers to the south-west of Tourane, that of Nong Son. This had been exploited as well at the time of French occupation. It had produced 280,000 tons of coal between 1900 and 1920, but the extraction had ceased at the moment where the exhaustion of the surface coal stratum necessitated the construction of shafts.

Open pit coal mine
Open pit coal mine

In this year of 1937, the Indochinese mines eploy 271 Europeans (as directors, engineers, and other technical agents), and 49,200 Asian workers (as compared to 370 Europeans and 45,700 Asians in 1930), of which around 25,000 are employed by the Société des Charbonnages du Tonkin alone. This reveals a tendency towards a stabilization of the work force, as a result of efforts accomplished by several enterprises, and above all else the most important among them, the Société des Charbonnages du Tonkin. "In 1931-1932, the numbers were very irregular, with a maximum after the festivals of the Annamite New Year, then a very marked minimum at the harvest during the fifth month, a new maximum at the seventh month. For 100 workers at the first Annamite months, the mines of the Hon Gay basin only counted 33 at the fifth month, and 66 at the second maximum during the seven month." Since then, the variations have become less pronounced, and the exit of mining workers has been yet improved. There was not long ago talk, possibly with some exageration, of the "Hon Gay hell". From 1931 onwards, the manner in which the mines are run had been improved in accordance with the program established by the Institut Pasteur. The insect breeding grounds have been incinerated, and furthermore preventative quinine has been distributed to night teams. The examination of mortality and morbidity rates shows the efficiency of the undertaken measures. Villages with individual houses have been constructed during the last few years in proxoimity to the principal exploitation sites, each one possessing an infermery. Hospitals and schools function in the different center, constructed and maintained by the managers themselves, or with their financial participation. Sporting fields (football, tennis, and athletics), have been improved. The Société des Charbonnages du Tonkin has tried, succesfully, to recruit itself and to directly pay its workers, in place of utilizing the traditional intermediary of Annamite taskmasters, the "cai".

Open pit coal mine
Open pit coal mine

Coal (Notes and documentary studies, June 13th, 1950)

The deficit of specialized manpower, military operations, floodings caused by typhoons, and the delay inflicted upon the delivery of material equipment has strongly affected the production of coal during the year 1949. Production has not managed to keep up with the progress foreseen in 1948 on the basis of the strong growth then experienced. Nevertheless, total production of coal in 1949 has been evidently superior to that of the preceding year, at 378,400 tons compared to 355,020 tons in 1948, 250,000 tons in 1947, and 2,335,000 tons in 1938. This total production is divided as follows : 338,950 tons in 1948 out of 355,020, and 355.020 of 378.040 for 1949 by the Société Française of Charbonnages de Dong Trieu, 3,100 by the Société Française des Charbonnages d'Along et de Dong-Dang, 16,070 and 20,070 by the Société Française des Charbonnages du Tonkin for the year 1948 and 1949 respectively. Société française des charbonnages do Tunkin 338,950 and 354,670 in tons 1948/1949. The work of modernization of the mines of Hongay and the reconstruction of Dong-Trieu permits hope for a substantial increase in the production of coal in 1950. The production in the month of December by the Sociéte Française des Charbonnages du Tonkin, with 47.400 tons constituting the record of monthly production after the war (34,900 tons in March 1949), and one can predict for this company a total production in 1950of more than 600,000. As for the mines of Dong Trieu, and of Along eand Dong-Dang, they should be able to produce 80,000 and 30,000 tons respectively, thus bringing the total monthly production of coal in Indochina to the predicted figure of 710,00 for the year 1950.

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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