In the century that passed between, roughly, 1770 and 1880, West Borneo witnessed the rise and demise of the Chinese mining settlements with their idiosyncratic organizational framework, the “kongsi” ¹ 公司 or “common management” structure. During the same period, the political, social, and economic setting of the region underwent dramatic changes. This caused important transformations within the social and economic structures that Chinese immigrants had brought along with them. Most remarkable was the advent of new political institutions, among which the zongting 总厅 or “assembly hall” stood out as the most innovative and important. It functioned as the general assembly and executive council of an alliance of kongsi communities and settlements. The different zongting, of which the one at Montrado 打唠鹿¹ became most important one, were in fact governments of autonomous republics. They became internationally famous because of the stubborn way in which they opposed the imposition of Dutch colonial rule.

The Chinese miners in West Borneo 婆罗洲 arrived, it is generally assumed, around 1750.  They had been called upon because of their fine reputation as miners and their superior mining-technology. With their technological skills, they also brought their own system of values. Their social organization had a strong religious undertone, hence the introduction of cults from the motherland and the building of temples as community centres. The original associations and partnerships which were set up by the Chinese immigrants, who had faced hardships in their motherland and hoped for a better future in the Borneo goldfields, soon developed into a larger and more powerful kind of organization: the Borneo kongsi.

The Chinese did not arrive in a no-man’s land, but in a place which, in spite of the presence of vast areas of tropical rain forest, had witnessed over many centuries a succession of highly structured political organizations. Some of these, like the Malay sultanates, were linked to international commercial and religious networks. The Dayaks, the original inhabitants of the island, were organized in tribes, each moving within its own territory according to the requirements of their slash and burn type of agriculture. The Malay, who had arrived in Borneo rather recently, were also newly converted to Islam. Although it was they who invited the Chinese to exploit the gold fields, they did not mingle with them. Marriage between these two groups was prohibited.

All this made for a very complex social and economic context where the Chinese only could establish their niche at the price of much conflict and hardship. The working conditions in the great mining operations were hard indeed, not to mention extortion by the Malay overlords and, at least initially, harassment by the Dayak tribes. Having succeeded however in establishing themselves in the mining regions where they cleared the forest, constructed irrigation works and brought the land under cultivation, the Chinese immigrants considered these places as their new home-land. Faced with the need to adapt to circumstances which they had never before experienced, they created new social and economic frameworks. The zongting had their own courts of law, their own financial systems, minted their own money, levied their own taxes, and maintained a number of treaties with the neighbouring Malay sultanates and Dayak tribes. The Chinese settlements developed in symbiosis with the former, and in competition with the latter, during the Napoleonic wars when the Dutch were entirely absent from the West Borneo scene. The system of government exercised by the Chinese – and this has been remarked on systematically by all observers and historians – was remarkably democratic. Hence scholars, such as J.J.M. de Groot, speak of  “republics” when addressing the character of the Borneo kongsis and their zongting government.

After the Napoleonic wars, and the resumption of the colonization of the East Indies by the Dutch, West Borneo became a source of concern to the colonial regime because of its proximity to Singapore and therefore English influence, and even more dangerously to Sarawak and its ruler, James Brooke, the “white raja”. The Dutch therefore tried to regain a foothold in West Borneo and to re-establish their authority so as to safeguard the territory for their own colonial exploitation. This policy was officially launched in 1818. The Dutch endeavours were immediately impeded by the kongsis, now organized into powerful confederations, which acknowledged the Dutch right to be in Borneo to a certain extent, but did not want to relinquish their hard won autonomy. The conflict simmered down, and did not develop into a full-scale confrontation until 1850. The  “kongsi war” that followed after this date brought the existence of these remarkable institutions into the limelight of history. Much was written about the conflict which, shorn of its evenemental character, allows us to understand what these kongsis were, how they were organized, and what kind of society they represented.

The stubborn resistance offered by the Chinese confronted the Dutch with hitherto unknown problems and moral issues. What right did they have to destroy the autonomous kongsis? And what would be the outcome of this action? The nature of the kongsis and the kind of society they established also was, and continues to be today, the subject of ardent debate, ranging from utter rejection to very positive appraisal. The many meanings given to the term kongsi (literally: “common management”) are illustrative of this confusion.


The Definition of the Term “Kongsi”

In spite of the amount of source materials available and the studies which have hitherto been devoted to the subject, I feel that the exact nature of the kongsi remains ill-defined, even the subject of misunderstanding. This is an apt moment to remind the reader that this term today, in Mandarin Chinese, just means a (commercial) company, whereas in colloquial Dutch it has received the rather disparaging connotation of a murky group or gang banded together for the sole purpose of promoting its own interest.

      When we turn to the sources and studies related to the Borneo kongsis, we find a fairly bewildering number of very different receptions and meanings, defining “kongsi” as:

1. A common management group.

2. A social organization akin to a common descent group, like those found in Southern China’s “one-surname” villages and the clan temples.

3. A republic.

4. A generic name of Chinese ethnic secret societies of the Tiandihui 天地会 (“Triad”) type which in fact did sometimes call themselves “kongsi”.

5. The title of an official or leader of the Chinese pioneer settlements.

6. The house where the latter has his residence.

7. An amount of money that represents the capital of the common management group.

 8. A god, patron saint, or tutelary spirit of the Chinese pioneers, such as a “Dabogong” 大伯公.

The first of these definitions, that of a common management group, is found in S.H. Schaank’s studies. [1]He notes important historical evidence which shows that pioneer groups on their arrival in Borneo were initially organized as hui, that is: “associations” (in Dutch: “verenigingen”). According to Schaank, as they grew larger and relatively wealthy, these hui had to develop their military and political functions for the “common weal”, hence the importance of the “common management”. Through this series of steps the “kongsi” became the most important function of the “hui”, and therefore superseded, in a metonymical way,  the previous term as the general designation of the Chinese mining organizations. The fact that in the Borneo frontier society, others, such as the Malay sultans or the Dutch administrators, had to deal with the Chinese population principally from the economic and political points of view, it was logical that they considered this agency of the settlement group to be the most essential one, and took it to represent the entire organization.

As can be seen from recent fieldwork on local, non-official, organizations as they still exist on Taiwan, “kongsi” indeed appears to be the generic term by which the common management of financial assets is designated, inside of larger cult group defined as “hui”. As Fiorella Allio describes the situation in cult associations of Saikang (Xigang 西港) in Taiwan, these assets in terms of land, buildings, capital, goods such as furniture, works of art, instruments, and the like are the common property of the hui, and their management in whatever form this may take is defined as “kongsi”.[2] The kongsi here is the common capital of the cult association. During public meetings the members of the hui, decide on the use, as well as on the need to augment the capital through levying contributions. These meetings are also called “kongsi”. Fiorella Allio relates the way these kongsi function. She observes that essentially they have two kinds of income: obligatory contributions and voluntary ones. The more important are the former, which can be compared to a kind of taxation. For each particular occasion, such as the participation of a village temple organization in a larger festival, something which obliges the fitting out of a troupe (zhentou 阵头) which will take part in the great festival procession or the repair of the temple, a budget is made and the cost per family is calculated. Each family in the community then has to give its share, which is collected by the headmen (toujia 头家), as this is their principal function. This is called: “taking in the men’s money” or “taking in the household’s money”. The way in which this is calculated may mean that very rich families with extensive land and many sons are often made to pay more, in relation to these assets, than less fortunate ones. The way each segment of the society is defined also varies greatly. Headmen may be responsible for a quarter, a hamlet, or a neighbourhood of a “share”. Indeed, many parts of the land in southern Taiwan were originally developed by pioneers who came from Fujian to work on collective enterprises and their territory was segmented into “shares” (gu or fen ). The elders of the cult community are in charge of the kongsi administration. Very careful accounts are drawn up and also made public. The second way of collecting money is through voluntary contributions. Although these are not mandatory, well-off people are expected, for considerations of  “face”, to give generously. Fiorella Allio stresses the point though, that even the donation of important gifts does not necessarily mean that whoever has given that money may enjoy any kind of privilege. But generosity certainly reaps prestige. Again in this case, detailed accounts are drawn up and published. In the case of material gifts (tables, embroidered cloths, musical instruments, to name a few) the name of the donor is always written on the gift.  I  found the same situation in present day Borneo, in the Dabogong Temple at Selakau. According to a hand-written wallposter in the temple, the association which owns and governs it, besides the temple land and buildings, possessed a number of tables, plates and other items which are all administered by an elected “lishi hui” . Thus we may define the term as “the shared financial management of a hui”. Should we extend the definition, we may also include the common decision-making process in matters of political and military import, as these were part and parcel to the management of the common assets in the Borneo case.

In many respects the above definition matches that given by Tian Rukang in his article on the Chinese kongsi organization in West Kalimantan from the end of the eighteenth century until the end of the nineteenth century. [3] He says that kongsi is a general name given to the traditional common economic organization as is found in the rural villages of Guangdong and Fujian. Fishermen as well as seamen call their shared capital which they have constituted together “kongsi”. Members of a common lineage group of a village who take turns in administering the common holdings of their group also call this institution a “kongsi”. Western scholars have advanced all kinds of explanations concerning this kind of organization of the Overseas Chinese of West Kalimantan. Some have called it: (1) “Independent Government”; others have designated it a (2) “Federal Republic”. Yet others have said it is (3) a transformation of the lineage organization of Guangdong and Fujian; and some have even called it (4) a “secret society”.

The Borneo Kongsi as Seen by De Groot and His Followers

Het Kongsiwezen van Borneo by J.J.M. de Groot (1854‑1921) [4] is the first work which inquires into the nature of overseas Chinese communities. It is also the first anthropological study of one of  the Borneo kongsis. Considering the importance of De Groot’s pioneering work as well as the fact that it has been in many respects the point of departure for our own research,  its argument should be presented it here in some detail.

De Groot studied Chinese under the supervision of  G. Schlegel at Leiden. In its early years, the basic purpose of Dutch Sinology consisted of the training of qualified translators for the colonial administration in the Netherlands Indies.[5] In De Groot’s case, his personal interests went far beyond this. He also pursued religious studies and his fascination with anthropology, at the time a comparatively new discipline, was already burgeoning. Four years after entering university, he went to China for one year. During this stay he learned Hokkien.

In 1878 De Groot was sent to the town of Ceribon in Java to act as a Chinese interpreter. Two years later he was transferred to Pontianak 坤甸 in West Borneo. Here he accompanied the Resident on many official visits to the Lanfang kongsi 兰芳公司, the last still existing zongting in West Borneo. He established good relations with Liu Asheng 刘阿生, the kongsi’s Jiatai 甲太. In order to communicate with him, he studied the Hakka dialect. Through Liu he managed to collect some historical materials on the history of the Lanfang kongsi and other former Chinese kongsis of West Borneo. Later, illness forced him to apply for sick-leave and to return to the Netherlands.

In 1884 De Groot submitted a detailed proposal to the Minister of Colonial Affairs, in which he applied for funds to enable him to go to southern China to pursue his studies. His proposal coincided with an important event in the Netherlands East Indies. The Dutch colonial authorities had begun to assume that the Lanfang kongsi was a secret society, and after the death of Liu Asheng took steps to disband this organization. This event was paid lavish attention by both the Dutch papers and in Dutch politics. De Groot, who had been in close contact with this kongsi for three years, utterly condemned the policy of the colonial authorities. He believed this ill-fated measure was founded on a misunderstanding about the character and meaning of Chinese social customs. The occasion prompted him to write his monograph. In this he strongly emphasized the necessity to take up sociological and anthropological research on Chinese society in order to acquire a more thorough understanding of it.

In the first chapter of the book, De Groot gives a critical translation of  the Lanfang kongsi lidai niance 兰芳公司历代年册, “Chronicle of the Lanfang Kongsi through the Ages ”. This is a modest document of some four thousand characters which gives the short biographies of the leaders of the Lanfang corporation from its founder, Luo Fangbo 罗芳伯, to Liu Asheng, the last headman, who lived from 1812 to 1884.[6] The document certainly draws on sources kept at the headquarters of the Lanfang kongsi from its foundation until within a short period before its abolition in the late nineteenth century.[7]

The “Chronicle” was translated in extenso by De Groot under the title “Jaarboeken der voorbijgegane geslachten van de Kongsi Lanfong”.[8] At times De Groot also supplied some additional information gleaned from the kongsi’s archives. He  reproduced the original text, not in facsimile but set in type. No specifications as to the size and other particulars of the original manuscript were given. It is not known whether the original still exists.[9]

In the second chapter De Groot traces the historical backgrounds to the two most important groups of emigrants, the Hakka (kejia 客家) and the Hoklo (fulao 福佬). He makes an analysis of the reasons why they undertook to travel across the seas and engaged in the arduous work in a dangerous mining area. But his most important theme is his attack on the general lack of knowledge about Chinese social organizations, noting that as far as the Dutch colonials of the nineteenth century were concerned a “kongsi” was synonymous with a “secret organization”. He accused both colonial officials and colonial scholars of purposely spreading misconceptions, distorted views, and slanders about the Chinese, because they had denounced the kongsi people as the dregs of Chinese society, and because they accused the kongsi of aiming to overthrow supreme rule of the colonial authority. Braving these general misconceptions and insinuations De Groot strove to provide a clear picture of the origins and true nature of the Chinese kongsi, in order to persuade the Dutch to revise their policies. He approached the question methodically, from the sociologist’s point of view. The essential questions which he set out to answer were the following:

1. How was it possible that the emigrants, who came from the bottom rung of Chinese society, had established the kongsis – strong, independent, and orderly “republics” without any support from the government of their fatherland?

2. What were the characteristics of the kongsi, and what was the nature of the village organization in China, which was – as he considered – the prototype on which the organization of the kongsi was founded?

3. What were the origins and the nature of the colonial secret organizations, and what were the relations between the kongsi and these secret organizations?

In this context, he discusses the formation of village society in South China. He argues that the Chinese village society was basically a large-scale family. Nearly all the inhabitants of any Chinese village shared the same surname and belonged to the same clan. The local social organization itself possessed the feature of a “miniature republic”. The institution of the republic village society, De Groot believed, constituted a factor which helped the authorities to maintain order and unity within the realm of their administration. It did, however, inevitably give rise to some negative effects. The worst of these was the escalation of quarrels between individuals of different clans to conflicts between entire villages. Since each person within the village was considered to be a member of the same large clan, matters of individual interest were automatically raised to the level of public interest, and individual or family resentments were turned into resentments of the whole clan. A result of this was that the discord among individual villagers quite often developed into disputes between whole villages. In those areas of Guangdong province where non‑native clans of Hakka and Hoklo co-habited for a longer period with a local clans, mutual friction not infrequently led to the outbreak of armed fights between two different clans. The local authorities were usually at loss about how to handle the situation.

After describing the social organization of the Southern Chinese village, De Groot turns to the social organization of the “kongsis of Borneo”. He points out that the kongsi essentially amounted to a re‑establishment of Chinese village society  and clan organization in an overseas setting. The traditional Chinese village community was inclined to adhere to its independence and internal democratic structure. These were traditional qualities that had been accepted by the rulers of the successive dynasties of the Chinese empire. The ability of the Chinese emigrants, who originated from the lower rungs of society, to establish well ordered, egalitarian, and independent communities in a foreign land was nothing but a continuation of their own tradition of social organization. The strong resistance shown by the overseas Chinese to the colonial government should therefore be explained as the longing for autonomy of the village society, and not as an attempt to oppose the colonial authorities.

Colonial authorities, who explained this independence and strong internal organization as the inevitable result of rebellious policies, found such an autonomy intolerable. In their eyes the kongsi was akin to a secret organization, comprised of “unwashed” emigrants. As events turned out, it was the attempt by the colonial authorities to eliminate the autonomous Chinese institutions that eventually provoked the Chinese population to rise against their authority. Their goal was simply to survive under foreign domination. In no way did they aim to overthrow the colonial government – although events were interpreted in this light.

In refuting the prejudices against the Chinese that were prevalent in his time De Groot also had to deal with the widespread opinion that the Chinese organizations were in fact “secret societies”. The last  part of his essay deals extensively with this issue. De Groot rightly points out  that there was nothing occult or secret about the Chinese kongsis and that the reason why these organizations were more visible in Borneo than in China was due only to the fact that it was the deliberate policy of  the imperial administration to counter the free associations of the people, forcing them to remain in the background. But by no stretch of the imagination they could be called “secret”. This argument is certainly very sound, but a few issues, which we shall address later in greater detail, complicate the matter. The first is that Chinese secret societies, most prominent among them the Tiandihui (Heaven-Earth league), were indeed active in West Borneo and that the mining communities had to deal with them from the beginning. Their existence is regularly mentioned in the conversations with the Dutch authorities, and they play an important role in the final resistance to Dutch rule. The next issue is that the term “gongsi” (kongsi) appears to have been used in the context of the Tiandihui to designate local groups and organizations belonging to the movement. G. Schlegel gives the example of a subdivision of the Tiandihui in Shandong province which goes by the name of  Yixing kongsi 义兴公司.[10] Finally, as we shall see, the Borneo kongsi institutions seem to have been developed through confrontation with the Tiandihui, and may therefore have been influenced by it.

Whatever the case may be, there is much truth in De Groot’s analysis of the institution of the Borneo kongsi, and as a pioneering study of some of  the fundamentals of Chinese society it is truly remarkable. Unfortunately it is also flawed by the fact that De Groot’s aim in writing this essay was not purely scientific; he wanted to produce a polemic. His treatment of the subject and its conclusions are aimed directly at the Dutch colonial authorities, criticizing their narrow-mindedness and lack of understanding. Only when we take into account this particular slant of his reasoning can we explain why De Groot simplified the true nature of the kongsis so drastically and why he did not seek to delve deeply into uncovering their antecedents. This is especially true for the supposed relationship between the kongsi institution and the lineage organization.

Undeniably, Hakka settlements tended to unite people from certain regions or clans. But this principle was far from universally adhered to, and as in any kongsi at any time there might be not only a great variety of surnames, but people of many different ethnic backgrounds as well. Among the predominantly Hakka miners were also a great number of Hoklo, Punti (bendi 本地), and even Hokkien (Fujian 福建) as well. Such diversity was not just confined to the labourers, but was also present among the leaders. This contradicts the idea that traditional village society and lineage organization (South China villages were typically “one-surname villages”) was exported lock, stock, and barrel to West Borneo. Indeed, there is no evidence that there ever was anything like lineage temples (citang 祠堂 in Borneo! Evidence from surviving  genealogies (zupu 族谱) shows that those families which established themselves properly in West Borneo continued to depend on their lineage organization back home and never initiated local branches. Only in recent times have surname associations emerged in West Borneo. These are not true lineage associations, but they unite people from all parts of China, the only common denominator being the fact that they share one or several common surnames. These common surname alliances operate as charitable associations and mutual help groups, something which allows them to exist within the boundaries of Indonesian law and contribute conspicuously to community welfare. They are all affiliated to the “Confucian Association” (孔教会) of West Borneo, a far cry indeed of the former kongsi organization.

In traditional Chinese society, between lineage groups and the State, there was yet another intermediary but extremely important level of local organization. This was the cult and temple community called hui. The hui ensured the absolutely essential co-operation and co-ordination between the lineage groups at the local and regional level in terms of irrigation, defence, and local politics. It was this institution that fulfilled the necessary framework for social solidarity and economic development in the multi-lineage and multi-ethnic society of West Borneo, as it did everywhere else among the overseas Chinese communities in South-East Asia.  The fact that De Groot missed this point is all the more astonishing as, during his years of residence in West Borneo, he had just finished his pioneering Jaarlijkse feesten en gebruiken  van de Emoy-Chineezen, for which he had studied these community institutions more profoundly and extensively than any scholar before him.[11] While living at Pontianak, De Groot must have seen the many Chinese temples and realized the paramount importance they had for the social life of the Chinese communities.  We may therefore suspect that his total omission of this aspect was caused not by ignorance, but done for reasons of political expediency.

De Groot’s work was intended for the Dutch colonial authorities. Although it was highly critical of the colonial policy that had suppressed the kongsis at the cost of a long and bloody war, it was widely read and acclaimed. Later authors such as Schaank and Kielstra fully endorsed De Groot’s view that the forced suppression of the kongsis was a mistake if not indeed a crime, and that the authorities who were responsible for it were greatly to blame for having destroyed a well regulated and democratic community the development of which had held great promise for Borneo. The reason that is given for this mistake is attributed to the lack of understanding of  the Chinese kongsi communities, the dearth of knowledge about Chinese culture in general and also the chauvinistic attitude and the sometimes barbarian methods resorted to by the Dutch. I have not come across any serious work that refutes the view of De Groot, Schaank or Kielstra. Not being a specialist on Dutch colonialism, I find it difficult to say whether the present case was an isolated one or whether it was characteristic of Dutch colonial rule in general. It may be that the violent destruction of the Montrado kongsis can be explained by political motives and strategies of a higher order, but I have not heard of them. I therefore consider that De Groot and the other scholars were justified in their condemnation of the Dutch authorities, and many of the events that will be studied here also bear this premise out. In order to prevent any misunderstanding, I would like to stress, perhaps unnecessarily, that my critical attitude towards the policies of the Dutch colonial administration is by no means inspired by Chinese patriotic feelings, but has only grown out of what the above-mentioned scholars had already pointed out and is fully supported by the historical evidence.

De Groot’s work was only published in Dutch and not in an international journal, so few scholars have ever had access to it, much less have used it.[12] It was read extensively in Dutch colonial circles, and Chinese scholars in Indonesia writing on the subject of  the Dutch rule and related subjects, were familiar with De Groot’s work and ideas. As the bulk of these works were written in Chinese, they were also read by researchers in China itself, which explains why the case of  the Lanfang kongsi became widely known, but the history of the other kongsis was much less in evidence. This disparity resulted in the widespread, although not extensively documented, fame of Luo Fangbo, exemplified in Liang Qichao’s article entitled “Zhongguo zhimin bada weiren zhuan” 中国八大殖民伟人传 (Biography of Eight Great Emigrants), in which he canonizes “Luo Da” as  the founder of a “Chinese republic” in Borneo. [13]

Within this context the recent work by Wang Taipeng should also be mentioned.[14] Wang maintains that the organization of the Chinese kongsis at Borneo derived from the system of partnership among the maritime-merchants of Fujian and the private entrepreneurs who operated the copper mines of Yunnan, as well as from the Hakka system of self-government. Although in this respect the analysis of Wang offers new insights into important factors which underlie the origin of the kongsi at Borneo, its treatment of the internal organization of the kongsi is based mainly on materials provided  by Schaank, Veth, and De Groot.


The Borneo Kongsis Revisited


In fact, De Groot paid attention only to the case of the Lanfang kongsi. At the same time, the main object of his polemical article was not the problems involved in the suppression of this kongsi, but that of the forceful suppression of a whole group of kongsis united in the famous Heshun Assembly Hall (Heshun Zongting 和顺总厅) some thirty years earlier. This parliament of sorts, with its most powerful member the Dagang kongsi, was established at Montrado, an important mining site situated some fifty kilometres north of Mandor 东万律. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Montrado developed into the most populous Chinese settlement in West Borneo. A cruel and protracted war was fought by these Chinese settlers because Montrado determined to maintain its freedom and preserve its territory from Dutch interventionism. The history of the Chinese kongsis is therefore by and large that of the Montrado kongsis, and not of the Lanfang kongsi. Only through a study of these kongsis, their history, and their institutions can the true nature of the “Chinese republics” be understood.

As stated earlier, no comprehensive historical study has as yet been devoted to the West Borneo kongsis as a whole, either in their diversity and connections, or in their relationship to the other groups of the population, the Malay merchants and the Dayak tribes. Much depends, in such an undertaking, on the availability of pertinent source materials. In spite of De Groot’s pessimism not all the kongsi records have since perished, although they do remain very incomplete. The most important and accessible collection of manuscript source materials are kept at the department of oriental manuscripts of the University Library of Leiden. The collection comprises more than one hundred letters, reports, requests and other documents emanating from the Montrado and Mandor kongsis, as well as from other persons or institutions. Almost all date from the period of the so-called “kongsi war” (1850-1854).[15]

Most important for our research are the extensive records kept by the Dutch colonial authorities and historians. Undoubtedly, the Dutch sources on the history of the kongsis in Borneo are relatively abundant and in many respects more detailed than whatever other texts we may have at our disposal. The major part of these sources was never published, but has been preserved in manuscript form. The official reports are the most numerous representatives of this material. They contain surveys of the general situation in West Borneo as well as more specialized reports on, for instance, military and financial operations. A special series consists of the daily records (dagregisters) of the Dutch officials at Sambas 三发 and Pontianak. We also find numerous contracts, decrees, letters, maps and the like which were produced by the Dutch colonial government. Besides these official documents we also have a few travel records written by individuals as well as private diaries. I have not been able to study all the manuscript sources which exist. Especially those kept at the National Archives (Arsip Nasional) in Jakarta have remained, in spite of my many efforts, unavailable to me. I have instead concentrated on the sources preserved in Holland, mainly at the Algemeen Rijksarchief (ARA) in the Hague and at the Koninklijk Instituut voor Taal- Land- en Volkenkunde (KITLV) in Leiden. All in all, the sources at my disposal have already proved to be sufficient, I hope, for the purpose of the present study. I still hope one day to be able to study the documents preserved in Jakarta and to publish them.

As indicated above, the primary aim of the present study is to attempt to establish a   history of the West Borneo kongsis from the first arrival of the gold-miners around 1750 until the demise of their autonomous communities somewhat more than one century later. This reconstruction, based on the analysis of a great number of different sources in Chinese, Dutch, and English, does not however constitute my main purpose. It is no more than the indispensable first step towards a better understanding of the questions first asked by De Groot, which still remain valid today.

We can divide the history of the West Borneo kongsis into a number of significant periods, each of which has its own distinctive characteristics. They cover different time-spans, as some are longer and other shorter. For some we also possess far more material than for others, and this difference explains why some chapters are longer and go more into detail than others.

The first period, studied in Chapter One, ranges from around 1750 to 1777. It witnesses the arrival of the first groups of miners invited or recruited by the Panambahan of Mampawa and the sultan of Sambas. Although the work in the gold-fields rewarded them highly, these miners were also greatly exploited by their Malay overlords and were under the continuous threat of attack from the Dayaks. In an attempt to shield themselves from both these dangers, they strengthened their communal organizations, the hui. These associations, which later were given the name of kongsis, gradually evolved into autonomous systems not only dedicated to the actual task of mining, but encompassing many other activities as well. Most of the fundamental aspects of the kongsi institution, its leadership, its relationship with temple cults, and so forth evolved in this period. After a period of division and strife, during which the relations between the Chinese and, the Malay and the Dayaks underwent many changes, the most important kongsis, those of Sambas, united themselves into a federation or alliance, the Heshun zongting in 1776. This alliance became the very pillar of the kongsi institutions of West Borneo and the main opponent of the Dutch. The next year, the Lanfang kongsi founded a comparable institution called the Lanfang kongsi zongting. In both cases, the establishment of these organizations came about in the context of armed conflicts with the Tiandihui societies that had established themselves among the Chinese settlers. The zongting organizations mark the definite establishment of the Chinese mining communities as permanent residents in West Borneo. This brings the first period of their evolution to an end.

In the second and third chapters I study the next period, one of almost unchecked development of the kongsis, covering the years 1777 to 1839. Until 1818, Dutch colonial rule, more honoured in the breach than the observance in the previous period, disappears completely, and the English do not really establish themselves either. In this vacuum of international politics, the Chinese are able to keep the local Malay rulers at bay and strengthen their ties with the indigenous Dayaks, who become by and large their allies by marriage and division of labour. This is the golden age of the Chinese communities, who enjoy virtually total independence from their former Malay overlords. Relieved of the threat of external conflict, the internal relationship between the kongsis at this period is, however, fraught by mounting animosity. Under the leadership of Dagang, Montrado eliminates several other kongsis. Some of these flee to Sarawak. War weakens the cohesion of the Chinese as a group, but strengthens the individual kongsis and especially the Montrado Heshun zongting and the Mandor Lanfang kongsi zongting. The prosperity of the Chinese communities attracts the interest of the Dutch colonial government which, for the first time, sees a possibility to enrich the colonial treasury through the taxation of the Chinese. In 1818, a Commissioner is sent who surveys the land and assesses its situation. After this, the first measures regarding the taxes to be paid by its inhabitants are taken. J.H. Tobias, the fourth Commissioner to be sent within a relative short period of time, is the first Dutch magistrate to conduct detailed negotiations with the kongsis. These negotiations directly concern the problems created by the mutual fighting among them.

Chapter Four covers the period between 1840 to 1850 and deals with the decline of the kongsis as the incessant wars and the exhaustion of the mining resources both begin to take their toll. During the 1840s the economic situation changes and some mining communities start to take steps towards becoming agricultural settlements. The continued resistance to the Dutch taxation measures degenerates into armed confrontation. Looking askance at the rise of the “white raja” James Brooke in Sarawak prompts the colonial government to try to strengthen its grip on West Borneo. This situation hastens the outbreak of the first “kongsi war” of 1850, culminating in the inconclusive battle of Pamangkat.

Chapter Five deals with an even shorter span of time (1851 to 1853), yet a very eventful and important period for our understanding of the nature of the kongsis. Under the governorship of the Resident, F.J. Willer, an attempt is made to change the nature of the kongsis from independent republics to commercial societies. The relatively abundant materials on Willer’s endeavours contain a wealth of important material, especially on the many conferences he conducted with the Chinese and on the way he attempted to take the religious institutions of the kongsis into consideration. The attempt to change the political nature of the kongsis proved unworkable. This is the time in which the non-interference policy (“onthoudings politiek”) of the Dutch colonial government comes to an end; a far more aggressive stance is now adopted.

Chapter Six deals with the end of the autonomous kongsis in the wake of a bitter war involving thousands of colonial troops which was fought by Commander A.J. Andresen against Montrado. Montrado fell into Andresen’s hands on June 2, 1854. Although this was celebrated as a Dutch national victory, the Chinese resistance was not broken, and soon the armed confrontations broke out again. In the autumn of that same year when the last Chinese troops were dispersed, the resistance was continued by an underground organization of the Triad type. This covert resistance would eventually spread all over West Borneo. Montrado was rapidly depopulated and ten years later was but a shadow of the bustling township it had formerly been. The last kongsi to survive was the Lanfang kongsi which, under the able political rule of Liu Asheng, had succeeded in remaining more or less unscathed during the confrontation. Liu openly collaborated with the Dutch, but in fact must also have helped the Montrado resistance movement. The Lanfang kongsi was disbanded in 1884, and with it the kongsi institution disappeared for good.

In the concluding chapter, I draw upon the historical evidence in order to outline the characteristics of the Chinese frontier in West Borneo. Here I study some of the most important questions with regard to the context of today’s research on overseas Chinese communities, there are (1) the question of the “Hakka tradition”, (2) the characteristics of the Chinese immigrant communities and their democratic institutions, and (3) the institution of the zongting and its background.

West Borneo’s Chinese immigrant societies have generally been considered to be composed essentially of people belonging to Hakka ethnic groups. Some authors moreover see certain links between some specific Hakka traditions and the establishment of the kongsis. De Groot, for instance, stresses the rural origins of the Hakka immigrants and sees this as an important element of his theory of the “Chinese village” antecedents of the kongsi institution. He also notes that the Hakka were among the most sturdy and hardy of all Chinese peasants, and that therefore they were better able to endure the incredible hardships in the Borneo gold-mines. Their great courage was instrumental in the establishment of relationships with the fierce Dayaks, something no other immigrant group had ever dared to do.

Close examination of the data on ethnicity shows it is not correct to maintain that the mining communities were exclusively Hakka. As we shall see in Chapter One, on the basis of the figures published by Schaank, even if the Jiaying Hakka were an important part of the mining communities population, they were not even a majority. This place was occupied by the so-called “half-mountain” (banshan 半山) Hakkas from Lufeng and Haifeng who made up the population of the great Montrado kongsis, by far the largest in terms of number of inhabitants. The banshanke 半山客 people were bilingual Hakka and Hoklo, and culturally speaking very close to the Hoklo and Hokkien groups. The presence of people from the latter two groups among the inhabitants of the Montrado kongsis has been signalled by E. Doty. [16] Indeed, one of the leaders of the Heshun zongting, named Hu Yalu 胡亚禄, was Hokkien. As we shall see, he attempted to change the name of the Heshun alliance into “Guangfu” 广福, meaning: “from Guangdong and Fujian”, thereby stressing that the kongsis were composed of immigrants from both provinces. All this shows that the Borneo gold-miners were by no means uniformly Hakka, and even less “pure” Hakka from Jiayingzhou 嘉应州. That makes it difficult to maintain the hypothesis that the kongsi spirit of autonomy and democracy – in terms of the kongsis being “republics” – had something to do with particular Hakka ethnic traditions.

The kongsi institution itself was, as we have seen, not at all of Hakka origin, but was an offshoot of the universal temple organizations. That is to say that the institution was essentially religious. From the viewpoint of the historical data which we have reviewed in the preceding chapters, this religious aspect may not seem prominent at all. Yet, if we look attentively at all the details related to cults, temples, festivals, spirit mediums, rituals, and the like, this fundamental characteristic becomes more evident, and only if we take them into account, can the kongsi institution be fully understood. For instance, E.A. Francis, the former Commissioner of West Borneo, reports that newcomers, arriving from the Chinese mainland at the Montrado kongsis, were allowed to enter the communities on the following conditions: they had to bring some incense ashes from the incense burner of their home village as well as make a small monetary contribution to the kongsi temple. Both elements are related directly to the  institution of the division of incense (fenxiang 分香) and the constitution of a cult group. [17]  Among these, most important was the patron saints of miners, the famous triad of local gods from Hepo 河婆 (nowadays Jiexi 揭西), the Kings of the Three Mountains (Sanshan guowang 三山国王). These three mountain spirits are worshipped by the Chaozhou people and the Hakkas alike and more particularly by the ethnic group which constitutes the intermediary between the two, the Banshanke from Hepo and the adjacent counties.

It is the foundation of cult-groups and temples for patron saints of the “kaishan” (开山) type that marks the gradual “march towards the tropics” in Chinese history. The Chinese “tianxia” (天下) had no clear borders. Wherever Chinese settled, they made “little Chinas”, and some of them, like Luo Fangbo, wanted to make Borneo part of the Chinese empire. In this way at least West Borneo can be considered to be a “Chinese frontier”.

What made the Chinese pioneers go to Borneo? The quest for adventure and material gain, as well as the desire to escape the Manchu political and social oppression are cogent reasons. Too often the pioneers are portrayed as destitute, starving coolie labour. This is not entirely correct and in many instances must have been a pretext used to justify emigration the Chinese authorities, and sometimes the Dutch as well.  In other places, the mining companies were Dutch, and they employed coolie labour, whereas in Borneo the mining enterprises themselves were in Chinese hands.

The Chinese entered in Borneo under the authority of the sultans. Yet they lost no time in diverting themselves of this yoke. When the Dutch came, one of their first measures was to put the Chinese directly under the control of the colonial government, so as to have a better grip on them. But nothing short of the complete dismantling of the kongsis could put an end to the desire for independence from the Chinese. The reason that so many Chinese came to Borneo in such a short time has to be seen in this light: for a short period, Borneo was, for the Chinese, a free country and they came to see it as their own. As a matter of speculation, we might imagine that if the Chinese had not been stopped in their progress by the Dutch, West Borneo might have been a very different place today. The Borneo case could moreover be used to compare the relative merits of Chinese expansion versus Western expansion. It would be interesting to look at the main differences between the Borneo goldseekers and the California goldrush. Both were frontier societies in lands previously occupied by aboriginal peoples. In many respects, the contrasts are great, but so too are the points of convergence. In both cases the will to create a free and democratic society was paramount. The Chinese were  not allowed to have theirs.

Fig. 1. Map of West Borneo


[1] S.H. Schaank, De Kongsi’s van Montrado. Bijdrage tot de geschiedenis en de kennis van het wezen der Chinesche vereenigingen op de Westkust van Borneo, Batavia 1893, pp.  86-87.

[2] See the dissertation of Fiorella Allio: Rituel, territoire et pouvoir local. La procession du ‘pays’ de Sai-kang (Taiwan), University of Paris X, 1996.

[3] Tian Rukang quotes respectively as sources for definition (1) an article which appeared in a magazine in Singapore in 1836 (this source also speaks of “a Chinese government”); for (2) a handbook on Dutch Borneo from the Foreign Office published in 1920; for (3) De Groot and for (4) Veth. He also refers to the definition which given by the Beknopte Encyclopaedie van Nederlandsch-Indië. See Tian Rukang “The Organizations of Overseas Chinese in Kalimantan Between the Late 18th Century and the Late 19th Century”. In Tian’s  Collected Essays on Traditional Chinese Maritime Trade and Foreign Relations 中国帆船贸易与对外关系史论集,  Zhejiang 1987, pp. 53‑99.

[4] Het Kongsiwezen van Borneo - Eene verhandeling over den grondslag en den aard der Chineesche politieke vereenigingen in de kolonien, Maritnus Nijhoff, ‘s Gravenhage 1885.

[5] For further information on the rise of the Dutch Sinology see L. Blussé’s “Of Hewers of Wood and Drawers of Water: Leiden University’s Early Sinologists ( 1853-1911), in W. Otterspeer, (ed.) Leiden Oriental Connections 1850-1940, Leiden 1989, pp. 317-353.

[6] See the article written by De Groot in memory of this great and last chief of the Lanfang kongsi: “Lioe A Sin van Mandohr”, in BKI (1885) 34, pp. 34-42.

[7] The Chronicle was presumably compiled by Liu’s son-in-law, Ye Xiangyun 叶湘云. De Groot says, the text was made by copying the “ official yearbooks ” which were kept at the headquarters of Lanfang.

[8] See Het Kongsiwezen van Borneo, p. 6.

[9] In the De Groot archives kept in Berlin no such document can be found, nor any other Chinese text related to the Borneo kongsi. The author wishes to thank Professor Zwi Werblowski (Jerusalem) for this information, based on his private inventory of the De Groot archives.

[10]  See G. Schlegel, The Hung-League or Heaven-Earth-League, Batavia 1866, p. 32.

[11] Batavia: Bruining, 1882.

[12] A Chinese transtation of this work, Poluozhou Huaren Gongsi Zhidu 婆罗洲华人公司制度, has been produced by Yuan Bingling and published by Academia Sinica of Taiwan, 1996.

[13] Quoted from Luo Xianglin’s A Historical Survey of the Lan-Fang Presidential System in Western Borneo, Established by Lo Fang-Pai and Other Overseas Chinese, Hong Kong 1961, p. 1.

[14] Wang Tai Peng, The Origins of Chinese Kongsi, Singapore 1994. Commercial edition of the author’s thesis.

[15]  The bulk of the archives kept at the University Library became accessible, in spite of my many efforts to the contrary, only after the final draft of the present study was completed. I have incorporated as much of the material as I could at this late stage. It should be stressed however, that none of the manuscript data contain elements which would allow entirely new insights. They are important however for the exact dating of certain events and for the correct writing of Chinese proper names. All these data have been incorporated in the present work. A complete catalogue of Chinese manuscript of  the University Library archives is being prepared will be soon forthcoming.

[16] See E. Doty and W.J.Pohlman “Tour in Borneo, from Sambas through Montrado to Pontianak, and the adjacents of  Chinese and Dayaks, during the autumn of 1838”, in Chinese Repository (Canton), 1839, vol.VIII, No.6, pp. 283-310.

[17] E.A. Francis,  “Westkust van Borneo in 1832”, in TNI, 1842, 4, II, pp. 21-22; and also Schaank, De Kongsi’s van Montrado, pp. 86-90. On the institution of the affiliation of temples through so-called “division of incense”, see K. Schipper,  “The Cult of Pao-sheng ta-ti and its Spreading to Taiwan – A Case Study of Fen-hsiang”, E. Vermeer (ed.) Development and Decline in Fukien Province in the 17th and 18th Centuries, Leiden 1990, pp. 397-416.