Jan Gordon and Tin Mining in Malaysia
The story begins with him (under assumed name "William") peeling off old labels from a sea cabin trunk in order to use it as a seat for a party. The very last label to be removed dates from his early voyage to Malaysia to begin his career as a mining engineer. He then begins to reflect on that journey: "He had not given it a thought for how many years? Sixteen or so."
Tin mining in Malaysia, pursuing the oxide ore cassiterite, began in the the 1820s through the efforts of Chinese immigrants under the leadership of Chung Ah Qwee. I do not have any specimens of cassiterite from Malaysia, but this Myanmar example gives a good idea of what it looks like in its crystalline form. In Malaysia, tin mining expanded during the 1870s with the establishment of numerous opencast pit workings in valleys along the west coast of the peninsula. British colonial control over the main tin mining states was established in 1874.
Gordon muses on the nature of memory; the patchiness of recollected images and the blending with images resulting from subsequently seen pictures and reading the writings of others: "it was as though the yellow of his experience had become mingled with the blue of the other fellow's, so that he had now a green which was not a primary colour." He contrasts the nature of his memories of the outbound and return journeys, which he attributes to the fact that "during the two years between the voyages his outlook on life had altered." "He had set out eager, expectant that life's benefits would flow easily to him : he came home a failure, who would have been broken-hearted had he not realised that in some way his failure was a deliverance." He states that the most important feature was that his "memoria had changed from the physical to the pictorial. He had changed from desiring to be an engineer to desiring to be an artist : from the impulse to do things to the impulse to make them."
Gordon found that the job he had signed on for involved little mining engineering and seemingly endless watching of the Chinese workers. He also found that he had no talent for leadership in this type of context.: "Every time that he gave an order he felt the instinctive resistance to the order. This reacted on him as a rather hopeless feeling that the order would not be carried out."
The natural environment was not as imagined before the trip. He had envisaged lush forests bursting with wildlife, but found an environment degraded by deforestation and opencast mining. "during his whole eighteen months on the mine he saw one snake, and that wasn't poisonous. The only wild beasts he ever heard were the pariah dogs of the village - howling at the moon."(In contrast my own first overseas job was in a place where forest elephants would raid the garden and gorillas and chimpanzees could be met within half an hour drive of the house.)
After a short spell working in a failed speculation to build a road through the jungle he took a job on a "properly equipped mine", which he also found tedious: "To kill time he began to draw again." He describes how he would draw continuously for five or six hours and how excited he was when some sketches he sent to a local art exhibition in the nearest large town won a prize. After an accident involving a slope collapse killed one of the Chinese workers Gordon made the decision to return home.
"Isn't it better to fail at something I like than at something which is uncongenial and unsuitable?" he told himself. "I will go home and become an artist. I am only twenty-five : surely it isn't too late."
And so it proved to be!
The trunk that began the story has a later mention in "The London Roundabout": "The battered trunk had been my constant companion since I left school. It accompanied me to the mining college in Cornwall and to my first and only job as a mining engineer in the Malay." "The trunk which took me out to the Malay, in less than two years followed me back to England. Afterwards, covered with a rug, it had to serve as a seat in my first Bohemian lodgings at three shillings a week, in Chelsea."