Sawahlunto: A town where ‘King Coal’ still reigns

Sawahlunto is a town carved out of the jungle in West Sumatra by the Dutch in the late 19th century. Covering 6.5 square kilometers, Sawahlunto offers visitors a museum tracing the town’s rise, fueled by a coal mine; and its fall, when coal prices collapsed almost a century later. Entering from the heights of the Bukit Barisan mountain range, visitors can see the town sprawling between the hills. A sign with letters spelling SAWAHLUNTO — just like the Hollywood sign in California — sits on the highest peak surrounding the town. Its letters are as tall as a rumah gadang, West Sumatra’s traditional house. Around 115 km from Padang, the provincial capital; Sawahlunto has little traffic. Roads are largely deserted at dusk, unlike the other towns in West Sumatra. Time seems to stand still. However, it is the tranquility of the town that attracts visitors to the heart of West Sumatra. A recently built two-story building in a residential area holds an information center and gallery detailing the history of coal mining in Sawahlunto. In the building, named Info Box (and called the inbox by local residents), the history of Lobang Mbah Soero is presented on a wall panel. Adjacent to the Info Box is a building holding a cave leading underground. The former mine pit is named Lobang Mbah Soero. Through a tunnel measuring 2 by 3 meters, miners dug a passageway 1.5 km long with numerous branches. In 1932, the tunnel was closed due to water leaks from the Ombilin River. In 2007, a section was reopened as a tourist attraction. The adventurous can explore the tunnel with gallery officers as guides, although only as deep as 137 m — and for no more than 20 minutes. The tunnel is an excellent way to explore the history of Sawahlunto as a coal-mining center, which began when de Groet, a colonial geologist, discovered coal with a calorific content of 7,000 around the Ombilin River in 1858. A colonial engineer named Verbeck made a more convincing estimate that the lowlands through which the Lunto River flowed contained hundreds of millions of tons of coal reserves, leading to adecision to mine the sawah (rice fields) along the Lunto River stream — hence the name Sawahlunto. The quality and quantity of coal at the site prompted the Dutch East Indies government to invest 5.6 million guilders to develop the mine and supporting facilities, as well as to develop a 17.5-million guilder railway to deliver coal from Sawahlunto to Emma Haven, now Teluk Bayur port in Padang, West Sumatra. To mine the coal, the Dutch “recruited” prison inmates in Padang. As the demand increased, they brought prisoners from colonial jails in Java, Manado, Makassar, Ambon and other cities. The prisoners were victims of forced labor and suffered inhuman treatment while working in the mine. In 1896, almost 1,000 people worked as slaves there. These workers were chained to prevent them from fleeing and rebelling against the Dutch. So they were known as the “chained people”, who toiled away in loincloths in the dark and stifling pit, receiving inadequate food and drink. Any mistake or failure to reach a target would earn them a lashing and torture. Traces of forced labor can be found in the museum. Iron chains and anklets once used to confine men can be found in the pit — along with human skeletons. A chained man is also depicted in a sculpture before the entrance of Lobang Mbah Soero. Over time, coal demand was on the rise and more people were attracted to Sawahlunto for work. In 1898, the cave tunnel and ventilation holes were dug and lorry tracks were laid out to optimize coal production. Output swelled from only 48,000 tons in 1892 to 196,000 tons in 1900. For better mining management and the invigoration of Sawahlunto, the Dutch also invited contract workers from other regions, such as Singapore, Penang and China. One of the experts was a Javanese, Soerono or Mbah Soero. The strong man, who died around 1930, served as a foreman because of his authority, supernatural power and mystical beliefs. Mbah Soero turned out to be kindhearted and had deep faith in God. He became an exemplar of conduct and a man from who laborers sought protection. While working for the Dutch, he also cared for the fate of the local residents of the archipelago. Therefore, Mbah Soero became a legendary figure in Sawahlunto. When the coal mine pit was reopened in 2007, the access tunnel that was built in 1898 was renamed after him. Lobang Mbah Soero reflects the history of the coal town of Sawahlunto, where thousands of people of different ethnic origins live today, enjoying full public utilities as well as shopping, amusement, medical, sports and housing facilities.

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