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Extraction with Restraint: Data Practices in Eighteenth-Century Mining

Read Sebastian Felten’s research article “Sustainable Gains: Dutch Investment and Bureaucratic Rationality in Eighteenth-Century Saxon Mines” here.

Sebastian Felten

Universität Wien

In 1768, Heinrich von Trebra, the overseer of a mining district in Saxony, travelled to Holland to sell shares in a mining project. His middlemen set up legal entities called sociëteiten (societies) that resembled investment schemes for whalers, windmills, and plantations. By 1777, however, the investors became disheartened by the small yields and abandoned the mines. Trebra sourly remarked in his memoirs that it had been foolish to expect a Dutch merchant to pay money “over many years, even half a century, before reaping any yields (which in some cases might be obtained only by his descendants), as is common among Saxon shareholders.”

My contribution to the Histories of Bureaucratic Knowledge special issue began with this puzzling encounter between German cameralists and Dutch capitalists. What did coastal-dwelling merchants understand of hard-rock silver mining, and how can we explain the rationality of the Saxon bureaucracy in which people were expected to invest with little hope to ever have returns? Was there a clash of economic cultures as Trebra suggested?

View from the waste heap of Jung Fabian Sebastian in Marienberg, a mine run with Dutch money, overlooking some gardens and the author’s bicycle (2020). Image: The author.

As our group met and re-met, ‘my’ bureaucracy – a peculiar type of mining administration that flourished in Central Europe between 1550 and 1850 – shifted shape many times. Was it, as in Anna Echterhölter’s German colony, the result of bricolage rather than engineering? Was it, as in Kathryn Olesko’s Prussian-occupied Poland, an attempt to rule populations by modifying the built world? And how can we explain the unusually long timeframes in which officials assessed mines? Everything fell into place as I visited Saxony and Amsterdam and learned more about the data practices that officials and investors relied on to make their decisions.

Bureaucrats as Historians

When you enter Freudenstein Castle in Freiberg (Saxony) and turn left, you’ll find yourself in terra mineralia, a museum that displays dazzling, rainbow-colored minerals. If you turn right at the gate, you enter the Bergarchiv, a world of creamy white paper and darkened leather bindings. This impressive archive documents centuries of resource extraction in the Ore Mountains. But there were seven bound volumes that particularly intrigued me. Reading them, I quickly noticed that eighteenth-century officials, like me, combed through archived reports and local lore to make sense of mining history.

Leather-bound manuscripts with centuries worth of reports, speculation, and hearsay about Marienberg’s mines, which were an important tool for long-term thinking (Bergarchiv Freiberg, StA-F 40013, nos. 2-9) Image: The author.

Trebra considered these volumes “sacred objects,” because they were so useful for the story he wanted to tell his Dutch investors: Saxony’s mineral resources were inexhaustible but God released them only slowly. Therefore, officials like him believed that individual shareholders should give their money “to the common good,” like giving alms to the poor. They called this Nachhalt, which was derived from nachhalten, that is, to hold back immediate profit for long-term benefit. Thus, the bureaucratic ideal, not always shared by the investors, was extraction with restraint.

Such thinking responded to the needs of officials who managed a system of interconnected mines. The hills around Freiberg, Marienberg, and other ancient mining towns bear tell-tale signs of this system: overgrown tailings that protrude out of fields, like mushrooms growing from an invisible mycelium. You often find them in a straight line, because they follow the direction of an underground tunnel. Many of these tunnels were linked, forming a complicated system of shafts and tunnels through which people, water, air, and ores moved up, down, and sideways. Managing this system made it rational to withhold immediate profit: Funds were always needed for maintenance and prospecting.

Johann Friedrich Wilhelm Charpentier, map showing ore veins and mining structures around Marienberg (1770). Image: Sächsische Landesbibliothek – Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Dresden, 36.8.5026, public domain.

Mines and Plantations

The Dutch eventually understood the rationale behind the concept of Nachhalt, and withdrew their funds. For them, mining was just another risky enterprise like the many others floated in coffee houses and newspapers. For instance, when I looked up investors’ names in the Amsterdam Notarial Archive, I realized that some of Trebra’s shareholders were heavily involved financially in Suriname plantations. This, presumably, influenced how they judged the possibility of investing in Saxon mines.

In the 1740s and 1750s, some 150 coffee plantations (a new and speculative commodity) were added to existing sugar farms in Suriname. The Saxon-Dutch mining companies that I encountered in contracts kept at Freudenstein Castle turned out to be modelled on investment funds for plantations. And the investment patterns were similar, too: After a drought in 1769 and continual attacks by maroon communities, many plantation investors pulled out. When investing, Dutch merchants conceptualized profit and loss within a short timespan, not over centuries like the Saxon officials.

Slide showing old dwellings on Mariënburg plantation in 1997, and also some of the complex hydraulics necessary to sustain sugar cultivation. Image: Paul Romijn, Tropenmuseum Amsterdam (TM-20028658), CC BY-SA 4.0.

Thinking with archives

Dutch merchants shifted their capital without regarding the local needs in Saxony, which was in line with Trebra’s impression. However, I also found evidence in the Dutch National Archive that some planters-officers in Suriname developed “sustainable” thinking echoing that of Saxon mining officials. According to a proposal by colonial officers and planters from the 1760s, the Suriname Company should pool capital and impose stricter control on how to spend funds. To make this argument more persuasive, the authors narrated the history of the plantations. For example, they pointed out that the first investment fund, set up in 1753, was an instrument of development, not of short-term gain.

They also hoped to implement a “sustainable” system by relocating white farmers from marginal regions of the Netherlands in order to permanently improve what they perceived as a dangerous majority of Black and mixed-race enslaved peoples and maroons in the colony. Colonial officials thus exercised their own kind of long-term thinking, seeking ways to prop up plantations through better financial administration, more settlers, and more enslaved labor.

The Suriname Company’s proposal indicates that Trebra was mistaken in his assumption: there was no clash of economic cultures when he and his investors fell foul with each other. Long-term thinking was characteristic of both the mining bureaucracy and of merchant capitalism, at least when you look beyond individual investors and to the bureaucratic trading companies that underpinned it (read Susanne Friedrich’s paper on the Dutch East India company). For people who were thinking in and with archives, making decisions over very long timespans was not a strange thing to do.

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