The Giridih Coal-Fields, by Rudyard Kipling

Chapter 3

The Perils of the Pits

AN engineer, who has built a bridge, can strike you nearly dead with professional facts; the captain of a seventy-horse-power Ganges riversteamer can, in one hour, tell legends of the Sandheads and the James and Mary shoal sufficient to fill half a Pioneer, but a couple of days spent on, above, and in a coal-mine yields more mixed information than two engineers and three captains. It is hopeless to pretend to understand it all.

When your host says, ‘Ah, such an one is a thundering good fault-reader!’ you smile hazily, and by way of keeping up the conversation, adventure on the statement that fault-reading and palmistry are very popular amusements. Then men explain.

Every one knows that coal-strata, in common with women, horses, and official superiors, have ‘faults’ caused by some colic of the earth in the days when things were settling into their places. A coal-seam is suddenly sliced off as a pencil is cut through with one slanting blow of the penknife, and one-half is either pushed up or pushed down any number of feet. The miners work the seam till they come to this break-off, and then call for an expert to ‘read the fault.’ It is sometimes very hard to discover whether the sliced-off seam has gone up or down. Theoretically, the end of the broken piece should show the direction. Practically its indications are not always clear. Then a good ‘fault-reader,’ who must more than know geology, is a useful man, and is much prized; for the Giridih fields are full of faults and ‘dykes.’ Tongues of what was once molten lava thrust themselves sheer into the coal, and the disgusted miner finds that for about twenty feet on each side of the tongue all coal has been burnt away.

The head of the mine is supposed to foresee these things and more. He can tell you, without looking at the map, what is the geological formation of any thousand square miles of India; he knows as much about brickwork and the building of houses, arches, and shafts as an average P.W.D. man; he has not only to know the intestines of a pumping or winding engine, but must be able to take them to pieces with his own hands, indicate on the spot such parts as need repair, and make drawings of anything that requires renewal; he knows how to lay out and build railways with a grade of one in twenty-seven; he has to carry in his head all the signals and points between and over which his locomotive engines work; he must be an electrician capable of controlling the apparatus that fires the dynamite charges in the pits, and must thoroughly understand boring operations with thousand-foot drills. He must know by name, at least, one thousand of the men on the works, and must fluently speak the vernaculars of the low castes. If he has Sonthali, which is more elaborate than Greek, so much the better for him. He must know how to handle men of all grades, and, while holding himself aloof, must possess sufficient grip of the men’s private lives to be able to see at once the merits of a charge of attempted abduction preferred by a clucking, croaking Kol against a fluent English-speaking Brahmin. For he is literally the Light of Justice, and to him the injured husband and the wrathful father look for redress. He must be on the spot and take all responsibility when any specially risky job is under way in the pit, and he can claim no single hour of the day or the night for his own. From eight in the morning till one in the afternoon he is coated with coal-dust and oil. From one till eight in the even in he has office work. After eight o’clock he is free to attend to anything that he may be wanted for.

This is a soberly drawn picture of a life that Sahibs on the mines actually enjoy. They are spared all private socio-official worry, for the Company, in its mixture of State and private interest, is as perfectly cold-blooded and devoid of bias as any great Department of the Empire. If certain things be not done the defaulter goes, and his place is filled by another. The conditions of service are graven on stone. There may be generosity; there undoubtedly is justice, but above all, there is freedom within broad limits. No irrepressible shareholder cripples the executive arm with suggestions and restrictions, and no private piques turn men’s blood to gall within them. They work like horses and are happy.

When he can snatch a free hour, the grimy, sweating, cardigan-jacketed, ammunition-booted, pick-bearing ruffian turns into a well-kept English gentleman, who plays a good game of billiards, and has a batch of new books from England every week. The change is sudden, but in Giridih nothing is startling. It is right and natural that a man should be alternately Valentine and Orson, specially Orson. It is right and natural to drive — always behind a mad horse — away and away towards the lonely hills till the flaming coke ovens become glow-worms on the dark horizon, and in the wilderness to find a lovely English maiden teaching squat, filthy Sonthal girls how to become Christians. Nothing is strange in Giridih, and the stories of the pits, the raffle of conversation that a man picks up as he passes, are quite in keeping with the place. Thanks to the law, which enacts that an Englishman must look after the native miners, and if any one be killed must explain satisfactorily that the accident was not due to preventable causes, the death-roll is kept astoundingly low. In one ‘bad’ half-year, six: men out of the five thousand were killed, in another four, and in another none at all. As has been said before, a big accident would scare off the workers, for, in spite of the age of the mines — nearly thirty years — the hereditary pitman has not yet been evolved. But to small accidents the men are orientally apathetic. Read of a death among the five thousand ——

A gang has been ordered to cut clay for the luting of the coke furnaces. The clay is piled in a huge bank in the open sunlight. A coolie hacks and hacks till he has hewn out a small cave with twenty foot of clay above him. Why should he trouble to climb up the bank and bring down the eave of the cave? It is easier to cut in. The Sirdar of the gang is watching round the shoulder of the bank. The coolie cuts lazily as he stands. Sunday is very near, and he will get gloriously drunk in Giridih Bazar with his week’s earnings. He digs his own grave stroke by stroke, for he has not sense enough to see that undercut clay is dangerous. He is a Sonthal from the hills. There is a smash and a dull thud, and his grave has shut down upon him in an avalanche of heavy-caked clay.

The Sirdar calls to the Babu of the Ovens, and with the promptitude of his race the Babu loses his head. He runs puffily, without giving orders, anywhere, everywhere. Finally he runs to the Sahib’s house. The Sahib is at the other end of the collieries. He runs back. The Sahib has gone home to wash. Then his indiscretion strikes him. He should have sent runners — fleet-footed boys from the coal screening gangs. He sends them and they fly. One catches the Sahib just changed after his bath. ‘There is a man dead at such a place’— he gasps, omitting to say whether it is a surface or a pit accident. On goes the grimy pit-kit, and in three minutes the Sahib’s dogcart is flying to the place indicated.

They have dug out the Sonthal. His head is smashed in, spine and breastbone are broken, and the gang-Sirdar, bowing double, throws the blame of the accident on the poor, shapeless, battered dead. ‘I had warned him, but he would not listen! Twice I warned him! These men are witnesses.’

The Babu is shaking like a jelly. ‘Oh, sar, I have never seen a man killed before! Look at that eye, sar! I should have sent runners. I ran everywhere! I ran to your house. You were not in. I was running for hours. It was not my fault! It was the fault of the gang-Sirdar.’ He wrings his hands and gurgles. The best of accountants, but the poorest of coroners is he. No need to ask how the accident happened. No need to listen to the Sirdar and his ‘witnesses.’ The Sonthal had been a fool, but it was the Sirdar’s business to protect him against his own folly. ‘Has he any people here?’

‘Yes, his rukni — his kept-woman — and his sister’s brother-in-law. His home is far-off.’

The sister’s brother-in-law breaks through the crowd howling for vengeance on the Sirdar. He will send for the police, he will have the price of his brother’s blood full tale. The windmill arms and the angry eyes fall, for the Sahib is making the report of the death.

‘Will the Government give me pensin? I am his wife,’ a woman clamours, stamping her pewter-ankleted feet. ‘He was killed in your service. Where is his pensin? I am his wife.’

‘You lie! You’re his rukni. Keep quiet! Go! The pension comes to us.’

The sister’s brother-in-law is not a refined man, but the rukni is his match. They are silenced. The Sahib takes the report, and the body is borne away. Before to-morrow’s sun rises the gang Sirdar may find himself a simple ‘surface-coolie,’ earning nine pice a day; and in a week some Sonthal woman behind the hills may discover that she is entitled to draw monthly great wealth from the coffers of the Sirkar. But this will not happen if the sister’s brother-in-law can prevent it. He goes off swearing at the rukni.

In the meantime, what have the rest of the dead man’s gang been doing? They have, if you please, abating not one stroke, dug out all the clay, and would have it verified. They have seen their comrade die. He is dead. Bus! Will the Sirdar take the tale of clay? And yet, were twenty men to be crushed by their own carelessness in the pit, these same impassive workers would scatter like panic-stricken horses.

Turning from this sketch, let us set in order a few stories of the pits. In some of the mines the coal is blasted out by the dynamite which is fired by electricity from a battery on the surface. Two men place the charges, and then signal to be drawn up in the cage which hangs in the pit-eye. Once two natives were entrusted with the job. They performed their parts beautifully till the end, when the vaster idiot of the two scrambled into the cage, gave signal, and was hauled up before his friend could follow.

Thirty or forty yards up the shaft all possible danger for those in the cage was over, and the charge was accordingly exploded. Then it occurred to the man in the cage that his friend stood a very good chance of being, by this time, riven to pieces and choked.

But the friend was wise in his generation. He had missed the cage, but found a coal-tub — one of the little iron trucks — and turning this upside down, crawled into it. When the charge went off, his shelter was battered in so much, that men had to hack him out, for the tub had made, as it were, a tinned sardine of its occupant. He was absolutely unhurt, but for his feelings. On reaching the pitbank his first words were, ‘I do not desire to go down to the pit with that man any more.’ His wish had been already gratified, for ‘that man’ had fled. Later on, the story goes, when ‘that man’ found that the guilt of murder was not at his door, he returned, and was made a mere surface-coolie, and his brothers jeered at him as they passed to their better-paid occupations.

Occasionally there are mild cyclones in the pits. An old working, perhaps a mile away, will collapse a whole gallery sinking bodily. Then the displaced air rushes through the inhabited mine, and, to quote their own expression, blows the pitmen about ‘like dry leaves.’ Few things are more amusing than the spectacle of a burly Tyneside foreman who, failing to dodge round a corner in time, is ‘put down’ by the wind, sitting-fashion, on a knobby lump of coal.

But most impressive of all is a tale they tell of a fire in a pit many years ago. The coal caught light. They had to send earth and bricks down the shaft and build great dams across the galleries to choke the fire. Imagine the scene, a few hundred feet underground, with the air growing hotter and hotter each moment, and the carbonic acid gas trickling through the dams. After a time the rough dams gaped, and the gas poured in afresh, and the Englishmen went down and leeped the cracks between roof and dam-sill with anything they could get. Coolies fainted, and had to be taken away, but no one died, and behind the first dams they built great masonry ones, and bested that fire; though for a long time afterwards, whenever they pumped water into it, the steam would puff out from crevices in the ground above.

It is a queer life that they lead, these men of the coal-fields, and a ‘big’ life to boot. To describe one half of their labours would need a week at the least, and would be incomplete then. ‘If you want to see anything,’ they say, ‘you should go over to the Baragunda copper-mines; you should look at the Barakar ironworks; you should see our boring operations five miles away; you should see how we sink pits; you should, above all, see Giridih Bazar on a Sunday. Why, you haven’t seen anything. There’s no end of a Sonthal Mission hereabouts. All the little dev — dears have gone on a picnic. Wait till they come back, and see ’em learning to read.’

Alas! one cannot wait. At the most one can but thrust an impertinent pen skin-deep into matters only properly understood by specialists.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38