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SOUTHWARD, always southward and easterly, runs the Calcutta Mail from Luckeeserai, till she reaches Madapur in the Sonthal Parganas. From Madapur a train, largely made up of coal-trucks, heads westward into the Hazaribagh district and toward Giridih. A week would not have exhausted ‘Jamalpur and its environs,’ as the guide-books say. But since time drives and man must e’en be driven, the weird, echoing bund in the hills above Jamalpur, where the owls hoot at night and hyenas come down to laugh over the grave of ‘Quillem Roberts, who died from the effects of an encounter with a tiger near this place, A.D. 1864,’ goes undescribed. Nor is it possible to deal with Monghyr, the headquarters of the district, where one sees for the first time the age of Old Bengal in the sleepy, creepy station, built in a time-eaten fort, which runs out into the Ganges, and is full of quaint houses, with fat-legged balustrades on the roofs. Pensioners certainly, and probably a score of ghosts, live in Monghyr. All the country seems haunted. Is there not at Pir Bahar a lonely house on a bluff, the grave of a young lady, who, thirty years ago, rode her horse down the cliff and perished? Has not Monghyr a haunted house in which tradition says sceptics have seen much more than they could account for? And is it not notorious throughout the countryside that the seven miles of road between Jamalpur and Monghyr are nightly paraded by tramping battalions of spectres — phantoms of an old-time army, massacred who knows how long ago? The common voice attests all these things, and an eerie cemetery packed with blackened, lichened, candle-extinguisher tomb-stones persuades the listener to believe all that he hears. Bengal is second — or third is it? — in order of seniority among the Provinces, and like an old nurse, she tells many witchtales.
But ghosts have nothing to do with collieries, and that ever-present ‘Company,’ the E.I.R., has more or less made Giridih — principally more. ‘Before the E.I.R. came,’ say the people, ‘we had one meal a day. Now we have two.’ Stomachs do not tell fibs, whatever mouths may say. That ‘Company,’ in the course of business, throws about five lakhs a year into the Hazaribagh district in the form of wages alone, and Giridih Bazar has to supply the wants of twelve thousand men, women, and children. But we have now the authority of a number of high-souled and intelligent native prints that the Sahib of all grades spends his time in ‘sucking the blood out of the country,’ and ‘flying to England to spend his illgotten gains.’
Giridih is perfectly mad — quite insane! Geologically, ‘the country is in the metamorphic higher grounds that rise out of the alluvial flats of Lower Bengal between the Osri and the Barakar rivers.’ Translated, this sentence means that you can twist your ankle on pieces of pure white, pinky, and yellowish granite, slip over weather-worn sandstone, grievously cut your boots over flakes of trap, and throw hornblende pebbles at the dogs. Never was such a place for stone-throwing as Giridih. The general aspect of the country is falsely park-like, because it swells and sinks in a score of grass-covered undulations, and is adorned with plantation-like jungle. There are low hills on every side, and twelve miles away bearing south the blue bulk of the holy hill of Parasnath, greatest of the Jaim Tirthankars, overlooks the world. In Bengal they consider four thousand five hundred feet good enough for a Dagshai or Kasauli, and once upon a time they tried to put troops on Parasnath. There was a scarcity of water, and Thomas of those days found the silence and seclusion prey upon his spirits. Since twenty years, therefore, Parasnath has been abandoned by Her Majesty’s Army.
As to Giridih itself, the last few miles of train bring up the reek of the ‘Black Country.’ Memory depends on smell. A noseless man is devoid of sentiment, just as a noseless woman, in this country, must be devoid of honour. That first breath of the coal should be the breath of the murky, clouded tract between Yeadon and Dale — or Barnsley, rough and hospitable Barnsley — or Dewsbury and Batley and the Derby Canal on a Sunday afternoon when the wheels are still and the young men and maidens walk stolidly in pairs. Unfortunately, it is nothing more than Giridih — seven thousand miles away from Home and blessed with a warm and genial sunshine, soon to turn into something very much worse. The insanity of the place is visible at the station door. A G.B.T. cart once married a bathing-machine, and they called the child tum-tum. You who in flannel and Cawnpore harness drive bamboo-carts about up-country roads, remember that a Giridih tum-tum is painfully pushed by four men, and must be entered crawling on all-fours, head first. So strange are the ways of Bengal!
They drive mad horses in Giridih — animals that become hysterical as soon as the dusk falls and the country-side blazes with the fires of the great coke ovens. If you expostulate tearfully, they produce another horse, a raw, red fiend whose ear has to be screwed round and round, and round and round, before she will by any manner of means consent to start. The roads carry neat little eighteen-inch trenches at their sides, admirably adapted to hold the flying wheel. Skirling about this savage land in the dark, the white population beguile the time by rapturously recounting past accidents, insisting throughout on the super-equine ‘steadiness’ of their cattle. Deep and broad and wide is their jovial hospitality; but somebody — the Tirhoot planters for choice — ought to start a mission to teach the men of Giridih what to drive. They know how, or they would be severally and separately and many times dead, but they do not, they do not indeed, know that animals who stand on one hind leg and beckon with all the rest, or try to pigstick in harness, are not trap-horses worthy of endearing names, but things to be poleaxed! Their feelings are hurt when you say this. ‘Sit tight,’ say the men of Giridih; ‘we’re insured! We can’t be hurt.’
And now with grey hairs, dry mouth, and chattering teeth to the collieries. The E.I.R. estate, bought or leased in perpetuity from the Serampore Raja, may be about four miles long and between one and two miles across. It is in two pieces, the Serampore field being separated from the Karharbari (or Kurhurballi or Kabarbari) field by the property of the Bengal Coal Company. The Raneegunge Coal Association lies to the east of all other workings. So we have three companies at work on about eleven square miles of land.
There is no such thing as getting a full view of the whole place. A short walk over a grassy down gives on to an outcrop of very dirty sandstone, which in the excessive innocence of his heart the visitor naturally takes to be the coal lying neatly on the surface. Up to this sandstone the path seems to be made of crushed sugar, so white and shiny is the quartz. Over the brow of the down comes in sight the old familiar pit-head wheel, spinning for the dear life, and the eye loses itself in a maze of pumping sheds, red-tiled, mud-walled miners’ huts, dotted all over the landscape, and railway lines that run on every kind of gradient. There are lines that dip into valleys and disappear round the shoulders of slopes, and lines that career on the tops of rises and disappear over the brow of the slopes. Along these lines whistle and pant metre-gauge engines, some with trucks at their tail, and others rattling back to the pit-bank with the absurd air of a boy late for school that an unemployed engine always assumes. There are six engines in all, and as it is easiest to walk along the lines one sees a good deal of them. They bear not altogether unfamiliar names. Here, for instance, passes the ‘Cockburn’ whistling down a grade with thirty tons of coal at her heels; while the ‘Whitly’ and the ‘Olpherts’ are waiting for their complement of trucks. Now a Mr. T.F. Cockburn was superintendent of these mines nearly thirty years ago, in the days before the chord-lines from Kanu to Luckeeserai were built, and all the coal was carted to the latter place and surely Mr. Olpherts was an engineer who helped to think out a new sleeper. What may these things mean?
‘Apotheosis of the Manager,’ is the reply. ‘Christen the engines after the managers. You ll find Cockburn, Dunn, Whitly, Abbot, Olpherts, and Saise knocking about the place. Sounds funny, doesn’t it? Doesn’t sound so funny when one of these idiots does his best to derail Saise, though, by putting a line down anyhow. Look at that line! Laid out in knots — by Jove!’ To the unprofessional eye the rail seems all correct; but there must be something wrong, because ‘one of those idiots’ is asked why in the name of all he considers sacred he does not ram the ballast properly.
‘What would happen if you threw an engine off the line! Can’t say that I know exactly. You see, our business is to keep them on, and we do that. Here’s rather a curiosity. You see that pointsman! They say he’s an old mutineer, and when he relaxes he boasts of the Sahibs he has killed. He’s glad enough to eat the Company’s salt now.’ Such a withered old face was the face of the pointsman at No. 11 point! The information suggested a host of questions, and the answers were these: ‘You won’t be able to understand till you’ve been down into a mine. We work our men in two ways: some by direct payment — under our own hand, and some by contractors. The contractor undertakes to deliver us the coal, supplying his own men, tools, and props. He’s responsible for the safety of his men, and of course the Company knows and sees his work. Just fancy, among these five thousand people, what sort of effect the news of an accident would produce! It would go all through the Sonthal Parganas. We have any amount of Sonthals besides Mahometans and Hindus of every possible caste, down to those Musahers who eat pig. They don’t require much administering in the civilian sense of the word. On Sundays, as a rule, if any man has had his daughter eloped with, or anything of that kind, he generally comes up to the manager’s bungalow to get the matter put straight. If a man is disabled through accident he knows that as long as he’s in the hospital he gets full wages, and the Company pays for the food of any of his women-folk who come to look after him. One, of course; not the whole clan. That makes our service popular with the people. Don’t you believe that a native is a fool. You can train him to everything except responsibility. There’s a rule in the workings that if there is any dangerous work — we haven’t choke-damp; I will show you when we get down — no gang must work without an Englishman to look after them. A native wouldn’t be wise enough to understand what the danger was, or where it came in. Even if he did, he’d shirk the responsibility. We can’t afford to risk a single life. All our output is just as much as the Company want — about a thousand tons per working day. Three hundred thousand in the year. We could turn out more? Yes — a little. Well, yes, twice as much. I won’t go on, because you wouldn’t believe me. There’s the coal under us, and we work it at any depth from following up an outcrop down to six hundred feet. That is our deepest shaft. We have no necessity to go deeper. At home the mines are sometimes fifteen hundred feet down. Well, the thickness of this coal here varies from anything you please to anything you please. There’s enough of it to last your time and one or two hundred years longer. Perhaps even longer than that. Look at that stuff. That’s big coal from the pit.’
It was aristocratic-looking coal, just like the picked lumps that are stacked in baskets of coal agencies at home with the printed legend atop ‘Only 23s. a ton.’ But there was no picking in this case. The great piled banks were all equal to sample, and beyond them lay piles of small, broken, ‘smithy’ coal. ‘The Company doesn’t sell to the public. This small, broken coal is an exception. That is sold, but the big stuff is for the engines and the shops. It doesn’t cost much to get out, as you say; but our men can earn as much as twelve rupees a month. Very often when they’ve earned enough to go on with they retire from the concern till they’ve spent their money and then come on again. It’s piece-work and they are improvident. If some of them only lived like other natives they would have enough to buy land and cows with. When there’s a press of work they make a good deal by overtime, but they don’t seem to keep it. You should see Giridih Bazar on a Sunday if you want to know where the money goes. About ten thousand rupees change hands once a week there. If you want to get at the number of people who are indirectly dependent or profit by the E.I.R. you’ll have to conduct a census of your own. After Sunday is over the men generally lie off on Monday and take it easy on Tuesday. Then they work hard for the next four days and make it up. Of course there’s nothing in the wide world to prevent a man from resigning and going away to wherever he came from — behind those hills if he’s a Sonthal. He loses his employment, that’s all. But they have their own point of honour. A man hates to be told by his friends that he has been guilty of shirking. And now we’ll go to breakfast. You shall be “pitted” to-morrow to any depth you like.’
‘PITTED to any extent you please.’ The only difficulty was for Joseph to choose his pit. Giridih was full of them. There was an arch in the side of a little hill, a blackened brick arch leading into thick night. A stationary engine was hauling a procession of coal-laden trucks —‘tubs’ is the technical word — out of its depths. The tubs were neither pretty nor clean. ‘We are going down in those when they are emptied. Put on your helmet and keep it on, and keep your head down.’
There is nothing mirth-provoking in going down a coal-mine — even though it be only a shallow incline running to one hundred and forty feet vertical below the earth ‘Get into the tub and lie down. Hang it, no! This is not a railway carriage: you can’t see the country out of the windows. Lie down in the dust and don’t lift your head. Let her go!’
The tubs strain on the wire rope and slide down fourteen hundred feet of incline, at first through a chastened gloom, and then through darkness. An absurd sentence from a trial report rings in the head ‘About this time prisoner expressed a desire for the consolations of religion.’ A hand with a reeking flare-lamp hangs over the edge of the tub, and there is a glimpse of a blackened hat near it, for those accustomed to the pits have a merry trick of going down sitting or crouching on the coupling of the rear tub. The noise is deafening, and the roof is very close indeed. The tubs bump, and the occupant crouches lovingly in the coal dust. What would happen if the train went off the line? The desire for the ‘consolations of religion’ grows keener and keener as the air grows closer and closer. The tubs stop in darkness spangled by the light of the flare-lamps which many black devils carry. Underneath and on both sides is the greasy blackness of the coal, and, above, a roof of grey sandstone, smooth as the flow of a river at evening. ‘Now, remember that if you don’t keep your hat on, you’ll get your head broken, because you will forget to stoop. If you hear any tubs coming up behind you step off to one side. There’s a tramway under your feet: be careful not to trip over it.’
The miner has a gait as peculiarly his own as Tommy’s measured pace or the bluejacket’s roll. Big men who slouch in the light of day become almost things of beauty underground. Their foot is on their native heather; and the slouch is a very necessary act of homage to the great earth, which if a man observe not, he shall without doubt have his hat — bless the man who invented pith hats! — grievously cut.
The road turns and winds and the roof becomes lower, but those accursed tubs still rattle by on the tramways. The roof throws back their noises, and when all the place is full of a grumbling and a growling, how under earth is one to know whence danger will turn up next? The air brings to the unacclimatised a singing in the ears, a hotness of the eyeballs, and a jumping of the heart. ‘That’s because the pressure here is different from the pressure up above. It’ll wear off in a minute. We don’t notice it. Wait till you get down a four-hundred-foot pit. Then your ears will begin to sing, if you like.’
Most people know the One Night of each hot weather — that still, clouded night just before the Rains break, when there seems to be no more breathable air under the bowl of the pitiless skies, and all the weight of the silent, dark house lies on the chest of the sleep-hunter. This is the feeling in a coal-mine — only more so — much more so, for the darkness is the ‘gross darkness of the inner sepulchre.’ It is hard to see which is the black coal and which the passage driven through it. From far away, down the side galleries, comes the regular beat of the pick — thick and muffled as the beat of the labouring heart. ‘Six men to a gang, and they aren’t allowed to work alone. They make six-foot drives through the coal — two and sometimes three men working together. The rest clear away the stuff and load it into the tubs. We have no props in this gallery because we have a roof as good as a ceiling. The coal lies under the sandstone here. It’s beautiful sandstone.’ It was beautiful sandstone — as hard as a billiard table and devoid of any nasty little bumps and jags.
There was a roaring down one road — the roaring of infernal fires. This is not a pleasant thing to hear in the dark. It is too suggestive. ‘That’s our ventilating shaft. Can’t you feel the air getting brisker? Come and look.’
Imagine a great iron-bound crate of burning coal, hanging over a gulf of darkness faintly showing the brickwork of the base of a chimney. ‘We’re at the bottom of the shaft. That fire makes a draught that sucks up the foul air from the bottom of the pit. There’s another downdraw shaft in another part of the mine where the clean air comes in. We aren’t going to set the mines on fire. There’s an earth and brick floor at the bottom of the pit the crate hangs over. It isn’t so deep as you think.’ Then a devil — a naked devil — came in with a pitchfork and fed the spouting flames. This was perfectly in keeping with the landscape.
More trucks, more muffled noises, more darkness made visible, and more devils — male and female — coming out of darkness and vanishing. Then a picture to be remembered. A great Hall of Eblis, twenty feet from inky-black floor to grey roof, upheld by huge pillars of shining coal, and filled with flitting and passing devils. On a shattered pillar near the roof stood a naked man, his flesh olive-coloured in the light of the lamps, hewing down a mass of coal that still clove to the roof. Behind him was the wall of darkness, and when the lamps shifted he disappeared like a ghost. The devils were shouting directions, and the man howled in reply, resting on his pick and wiping the sweat from his brow. When he smote the coal crushed and slid and rumbled from the darkness into the darkness, and the devils cried Shabash! The man stood erect like a bronze statue, he twisted and bent himself like a Japanese grotesque, and anon threw himself on his side after the manner of the dying gladiator. Then spoke the still small voice of fact: ‘A first-class workman if he would only stick to it. But as soon as he makes a little money he lies off and spends it.. That’s the last of a pillar that we’ve knocked out. See here. These pillars of coal are square, about thirty feet each way. As you can see, we make the pillar first by cutting out all the coal between. Then we drive two square tunnels, about seven feet wide, through and across the pillar, propping it with balks. There’s one fresh cut.’
Two tunnels crossing at right angles had been driven through a pillar which in its under-cut condition seemed like the rough draft of a statue for an elephant. ‘When the pillar stands only on four legs we chip away one leg at a time from a square to an hour-glass shape, and then either the whole of the pillar crashes down from the roof or else a quarter or a half. If the coal lies against the sandstone it carries away clear, but in some places it brings down stone and rubbish with it. The chipped-away legs of the pillars are called stooks.’
‘Who has to make the last cut that breaks a leg through?’
‘Oh! Englishmen, of course. We can’t trust natives for the job unless it’s very easy. The natives take kindly to the pillar-work though. They are paid just as much for their coal as though they had hewed it out of the solid. Of course we take very good care to see that the roof doesn’t come in on us. You would never understand how and why we prop our roofs with those piles of sleepers. Anyway, you can see that we cannot take out a whole line of pillars. We work ’em en échelon, and those big beams you see running from floor to roof are our indicators. They show when the roof is going to give. Oh! dear no, there’s no dramatic effect about it. No splash, you know. Our roofs give plenty of warning by cracking and then collapse slowly. The parts of the work that we have cleared out and allowed to fall in are called goafs. You’re on the edge of a goaf now. All that darkness there marks the limit of the mine. We have worked that out piece-meal, and the props are gone and the place is down. The roof of any pillar-working is tested every morning by tapping — pretty hard tapping.’
‘Hi yi! yi! ‘shout all the devils in chorus, and the Hall of Eblis is full of rolling sound. The olive man has brought down an avalanche of coal. ‘It is a sight to see the whole of one of the pillars come away. They make an awful noise. It would startle you out of your wits. But there’s not an atom of risk.’
(‘Not an atom of risk.’ Oh, genial and courteous host, when you turned up next day blacker than any sweep that ever swept, with a neat half-inch gash on your forehead — won by cutting a ‘stook’ and getting caught by a bounding coal-knob — how long and earnestly did you endeavour to show that ‘stook-cutting’ was an employment as harmless and unexciting as wool-samplering!)
‘Our ways are rather primitive, but they’re cheap, and safe as houses. Doms and Bauris, Kols and Beldars, don’t understand refinements in mining. They’d startle an English pit where there was fire-damp. Do you know it’s a solemn fact that if you drop a Davy lamp or snatch it quickly you can blow a whole English pit inside out with all the miners? Good for us that we don’t know what fire-damp is here. We can use flare-lamps.’
After the first feeling of awe and wonder is worn out, a mine becomes monotonous. There is only the humming, palpitating darkness, the rumble of the tubs, and the endless procession of galleries to arrest the attention. And one pit to the uninitiated is as like to another as two peas. Tell a miner this and he laughs — slowly and softly. To him the pits have each distinct personalities, and each must be dealt with differently.
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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