The Giridih Coalfields


On the Surface

by Rudyard Kipling

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.’