“My Story” Chapter 19

“My Story” – by Randall Butisingh.

(Reminiscences during my life beginning 1913)


Work in the mines was really tough.  Although I was physically strong, I had not the toughness of the seasoned pork knocker who was weather beaten and calloused, and accustomed with years of experience to the kind of work he had to perform.  We worked barefooted and the soles of my feet were soft so were my palms; so my performance was slow and I had to endure the goading of the unsympathetic men whose behaviour was crude, their language coarse, and their conversation was chiefly gossip based on sex.   But , now and then, I proved to them that I was stronger and tougher than they.   I could lift and carry the heavy manicle gutter to the pit on my shoulder which would take two of the men to carry.     Another instance when the rain fell, the men would hasten out of the pit for shelter among the trees.    I  would take off my shirt, remain in the pit and chip the gravel.  McKinnon, whom we called Mac, the smallest in stature of the three and the more  sympathetic told me one day, “bai, me no know you bin so hard”

To get the precious metal involved the most strenuous manual labour; huge trees had to be cleared before the pits were dug.  This was done by digging around the roots, undermining the tree until it fell.  The branches were lopped off with axes and cutlasses and removed from the site. After the area was cleared , a pit was dug to reach the gravel which may be about five or more feet deep, depending on the area,.  If there was water in the pit, I had to bail it out with a bucket before operations continue.  Then the gravel was scooped up and loaded on a rectangular box called the Tom.  It was about eight feet in length and two feet in width, At one end a metal plate with holes was placed to allow the water with which the gravel was washed to escape into a gutter about nine inches wide, made from the trunk of the manicole palm. Before the water was let out, quicksilver was placed to collect the gold grains or dust,.  Sometimes a whole week’s work would yield a few grains (troy weight) of gold.  For days the findings were very small, but enough to keep the men in rations; then one day we hit a “gray gravel” and the men began picking up pennyweights of gold from the pit.  It was a fruitful find, but that was the only patch of gray gravel found in the area.  I am sure the men made a tidy sum from it, but they did not tell me anything and I was not interested as that was not my purpose of joining the crew.

I was fascinated when I watched the men placing gravel in a flat dish-like apparatus called a batelle and spin it around in water to wash out the gravel and reveal the gold at the bottom.  This practice gives the indication of how much gold would be got from that pit.  So one day, after lunch when the men were resting, I stole down to the pit to practise the  art of spinning the battelle.  I was only a few yards away when the tree we had been undermining to clear from the area came crashing down in the pit.  If I had reached the pit five or six seconds earlier, I might not have been here today to write this story.  Providence had again intervened to save me from one of the many dangers that dogged my life.  This did not deter me from still trying to see if I could acquire the art of spinning the batelle, but I failed.

I worked in these conditions for about two months.  The behaviour of the men irked me.  I had no comradeship with them; they were uncouth in speech and behaviour,  I was socially isolated.  There was one bright spot  which brightened my day.  It was a letter from a lovely young woman with whom I was acquainted.  She was a graduate from high school and I was thrilled as I read the two pages of its contents which were flattering to me and brought a feeling of nostalgia.  I read it over and over again and was so happy that I even revealed it to the men in the pit who knew her father who was a successful pork knocker and who was able to build his own house and give his girl a good education.  I cannot now remember the contents of the letter, but this sentence stuck in my mind, “If I can find someone whom I can ………he shall be my king, my earthly idol and My divinity in clay.  Day after day I carried that thought in mind and it kept me in good spirits.

Relationship with the men grew sour as the days went by, but I was quiet and never showed my resentment openly. One day, one of them shot a monkey and I was asked to take the meat to the shop which was some distance away. I resented but I could not refuse.  As I was going through the bush, I became afraid that a tiger should spring out of the bushes and attack me.  I hurried through and delivered the carcass which would make a savoury dish for some one.

On one occasion, during the night a yawarri or manicou visited the camp.  The yawarri is a marsupial about the size of a small cat.  It emanates a foul smell, but its flesh is considered a delicacy by some.  It was attracted by the smell of the salted meat which was kept in a wooden box.  One of the men saw it and attempted to catch it, but it escaped.  They knew that it would come again. It stayed away the following night but returned the next night.  The men were prepared for it, and this time there was no escape.  They knew that I would not eat it, neither for it to be cooked in any of the pots, so they used a saucepan which was put away after use.


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