“My Story” Chapter 20

“My Story” – by Randall Butisingh.

(Reminiscences during my life beginning 1913)

CHAPTER TWENTY

After we had spent a month in the gold fields the rations ran out.  The men did not purchase at the shop in the interior, because things there were very expensive; a needle cost a shilling, and in those days, a shilling was the wage of a woman who worked in the cane fields at home, so they took some gold and went to Bartica with the lorry to buy food.  They stayed overnight, and next day came back with flour, salted meat, peas, condensed milk, matches and tobacco.  The cost of the tobacco was nearly as much as the cost of all the foodstuffs. They were hard smokers; they smoked the strong Capstan brand loose, in tins, which they rolled themselves in cigarette leaves.  I did not smoke, but the inconsiderate men did not even buy me a little confectionery.

Another month was coming to a close.  The behaviour of the men was not encouraging.  These men were hardened pork knockers who spent most of their time away from civilized society.  Their language was often foul and their conversation was invariably obscene.  They kept no Sabbath but spent the day drinking with fellow pork knockers who met at the shop.  Most pork knockers  spent money recklessly with the hope of getting more and one day striking it rich.  Some did strike it rich, but very few were able to put their money to good use.  Most wasted their fortune in wine and women.  Many are the stories told of these people and the things they did.  It was said that a miner after paying the cabman his fee, fed the horse with a bank note.  Another paid the chauffeur extra for allowing him to rest his foot on his shoulder.  One had his good tooth pulled out and replaced  with gold.

Not only did men mine for gold.  Many searched for diamonds.  Kurupung, on the Mazaruni River was the Mecca for these adventurers.  A few would strike it rich, but many did not.  The average stay of a pork knocker in the fields was three to four months,  This period was called a quarter, but sometimes he stayed longer when his quest did not yield anything or very little.  Sometimes he is compelled to return home empty-handed to a family he could not have supported, and whose wives through the tough circumstances sought the favours of other men or had to do any work they could find.  In those days, the early twenties and thirties, the women rarely worked outside the home.  They depended solely on the income of their spouses.  The industrious and resourceful few would do poultry or pig rearing or make things to sell in order to subsist.

After completing two months in the gold fields, I told the men that I was feeling sick.  That was not true; I was fed up with the whole situation. I stayed in camp.  The next day, I told them I wanted to return home as I was still feeling unwell.  They reluctantly agreed to let me go.  The leader of the crew, and the most garrulous, whose nickname was Nugget, gave me ten dollars.  I packed my belongings in my canister and left to catch the lorry.  The journey back to Parika and then to Vreedenhoop at the mouth of the Demerara River where I stopped for a while at my uncle’s was uneventful. My hair was long and full of lice and my hands were calloused.  I did not cut a good figure as on my way to the stelling to catch the steamer to George town,  a woman laughed at my long hair which was not cut in two months, but she did not see the insects swarming inside it.

I was told that I looked pale when I reached home and was asked if I was ill.  I was not ill, but strong as ever, but working in the shade of the jungle trees all day had somewhat lightened my light brown complexion. On reaching home I had a hair cut and I washed my clothes.

My father did not like my leaving the men and coming home, but I helped him to open the kokers at all times of the day or night.  Sometimes I would get a few days work at the sea defense or at the pumping station nearby.  I had enough to keep me occupied.  Sometimes I would bring home the sheep; he had a flock, or I would catch fish – I had a castnet, which I made myself, or catch crabs which at certain seasons were plentiful.  Crabs lived in holes into which you have to push your hand and feel for their backs and hold them in a position in which they cannot catch your finger with their claws and hold it.  The experience is painful. I enjoyed digging with the shovel whenever I could get a day’s work or two.  I would try throwing the mud as far as I could.  Work, like that was play and good exercise.  My biceps and forearm became strong.  I was able to lift a man about 120 pounds with ease and hold him straight above my head.  I was able to lift a bag of flour, weighing 100 pounds with my teeth about twelve inches from the ground, and walk up a flight of stairs with a bag of rice weighing 180 pounds on my back.

When not working, I would bask in the sun, wearing only my briefs or wrestle with the young men who came to bathe in the sea, or I would swim in the drainage canal which is behind the pumping station that leads directly to the sea.  One day, while swimming in the canal, the water level was lower in the channel that leads to the sea than the one that led to the koker.  The men waited too long; as usual they would open when the water was level; then it was less laborious.  The water started to move swiftly and I was drawn at great speed towards the koker.  Fortunately, the koker had two doors.  I managed to swim to the partition that separated them, and straddled it.  The men came and pulled me up.   That was another escape from what might have been tragic, had not Providence intervened.

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1 Comment »

  1. Helena Martin (DaSilva) said,

    Dear Randall, My Daddy was born in 1915 and he too was a pork knocker, he had a batelle and showed me how the work was done. He told me about the hard time in the bush, they had to eat a tiger one time because of the shortage of rations, he vomited the entire night. Thanks for the memories


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