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Chapter 5 - Troubles with the workmen

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It seemed fated that the building of the Tsavo Bridge should never be allowed to proceed in peace for any length of time. I have already described our troubles with the lions; and no sooner did the beasts of prey appear to have deserted us, for the time being at any rate, than other troubles, no less serious, arose with the workmen themselves. After I had discovered the stone for the bridge, I sent down to the coast for gangs of masons to work and dress it.

The men who were sent me for this purpose were mostly Pathans and were supposed to be expert workmen; but I soon found that many of them had not the faintest notion of stone-cutting, and were simply ordinary coolies who had posed as masons in order to draw forty-five instead of twelve rupees a month. On discovering this fact, I immediately instituted a system of piecework, and drew up a scale of pay which would enable the genuine mason to earn his forty-five rupees a month -- and a little more if he felt inclined -- and would cut down the impostors to about their proper pay as coolies. Now, as is often the case in this world, the impostors were greatly in the majority; and accordingly they attempted to intimidate the remainder into coming down to their own standard as regards output of work, in the hope of thereby inducing me to abandon the piece-work system of payment. This, however, I had no intention of doing, as I knew that I had demanded only a perfectly fair amount of work from each man.

These masons were continually having quarrels and fights amongst themselves, and I had frequently to go down to their camp to quell disturbances and to separate the Hindus from the Mohammedans. One particularly serious disturbance of this sort had a rather amusing sequel. I was sitting after dusk one evening at the door of my hut, when I heard a great commotion in the masons’ camp, which lay only a few hundred yards away. Presently a jemadar came rushing up to me to say that the men were all fighting and murdering each other with sticks and stones. I ran back with him at once and succeeded in restoring order, but found seven badly injured men lying stretched out on the ground. These I had carried up to my own boma on charpoys (native beds); and Brock being away, I had to play the doctor myself as best I could, stitching one and bandaging another and generally doing what was possible. There was one man, however, who groaned loudly and held a cloth over his face as if he were dying. On lifting this covering, I found him to be a certain mason called

Karim Bux, who was well known to me as a prime mischief-maker among the men. I examined him carefully, but as I could discover nothing amiss, I concluded that he must have received some internal injury, and accordingly told him that I would send him to the hospital at Voi (about thirty miles down the line) to be attended to properly. He was then carried back to his camp, groaning grievously all the time.

Scarcely had he been removed, when the head jemadar came and informed me that the man was not hurt at all, and that as a matter of fact he was the sole cause of the disturbance. He was now pretending to be badly injured, in order to escape the punishment which he knew he would receive if I discovered that he was the instigator of the trouble. On hearing this, I gave instructions that he was not to go to Voi in the special train with the others; but I had not heard the last of him yet. About eleven o’clock that night I was called up and asked to go down to the masons’ camp to see a man who was supposed to be dying. I at once pulled on my boots, got some brandy and ran down to the camp, where to my surprise and amusement I found that it was my friend Karim Bux who was at death’s door. It was perfectly evident to me that he was only "foxing," but when he asked for dawa (medicine), I told him gravely that I would give him some very good dawa in the morning.

Next day at noon -- when it was my custom to have evil-doers brought up for judgment -- I asked for Karim Bux, but was told that he was too ill to walk. I accordingly ordered him to be carried to my boma, and in a few moments he arrived in his charpoy, which was shouldered by four coolies who, I could see, knew quite well that he was only shamming. There were also a score or so of his friends hanging around, doubtless waiting in the expectation of seeing the "Sahib" hoodwinked. When the bed was placed on the ground near me, I lifted the blanket with which he had covered himself and thoroughly examined him, at the same time feeling him to make sure that he had no fever. He pretended to be desperately ill and again asked for dawa; but having finally satisfied myself that it was as the jemadar had said -- pure budmashi (devilment) -- I told him that I was going to give him some very effective dawa, and carefully covered him up again, pulling the blanket over his head. I then got a big armful of shavings from a carpenter’s bench which was close by, put them under the bed and set fire to them.

As soon as the sham invalid felt the heat, he peeped over the edge of the blanket; and when he saw the smoke and flame leaping up round him, he threw the blanket from him, sprang from the bed exclaiming "Beiman shaitan!" ("Unbelieving devil!"), and fled like a deer to the entrance of my boma, pursued by a Sikh sepoy, who got in a couple of good whacks on his shoulders with a stout stick before he effected his escape. His amused comrades greeted me with shouts of "Shabash, Sahib!" ("Well done, sir"), and I never had any further trouble with Karim Bux. He came back later in the day, with clasped hands imploring forgiveness, which I readily granted, as he was a clever workman.

A few days after this incident I was returning home one morning from a tree in which I had been keeping watch for the man-eaters during the previous night. Coming unexpectedly on the quarry, I was amazed to find dead silence reigning and my rascals of workmen all stretched out in the shade under the trees taking it very easy -- some sleeping, some playing cards. I watched their proceedings through the bushes for a little while, and then it occurred to me to give them a fright by firing my rifle over their heads. On the report being heard, the scene changed like magic: each man simply flew to his particular work, and hammers and chisels resounded merrily and energetically, where all had been silence a moment before. They thought, of course, that I was still some distance off and had not seen them, but to their consternation I shouted to them that they were too late, as I had been watching them for some time. I fined every man present heavily, besides summarily degrading the Headman, who had thus shown himself utterly unfit for his position. I then proceeded to my hut, but had scarcely arrived there when two of the scoundrels tottered up after me, bent almost double and calling Heaven to witness that I had shot them both in the back. In order to give a semblance of truth to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative, they had actually induced one of their fellow workmen to make a few holes like shot holes in their backs, and these were bleeding profusely.

Unfortunately for them, however, I had been carrying a rifle and not a shot gun, and they had also forgotten to make corresponding holes in their clothing, so that all they achieved by this elaborate tissue of falsehood was to bring on themselves the derision of their comrades and the imposition of an extra fine.

Shortly after this, when the masons realised that I intended to make each man do a fair day’s work for his money, and would allow nothing to prevent this intention from being carried out, they came to the conclusion that the best thing to do would be to put me quietly out of the way. Accordingly they held a meeting one night, all being sworn to secrecy, and after a long palaver it was arranged that I was to be murdered next day when I made my usual visit to the quarry. My body was to be thrown into the jungle, where of course it would soon be devoured by wild beasts, and then they were to say that I had been killed and eaten by a lion.

To this cheerful proposal every man present at the meeting agreed, and affixed his finger-mark to a long strip of paper as a binding token. Within an hour after the meeting had dispersed, however, I was aroused by one of the conspirators, who had crept into my camp to give me warning. I thanked him for his information, but determined to go to the quarry in the morning all the same, as at this stage of affairs I really did not believe that they were capable of carrying out such a diabolical scheme, and was rather inclined to think that the informant had been sent merely to frighten me.

Accordingly the next morning (September 6) I started off as usual along the trolley line to the lonely quarry.

As I reached a bend in the line, my head mason, Heera Singh, a very good man, crept cautiously out of the bushes and warned me not to proceed. On my asking him the reason, he said that he dared not tell, but that he and twenty other masons were not going to work that day, as they were afraid of trouble at the quarry.

At this I began to think that there was something in the story I had heard overnight, but I laughingly assured him there would be no trouble and continued on my way. On my arrival at the quarry, everything seemed perfectly peaceful. All the men were working away busily, but after a moment or two I noticed stealthy side glances, and felt that there was something in the wind. As soon as I came up to the first gang of workmen, the jemadar, a treacherous-looking villain, informed me that the men working further up the ravine had refused to obey his orders, and asked me if I would go and see them. I felt at once that this was a device to lure me into the narrow part of the ravine, where, with gangs in front of me and behind me, there would be no escape; still I thought I would see the adventure through, whatever came of it, so I accompanied the jemadar up the gully.

When we got to the further gang, he went so far as to point out the two men who, he said, had refused to do what he told them -- I suppose he thought that as I was never to leave the place alive, it did not matter whom he complained of. I noted their names in my pocket-book in my usual manner, and turned to retrace my steps.

Immediately a yell of rage was raised by the whole body of some sixty men, answered by a similar shout from those I had first passed, and who numbered about a hundred. Both groups of men, carrying crowbars and flourishing their heavy hammers, then closed in on me in the narrow part of the ravine. I stood still, waiting for them to act, and one man rushed at me, seizing both my wrists and shouting out that he was going to "be hung and shot for me" -- rather a curious way of putting it, but that was his exact expression. I easily wrenched my arms free, and threw him from me; but by this time I was closely hemmed in, and everywhere I looked I could see nothing but evil and murderous-looking faces. One burly brute, afraid to be the first to deal a blow, hurled the man next him at me; and if he had succeeded in knocking me down, I am certain that I should never have got up again alive. As it was, however, I stepped quickly aside, and the man intended to knock me down was himself thrown violently against a rock, over which he fell heavily.

This occasioned a moment’s confusion, of which I quickly took advantage. I sprang on to the top of the rock, and before they had time to recover themselves I had started haranguing them in Hindustani. The habit of obedience still held them, and fortunately they listened to what I had to say. I told them that I knew all about their plot to murder me, and that they could certainly do so if they wished; but that if they did, many of them would assuredly be hanged for it, as the Sirkar (Government) would soon find out the truth and would disbelieve their story that I had been carried off by a lion.

I said that I knew quite well that it was only one or two scoundrels among them who had induced them to behave so stupidly, and urged them not to allow themselves to be made fools of in this way. Even supposing they were to carry out their plan of killing me, would not another "Sahib "at once be set over them, and might he not be an even harder task-master? They all knew that I was just and fair to the real worker; it was only the scoundrels and shirkers who had anything to fear from me, and were upright, self-respecting Pathans going to allow themselves to be led away by men of that kind?

Once having got them to listen to me, I felt a little more secure, and I accordingly went on to say that the discontented among them would be allowed to return at once to Mombasa, while if the others resumed work and I heard of no further plotting, I would take no notice of their foolish conduct. Finally I called upon those who were willing to return to work to hold up their hands, and instantly every hand in the crowd was raised. I then felt that for the moment the victory was mine, and after dismissing them, I jumped down from the rock and continued my rounds as if nothing had happened, measuring a stone here and there and commenting on the work done. They were still in a very uncertain and sullen mood, however, and not at all to be relied upon, so it was with feelings of great relief that an hour later I made my way back, safe and sound, to Tsavo.

The danger was not yet past, unfortunately, for scarcely had I turned my back to go home when the mutiny broke out again, another meeting being held, and a fresh plot made to murder me during the night. Of this I was soon informed by my time-keeper, who also told me that he was afraid to go out and call the roll, as they had threatened to kill him also.

At this further outrage I lost no time in telegraphing for the Railway Police, and also to the District Officer, Mr. Whitehead, who immediately marched his men twenty-five miles by road to my assistance. I have no doubt, indeed, that his prompt action alone saved me from being attacked that very night. Two or three days afterwards the Railway Police arrived and arrested the ringleaders in the mutiny, who were taken to Mombasa and tried before Mr. Crawford, the British Consul, when the full details of the plots to murder me were unfolded by one of them who turned Queen’s evidence. All the scoundrels were found guilty and sentenced to various terms of imprisonment in the chain-gangs, and I was never again troubled with mutinous workmen.

• Chapter 1 - My arrival at Tsavo •
• Chapter 2 - The first appearance of the man-eaters •
• Chapter 3 - Attack on the wagons •
• Chapter 4 - Building of the Tsavo Brige •
• Chapter 5 - Troubles with the workmen •
• Chapter 6 - The reign of Terror •
• Chapter 7 - The District Officer's Narrow Escape •
• Chapter 8 - Death of the first man-eater •
• Chapter 9 - Death of the second maneater •
• Chapter 10 - Completion of the bridge •
• Chapter 11 - The Swahili and other tribes •
• Chapter 12: A night after hippo •
• Chapter 13: A Day On The N’dungu Escarpment •
• Chapter 14: Finding of the man-eaters den •

•  •

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