Wasmes, April 1879
My dear Theo,
It’s time that you hear something from me again. I heard from home that you were in Etten for a couple of days and that you were travelling for the firm.1
I sincerely hope that your trip went well.
These days you’ll no doubt be in the dunes and in Scheveningen now and then. Here it’s also attractive in the country in the spring; here and there are places where one could imagine oneself in the dunes, because of the hills.
I went on a very interesting excursion not long ago; the fact is, I spent 6 hours in a mine.
In one of the oldest and most dangerous mines in the area no less, called Marcasse.2
This mine has a bad name because many die in it, whether going down or coming up, or by suffocation or gas exploding, or because of water in the ground, or because of old passageways caving in and so on.3
It’s a sombre place, and at first sight everything around it has something dismal and deathly about it. The workers there are usually people, emaciated and pale owing to fever, who look exhausted and haggard, weather-beaten and prematurely old, the women generally sallow and withered. All around the mine are poor miners’ dwellings with a couple of dead trees, completely black from the smoke, and thorn-hedges, dung-heaps and rubbish dumps, mountains of unusable coal &c. Maris4
would make a beautiful painting of it.
Later I’ll try and make a sketch of it to give you an idea of it.5
Had a good guide, a man who has already worked there for 33 years, a friendly and patient man who explained everything clearly and tried to make it understandable.
We went down together, 700 metres deep this time, and went into the most hidden corners of that underworld.
The maintenages or gradins (cells where the miners work) that are farthest removed from the exit are called ‘des caches’ (hidden places, places where one searches). This mine has 5 levels, 3 of which, the uppermost ones, are exhausted and abandoned, one no longer works in them because there’s no more coal. If anyone were to try and make a painting of the maintenages, that would be something new and something unheard-of or rather never-before-seen. Imagine a series of cells in a rather narrow and low passageway, supported by rough timber-work. In each of the cells is a worker in a coarse linen suit, dingy and soiled as a chimney-sweep, chipping away at the coal by the dim light of a small lamp. In some of the cells the worker stands upright, in others (‘seams worked lying down’) he lies flat on the ground.
The arrangement is more or less like the cells in a beehive, or like a dark, sombre passageway in an underground prison, or like a series of small looms, or actually they look like a row of ovens such as one sees among the peasants, or like the separate tombs in a vault. The passageways themselves are like the large chimneys of the Brabant farmsteads.
In some, water leaks in everywhere and the light of the miner’s lamp creates a peculiar effect and reflects as in a cave full of stalactites. Some of the miners work in the maintenages, others load the loosened coal into small wagons that are transported along rails resembling a tramway. It’s mostly children who do this, both boys and girls. There’s also a stable there, 700 metres below ground, with around 7 old horses that transport larger amounts, bringing them to the so-called accrochage, that being the place where they’re hauled up. Other workers are busy restoring the antiquated passageways to prevent them from caving in, or are making new passageways in the coal seam. Just as sailors on land are homesick for the sea, despite all the dangers and difficulties that threaten them, so the mine-worker would rather be below ground than above.
The villages here have something forsaken and still and extinct about them, because life goes on underground instead of above. One could be here for years, but unless one has been down in the mines one has no clear picture of what goes on here.
The people here are very uneducated and ignorant, and most of them can’t read, yet they’re shrewd and nimble in their difficult work, courageous, of rather small build but square-shouldered, with sombre, deep-set eyes. They’re skilled at many things and work amazingly hard. Very nervous dispositions, I mean not weak but sensitive. Have a festering and deep-rooted hatred and an innate distrust of anyone who tries to boss them around. With charcoal-burners one must have a charcoal-burner’s nature and character, and no pretensions, pridefulness or imperiousness, otherwise one can’t get on with them and could never win their trust.6
Did I tell you at the time about the miner who was badly burned by a gas explosion?7
Thank God he has now recovered and goes out and about and is beginning to take long walks as practice, his hands are still weak and it will be some time before he’s able to use them for his work, yet he has been saved. But since then there have been quite a few cases of typhus and virulent fever, including what is known as ‘foolish fever’, which causes one to have bad dreams such as nightmares and delirium. So there are again many sickly and bedridden people, lying emaciated on their beds, weak and miserable.
In one house everyone is sick with fever, and they have little or no help, which means that there the sick are taking care of the sick. ‘Here it is the sick who nurse the sick,’ said the woman, just as it is the poor who befriend the poor.8
Have you seen anything beautiful recently? I’m eagerly longing for a letter from you.
A couple of nights ago a foal was born in the stable here, a nice small creature that was quick to stand firmly on its feet. The workers keep a lot of goats here, and there are young ones in the houses everywhere, just like the rabbits commonly to be found in the workers’ houses.
Must go out and visit the sick, so have to finish now, let me hear from you soon, to give a sign of life, should you have the time.
Give my regards to your housemates, and to Mauve
when you get the chance, I wish you the very best, and believe me ever, with a handshake in thought,
Your loving brother
Going down in a mine is an unpleasant business, in a kind of basket or cage like a bucket in a well, but then a well 500-700 metres deep, so that down there, looking upward, the daylight appears to be about as big as a star in the sky. One has a feeling similar to one’s first time on a ship at sea, but worse, though fortunately it doesn’t last long. The workers get used to it, but even so, they never shake off an unconquerable feeling of horror and dread that stays with them, not without reason or unjustifiably. Once down there, however, it isn’t so bad, and the effort is richly rewarded by what one sees.
Vincent van Gogh
rue du Petit-Wasmes
Wasmes (Borinage, Hainaut)