How the European Assistants Fare

From the old Dundee Year Books of the 19th Century


Calcutta, June.

Any Dundee man visiting the mills in India will experience the very height of hospitality wherever he goes, whether from the managers or their European assistants. The manager generally has a fine, large, commodious bungalow for his own use. The assistants' quarters consist, in most in­stances, of a spacious double-storeyed house, each of the six or eight men having a good-sized room, with bathroom attached, ex­clusively to himself. These rooms are furnished by the Company, but the furniture is always supplemented by the occupants with various things, according to their several tastes. Some of them are decorated on the walls with pictures and old armour, and have bric-a-brac and curios studded here and there on small tables about the room. A piano or harmonium is no uncommon article of furniture. Each of the houses has a large common dining-hall and a" good billiard-room.

When the mill assistant arrives out in Calcutta his circumstances undergo a change. He may have been known in Dundee as Sandy Tamson; but out here he is changed at once into Alexander Thomson, Esquire, weaving master, and all his letters are so addressed. He lives well. The chummery arranges with the khansamah (butler) to supply the table at so much per head per month. Each of the members take a monthly turn as mess master. Rs, 32 is an ordinary rate per month for food, equal to about 35s sterling. His other necessary monthly ex­penditure is Rs. 10 to his bearer, a Mahommedan, who helps him off and on with his clothes, takes charge of his room, attends him at table, stirs his tea, and lights his pipe. Rs.4 or Rs.5 per month pays the dhobie (washerwoman) for washing, or rather destroying, his white shirts and other clothes. He pays Rs. 1 to the sweeper for attending to his fox-terrier, and when he keeps a horse and trap, as he sometimes does in partnership with his chum, that involves an extra expenditure of Rs. 15 per month, as Rs. 30 maintains a horse and pays the wages of its syce (groom). He pays no house rent, and gets free medical attendance.

There is a medical dispensary at each mill for the benefit, of the workers, with a native compounder in charge. The native doctor gets a monthly salary. He attends to the Europeans at two or three mills if within easy distance of each other, and gets from Rs. 30 to Rs. 50 from each. He is often a very skilful fellow, and pays weekly visits whether there is sickness or not to see that the sweepers are paying proper attention to sanitation, and that the cook's utensils are all properly tinned. If a mill assistant falls ill, and is likely to be so for some time, he is sent down to the private ward of the Hospital in Calcutta, where everything that first-rate medical skill and careful nursing can do is at his command. Indeed it is sometimes difficult to get a young susceptible assistant away from the hospital when he is convalescent, as the Eurasian nurses are so kind and winsome in their ways, (Eurasian is a better word than half-caste, although it means the same thing; the word is composed of the first syllables of Europe and Asia.) When he gets out of hospital he is either sent for a fortnight up to the hill station of Darjeeling, which is 24 hours' railway journey from Calcutta and 7000 feet above the sea, or to Ceylon, which is a five days' voyage by steamer. This latter trip extends to about three weeks. He is on full pay all the time, and the Company pay all his expenses.

The jute mill assistant generally starts on a pay of Rs. 200 per month, with £6 sterling out of this sum paid at home at the par of 2s rupee. The monthly rise during each succeeding year of the term of engagement is usually Rs, 25. In addition to this pay most of the mills give a bonus, some calculated ob the outturn and some on the profit avail-for dividend. Some of the assistants told me that when things were going full swing they got a bonus of Rs, 100 per month for months together. It will be seen from the above that a young unmarried man if he lives a temperate life can save a good deal of money even at the present low value of the rupee, and many of them do.

I heard considerable grumbling in most of the chummeries however, and opinions freely expressed, that unless the wages were raised good men would not be got to come out to India at present rates, I ventured to hint that in Dundee at the present moment there would be 10 good applicants for any vacant Calcutta billet.

When a mill man gets up in the morning, and he has to get up in time for sunrise—his attendant brings him a cup of tea with some toast and sometimes a couple of eggs. This is called chota haziri (little breakfast). When the real breakfast time comes, he sits down to several courses, consisting of fish, stewed steak and onions, eggs, curried fowl and rice, with the usual addenda of tea or coffee, with bread, butter, and jam. Instead of the tea, some prefer beer or iced water, while others take a peg. The ‘peg’ is a great Indian institution. It is the first and the last thing you are offered in an Anglo-Indian house. It consists of a glass of whisky, a bottle of soda water, and a lump of ice all tumbled into a tall glass. It may be a useful and refreshing drink where it is actually needed, but the "peg" is responsible for the downfall and early death of many a fine, promising young man. He comes in jaded and wearied from the mill, and the "peg" is the handiest refresher he can take. It is seductive.

By and by it gets the mastery, and then if illness and death do not carry his remains to the Scotch Cemetery in Circular Road, Calcutta, he is dismissed from his situation with a broken character and constitution. Young men going out to India should beware of the "peg." They do not require it. The healthiest men I met at the jute mills were total abstainers, and there are more of that class than one would think. Total abstinence is increasing also, which is a good sign. Not only over-drinking but over-eating has been the ruin of a percentage during the past 20 years. Sitting down to sumptuous meals compared with those they were accustomed to at home, and often eating butcher meat three times a day, the victim began to feel that he had got a "liver." That habitually overwrought organ struck work, and sought relief by forming an abscess, ending in a painful operation, which often ended in death. Moderation in eating is essential to good health in India.

I have told you about the breakfast. The tiffin (luncheon) takes place when he gets his two hours' rest during the middle of the day, and is less elaborate than the morning meal—a plate of soup, cold meat, and fruit do at this time. The sahib then takes a good sleep before commencing his afternoon's work. At four o'clock his bearer takes a cup of afternoon tea to him, and when the day's work is over, and bathing and dressing accomplished, the whole chummery sit down together to' their evening meal, con­sisting of soup, fish, joint, side dishes, pudding, and fruit. The various fruits in their season are on the table at every meal, A plentiful supply of ice is provided by the Company. This necessity of Anglo-Indian life is extensively manufactured in Calcutta, and is sold very cheap, about a half penny a pound. After dinner some take a game at billiards, some lie back in long chairs with a cigar and a book or the home papers re­ceived by the last mail, some take to their music, and others to their various hobbies. A good hobby is a great salvation to a young fellow at an Indian Jute Mill. Half-past nine is a usual bed time. By ten o'clock everything is quiet.

On Sundays there is a great deal of visiting done between the various mills. Cricket matches and lawn tennis parties held on these days, and shooting competitions at the rifle ranges. The plea is there is no other day for them, when the mill works six days a week, and when the half of the Sunday is taken up also. The mill man dresses well when on a visiting tour, and he decorates himself with his gold chain and gold ring. He cannot be described as "kirk greedy," although, in truth, the exigencies of his position have much to do with this by reason of his long long hours, which only a new Factory Act can put right. Still, amongst the 200 odds of jute mill assistants in India there are not a few of high principle and Christian char­acter who are an honour to their set, and who take advantage of all the means of grace that come within their reach.

The married men have a difficult position. There is no provision made for married quarters at a Jute mill, and the enforced necessity for leaving their wives at home has often been attended by evils which would have been avoided had husband and wife been able to live together in India. The erection of married quarters deserves the attention, of Jute Mill Direc­tors. Nearly every jute mill assistant is an artillery volunteer. The genial manager of Barnagore Mill is Major Thom, while the able and versatile governor of the Union Mill is known as Captain Thompson. They make a brave display on parade days, and also when they attend the Scotch Kirk once a year to get a sermon from the senior chap­lain, the Rev. Mr Ferrier, who on such an occasion displays his war medals on his breast, one of which was won during the famous march from Cabul to Caudahar under Sir Frederick Roberts,

The baboo is a very important factor in mercantile life in Calcutta. He is the English-speaking and English-writing native clerk, who does all the routine work in the offices, and he does it well. The salary of the baboo varies from Rs. 15 to Rs. 50 a month, although there are some in positions of trust who draw Rs. 120 to Rs. 150. The ordinary run of these native clerks, however, get about Rs, 25 to Rs. 30 a month. I may mention that in the mills every European assistant has one or more of these baboos attached to his department as timekeepers, and also as a medium of communication between himself and the workers.


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