It is time that you heard from me again. From home I heard
that you had been in Etten for a few days and that you were on
a business trip. I certainly hope you had a good journey. I
suppose you will be in the dunes some of these days and
occasionally in Scheveningen. It is lovely here in spring, too;
there are spots where one could almost fancy oneself in the
dunes, because of the hills.
Not long ago I made a very interesting expedition, spending
six hours in a mine. It was Marcasse, one of the oldest and
most dangerous mines in the neighbourhood. It has a bad
reputation because many perish in it, either going down or
coming up, or through poisoned air, firedamp explosion, water
seepage, cave-ins, etc. It is a gloomy spot, and at first
everything around looks dreary and desolate.
Most of the miners are thin and pale from fever; they look
tired and emaciated, weather-beaten and aged before their time.
On the whole the women are faded and worn. Around the mine are
poor miners' huts, a few dead trees black from smoke, thorn
hedges, dunghills, ash dumps, heaps of useless coal, etc. Mans
could make a wonderful picture of it.
I will try to make a little sketch of it presently to give
you an idea of how it looks.
I had a good guide, a man who has already worked there for
thirty-three years; kind and patient, he explained everything
well and tried to make it clear to me.
So together we went down 700 meters and explored the most
hidden corners of that underworld. The maintenages or gredins
[cells where the miners work] which are situated farthest from
the exit are called des caches [hiding places, places
where men search].
This mine has five levels, but the three upper ones have
been exhausted and abandoned; they are no longer worked because
there is no more coal. A picture of the maintenages would be
something new and unheard of - or rather, never before seen.
Imagine a row of cells in a rather narrow, low passage, shored
up with rough timber. In each of those cells a miner in a
coarse linen suit, filthy and black as a chimney sweep, is busy
hewing coal by the pale light of a small lamp. The miner can
stand erect in some cells; in others, he lies on the ground
(***** tailles à droit, *** tailles à plat). The
arrangement is more or less like the cells in a beehive) or
like a dark, gloomy passage in an underground prison, or like a
row of small weaving looms, or rather more like a row of baking
ovens such as the peasants have, or like the partitions in a
crypt. The tunnels themselves are like the big chimneys of the
The water leaks through in some, and the light of the
miner's lamp makes a curious effect, reflected as in a
stalactite cave. Some of the miners work in the maintenages,
others load the cut coal into small carts that run on rails,
like a street-car. This is mostly done by children, boys as
well as girls. There is also a stable yard down there, 700
meters underground, with about seven old horses which pull a
great many of those carts to the so-called accrochage, the
place from which they are pulled up to the surface. Other
miners repair the old galleries to prevent their collapse or
make new galleries in the coal vein. As the mariners ashore are
homesick for the sea, notwithstanding all the dangers and
hardships which threaten them, so the miner would rather be
under the ground than above it. The villages here look desolate
and dead and forsaken; life goes on underground instead of
above. One might live here for years and never know the real
state of things unless one went down in the mines.
People here are very ignorant and untaught - most of them
cannot read - but at the same time they are intelligent and
quick at their difficult work; brave and frank, they are short
but square-shouldered, with melancholy deep-set eyes. They are
skillful at many things, and work terribly hard. They have a
nervous temperament - I do not mean weak) but very sensitive.
They have an innate, deep-rooted hatred and a strong mistrust
of anyone who is domineering. With miners one must have a
miner's character and temperament, and no pretentious pride or
mastery) or one will never get along with them or gain their
Did I tell you at the time about the miner who was so badly
hurt by a firedamp explosion? Thank God, he has recovered and
is going out again, and is beginning to walk some distance just
for exercise; his hands are still weak and it will be some time
before he can use them for his work, but he is out of danger.
Since that time there have been many cases of typhoid and
malignant fever, of what they call la sotte fièvre,
which gives them bad dreams like nightmares and makes them
delirious. So again there are many sickly and bedridden people
- emaciated, weak, and miserable.
In one house they are all ill with fever and have little or
no help, so that the patients have to nurse the patients.
“Ici c'est les malades qui soignent les malades”
[here the sick tend the sick], said a woman, like, “Le
pauvre est l'ami du pauvre.” [The poor man is the poor
Have you seen any beautiful pictures lately? I am eager for
a letter from you. Has Israëls done much lately and Maris
A few days ago a colt was born here in the stable, a pretty
little animal that soon stood firm on his legs. The miners keep
many goats here, and there are kids in every house; rabbits are
also very common here in the miners' houses.
I must go out to visit some patients, so I must finish. When
you have time, let me have a word from you soon, as a sign of
life. My compliments to the Roos family, and to Mauve when you
meet him. Many good wishes, and believe me always, with a
handshake in thought,
Your loving brother, Vincent
Going down into a mine is a very unpleasant sensation. One
goes in a kind of basket or cage, like a bucket in a well, but
in a well from 500 - 700 meters deep, so that when looking
upward from the bottom, the daylight is about the size of a
star in the sky.
It feels like being on a ship at sea for the first time, but
it is worse; fortunately it does not last long. The miners get
used to it, yet they keep an unconquerable feeling of horror
and fear which reasonably and justifiably stays with them.
But once down, the worst is over, and one is richly rewarded
for the trouble by what one sees.
My address is - Vincent van Gogh, c/o Jean Baptiste
Rue de petit Wasmes,
Wasmes (Borinage, Hainaut)
At this time, Vincent was 26 year old
Vincent van Gogh. Letter to Theo van Gogh. Written April 1879 in Petit-Wasmes. Translated by Mrs. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, edited by Robert Harrison, number 129.
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