Mining for copper at El Cobre is an industry that stretches back to at least the sixteenth century. The rich copper mines of the Sierra Maestra in the south east of Cuba were worked for almost three centuries by slave labour and free people of colour by the Spanish. The Cobre copper mines, abandoned by the Spanish, had fallen into disuse by the time they attracted the attention of a British gentleman who, in Cuba to recover a mortgage debt on a neighbouring property in the early 1830s, assayed some waste from one of the mines. This proved to be remarkably rich and this and other mines in the vicinity were acquired and re-opened by a British company named El Compañía Consolidada de Minas del Cobre (Cobre Mining Company) in the early 1830s and the contiguous sett by another British company named El Real de Santiago (Royal Santiago Mining Company). Both companies looked to Cornwall, the foremost mining region in Britain, to supply its technological and labour needs, importing steam engines from Cornwall to drain the workings.
Between 1836 to the end of 1839, at least 136 Cornishmen were sent to Cobre as employees of the Compañía Consolidada de Minas del Cobre. Workers were brought to the port of Santiago de Cuba by copper ore barque from Swansea, having made the journey from Cornwall by sea from Hayle or Portreath. The mines lay about 13 miles in land from Santiago de Cuba and were reached by means of a mule train from Punta de Sol. From the early 1860s the mines were connected by a small mineral railway.
The copper mines lay on a ridge that traversed the head of a picturesque valley that wound its way up from Santiago de Cuba. The town of Cobre was on a reverse slope to the west of this ridge, and on the south rose a range of mountains from Hardy's Top to Monte Real, 970 and 1940 feet respectively above the mines. The former sugar loaf-shaped mountain was named after John Hardy junior, British Consul and onetime Director of the Cobre Mining Company, who had a spacious villa built at its summit. This was later used as a sanatorium by the officials of the Cobre Mining Company.
immigrant workers lived in one-storey houses built close to the mines on
the outskirts of the town. These were constructed of large posts driven
into the ground at four corners and at the doorways and windows, with
smaller posts driven in between. Branches were then woven around the
posts and plastered on both sides with an adobe type of mortar. The
exterior was painted in either blue, yellow or green
and the roofs were made of semi-circular tiles. The windows had no
glass, but iron bars and wooden shutters. Nothing could be done to
prevent flies and mosquitoes from entering, the latter which carried
yellow fever being particularly lethal to Europeans, resulting in the
death of hundreds of Cornish there in the nineteenth century. The
climate was humid and unhealthy and in 1864
about 44 per cent of Englishmen attacked with yellow fever died at Cobre.
For a time in the 1830s and early 40s
Cobre was a place extremely well known in the Cornish town of Redruth
and the constellation of mining villages surrounding it, as extended
families sought work with the Cobre Mining Company, remitting many
thousands of pounds annually to Cornish banks. But fewer Cornish were
recruited at Cobre from the late 1830s when there were around 200 of
them there, as word reached home of the many deaths from fever and the
less than attractive wages on offer compared to other mining fields that
had resulted in labour problems with the mine management. A significant
number of Cornish were replaced by more robust Isleños
from the Canary Islands, although there was always a marked Cornish
presence at Cobre.