The Cornish in Latin America

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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. 

The 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.

Life for the Cornish at Cobre was difficult, for besides the constant threat of disease, there was little in the way of familiar cultural distractions or entertainment and some sadly turned to drink.
Most disliked the Cuban pastimes of cock and bullfighting and riotous fiestas but more importantly, there was no religious provision made for them: no other religion but Catholicism was tolerated. There were two Catholic churches at Cobre, one of which, El Iglesia de la Virgin de la Caridad, was very popular with pilgrims. But the Cornish, being mainly of the Wesleyan Methodist persuasion, wished to have their own prayer meetings and services and this caused huge problems in the mid 1830s.

Each employee of the
Cobre Mining Company was sent to Cuba with a Protestant Bible which roused the suspicion of the Cuban authorities. A diplomatic rift almost resulted in the mid 1830s when a Wesleyan local preacher who was a company employee tried to minister to his fellow Cornishmen and was threatened with incarceration. The Cornish had to secretly practice their faith thereafter. As they were not permitted to be interred in a Catholic cemetery, a Protestant burial ground on the mines was opened which was necessary given the unsanitary conditions and high death rate from disease at Cobre. Most of the Cornish got on well with neighbouring Spanish planters, and were glad of the opportunity to be able to enjoy the hospitality of nearby haciendas and participated in hunting wild game that abounded in the nearby woods as a means of whiling away the time.

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.

The community was finally dispersed in 1869 when operations at the mine were suspended following the partial exhaustion of the deposit, the drying up of a river essential to dressing operations and that was vital in providing steam for the Cornish engines, and the damage inflicted on the railway by rebels during the insurrection that began in 1868 and raged until 1878. An American company attempted to work the Cobre mine in the early twentieth century employing some Cornish labour and made considerable progress in draining the mine. However, they neglected to adequately secure the saturated ground and the entire Cobre Mine collapsed taking with it the beautiful church of Senora de la Caridad, thus ending major Cornish involvement with mining in Cuba.

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