The Cornish in Latin America

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Graph showing decennial migration from Cornwall to Latin Ameirca

The decade of migration could be ascertained for just under half of all Cornish migrants to Latin America. The overall migration flow to Latin America follows a trajectory of rapid growth in the period before 1840, reaching figures not exceeded later in the nineteenth century, and a gradual decline from the 1880s.

The marked fall in numbers leaving Cornwall for Latin America in the 1840s and 50s could be attributed to a temporary switch in direction of migration flows as other, more attractive, migration destinations began to compete for and attract Cornish labour as the global mining economy and with it, the mining labour market, expanded. The collapse of several mining companies in Brazil, Chile and Mexico coincided with the development of commercial mining in the English speaking world of the western USA following the Californian gold rush of 1849 and the inception of free and assisted passage schemes to Australia where copper mining was developing rapidly and gold was discovered in the mid 1850s.

Free and assisted passages to the British colonies in the 1840s was also likely to have been a response to political turmoil sweeping Continental Europe in 1848 that drove down the market value of copper ore causing mine closures in Cornwall. This came at a time when the potato blight was causing widespread misery in many mining districts. A combination of these factors conspired to cause a temporary decline in numbers migrating to Latin America, but figures rally again after the 1850s, a time when Cornish copper mining was at its zenith, accounting for over 80 per cent of Britain's copper and nearly a quarter of total recorded global copper ore output.

However, in 1866 the copper market crashed and by the mid 1870s the tin mining industry was in serous decline, resulting in the closure of many mines and widespread unemployment. The migration flow from Cornwall became a mere dribble after World War One. British financed mining companies were not as numerous as once they had been, Cornish mine captains were fewer and labour native to overseas metalliferous mining regions were increasingly favoured. Crucially, Cornish ‘science’ was seen to be outdated, its miners and engineers in their technical dotage, added to which the skilled labour pool in Cornwall had shrunk so drastically due to migration and the high mortality rate among miners serving in World War One that by the 1940s miners from Poland and Italy had to be brought in to work local mines.

The overall migration flow to Latin America enters a general downward trajectory from the 1880s, perhaps a combination of the disastrous run to surface of the Morro Velho Mine in Brazil, the under-capitalisation and lack of subsequent development of the Chilean metal mining industry and increased American control of the Chilean and Mexican mining industries, all of which limited opportunities for Cornish labour. Additionally, revolutionary instability in Mexico in the early twentieth century and the inception of military intervention and authoritarian rule in Chile 1924-33 rendered these countries less attractive for prospective migrants further lowering figures.

Yet gross emigration ran at about twenty per cent of the male Cornish born population in each ten-year period from 1861-1900, and about ten per cent of the female. Overall migration flows from Cornwall were not ceasing but appear to have been changing direction, as Latin America diminished in popularity as a migration destination in favour of elsewhere, probably South Africa where wages were initially much higher.

In the first half of the nineteenth century Cornwall was a dynamic industrial region in the vanguard of the British industrial revolution, a successful expanding industrial region that began to export its skill and labour initially to Latin America, setting the trend for what was to become a global phenomenon. The migration flow to Latin America before 1840 in particular casts doubt on the conventional gloom-laden crisis driven migration hypothesis, as it appears to be indicative of success not failure. However, analysing the migration flow from a Cornwall-wide perspective obscures the considerable differences that existed in the timing from various parishes. This highlights the drawbacks of such a homogeneous approach and the need for finer mesh local studies.

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