The Cornish in Latin America

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Cornwall and Latin America in the early 1800s: a brief overview
For centuries Cornwall had been exploiting its mineral wealth, perfecting Medieval European mining methods described by Agricola, by exercising a willingness to embrace and modify technological innovations introduced from elsewhere. Some radical improvements in pumps were probably introduced to Cornish mines by German miners in the sixteenth century and henceforth developed. Gunpowder was brought to Cornwall, also by a German, enabling the more rapid exploitation of ore bodies. But steam engine technology, developed in neighbouring Devon by Newcomen and improved in Glasgow and the Midlands by Boulton and Watt, was of particular importance on Cornwall's deep mines then being rapidly developed for copper ore, a metal vital to the machinery of the industrial revolution.  Between 1734 and 1780, apart from the North East coalfield, no place in Britain saw more Newcomen steam engines erected than Cornwall. By contrast, only a few were at work in Continental Europe. However, these monstrous stationary engines were expensive to erect requiring immense masonry engine houses and chimneys and separate boilers complete with reservoirs.

Moreover, Cornwall was geographically disadvantaged at it lay some distance from the coal fields of England and south Wales. Coal, the fuel needed to power the steam engines, dramatically increased the cost of mining. James Watt's new and powerful steam engine design superseded that of the fuel hungry Newcomen type, and was arguably the most important single invention of the Industrial Revolution. The need for increased fuel efficiency was doubly important in Cornwall, an area devoid of coal reserves, where mine-owners had been forced to pay royalties on Watt’s design based on a percentage of fuel saved by using one of his engines in comparison to a Newcomen one. 

Many of  Britain’s top engineers flocked to Cornwall to erect or to maintain Watt’s engines and to find ways of increasing their efficiency. These included
Matthew Boulton and Scottish born William Murdoch, a Boulton and Watt engine erector, and the Hornblower brothers from Shropshire who joined forces with a crop of talented Cornish-born engineers such as Woolf, Grose, Sims, Loam, and most famously, Richard Trevithick, the son of a Cornish mining captain. This resulted in a series of litigious clashes with James Watt as numerous engineers and ‘practical tinkerers’ with hands on experience attempted to improve upon Watt’s design by cumulative processes and minor adjustments that threatened to circumvent his patent on the low-pressure steam engine. This process was given fresh impetus when the Boulton and Watt patent on the low-pressure engine expired in 1800, ushering in a period of creativity that lasted into the 1840s.  

Cornish beam engine encased in its masonry houseIt was Trevithick’s innovative work with  high-pressure or 'strong steam' as he referred to it, that marked an important turning point in steam technology. Watt believed that high pressure steam was dangerous and his engine had not exceeded 4psi. Trevithick's engine was a clear advance on the Boulton and Watt design with its separate condenser, and his engines were able to produce much more power for the same size of cylinder and could operate much faster. Weight and size were also reduced by the absence of the separate condenser and its accessories.  Moreover, the whole layout of the engine was simplified by dispensing with the beam and driving a shaft directly through a crank. In order to achieve high pressure steam operations, advances also had to be made in boiler design, enabling them to withstand higher pressures. In 1814 Trevithick succeeded in perfecting his 'Cornish boiler'. Consequently, it was found that the type of steam engine being used to drain mines in Cornwall was performing much more efficiently than contemporary physics said was theoretically possible.  The productivity of the steam engine in Cornwall was increased almost four times in the first half of the nineteenth century by higher pressure operations, the lagging of pipes and other adjustments. By contrast James Watt had increased the productivity of the engine by only two and a half times at most.

Cornwall, with its willingness to adapt and accelerate new ideas in metalliferous mining and steam technology, emerged during the industrial revolution as the region representative of the best European mining technology known at the time, rivaling anything found in the contemporary world.  With its distinct and specialised extra-regional commodity export, copper ore, powerful and sophisticated capitalisation of its mining industry and hierarchically structured labour force, it was also one of Britain’s earliest industrial regions. By the late 1840s Cornwall produced over 80 per cent of Britain's copper and was arguably the most important mining district in the world, accounting for nearly a quarter of total recorded global copper ore output.

By contrast, the mining industry in Latin America was in serious decline in the early nineteenth century. Civil war raged across much of South and Central America as its people fought to throw off Iberian colonial rule and gain their independence. Mining in Latin America has a long and illustrious history, primarily in silver production, but also in gold, mercury and copper.  Centuries of mining had brought the industry in Latin America to levels of sophistication comparable to many mining centres in Europe, enriching Habsburg Spain in the process.
The Latin American silver mines, long believed to have been the source of Habsburg wealth and power, were fabled throughout the world and the Spanish Crown, with its usual claim to one fifth, el quinto, of all metal production aroused the envy and suspicion of all the other monarchs in Europe in the early modern period. Portugal too, realised considerable profit from its fifth of all gold and diamonds mined in Minas Gerais Brazil, the movement of people to the rich gold areas around Ouro Prêto predating the well-known Californian gold rush by over a century and a half.

Yet, mining in the New World was carried out in regions that brought numerous engineering and logistical difficulties. Many mines, such as those in Mexico, were deep; flooding and draining were ever-present problems, while the Cerro of Potosí, although not prone to flooding, was worked at over 16,000 feet above sea level. Situated high in the Andes, extracting ores here exacted a crushing toll on human life, even among the native Indians used to labouring in the rarefied atmosphere who were forced, often against their will, to work the mines. Supplying remote Andean mines was problematic, as thousands of llamas and mules were required to convey food and provisions, timber, ore, salt and mercury through difficult terrain over trails that were often narrow and precipitous. By the late eighteenth century mining output in many parts of the New World was suffering from the exhaustion of accessible deposits and from financial and technical difficulties incurred in attempting to reach deeper ore bodies. Political instability in the aftermath of the fall of Napoleon and an increased desire for freedom from Iberian rule in Latin America merely compounded these problems.

By the early nineteenth century many of the once great mines of the Spanish Empire lay abandoned, flooded and dilapidated. Mining towns and villages were depopulated as men were conscripted into armies causing severe labour shortages, while a financial crisis ensued as Spanish financiers fled back to Spain taking their capital with them. One by one the newly independent nations of Latin America began attempts to rebuild their economies. The mining industry was believed by most governments to be the cornerstone of economic success and they looked to Britain, the ‘work shop of the world’ to provide not only the necessary capital, but also the technology and skilled labour to kick start the once great mining industry. It was against this  backdrop that Richard Trevithick migrated to Cerro de Pasco in Peru in 1816 to overcome problems encountered in the assembly and operation of the engines he had exported there in 1814, and the mushrooming of British financed mining companies across Latin America in the mid 1820s. 

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