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Morro Velho
Situated in a low valley close to the town of Nova Lima in the tropical highland state of Minas Gerais Brazil, about 12 miles from the modern city of Belo Horizonte and some 200 miles north of Rio de Janeiro, the community at Morro Velho grew up rapidly around the mighty gold mine of that name which was for many years the deepest in the world. This was worked from 1830 by the British financed St John del Rey Mining Company and like many other Latin American mining concerns, the company recruited British labour and encouraged miners’ families to join them. The Cornish were by far the largest ethnic group among the British immigrant labourers in this most well known Brazilian mining camp, numbering some 350 in the 1860s, and remained so into the 1920s. A visitor to the mines in the 1860s noted that because the majority were mostly from the County of Cornwall, the men preserved their peculiar accent and many of their superstitions. Morro Velho was considered not to have been as healthy as other English establishments in Brazil on account of its geographic position.

The British resided in the Colônia Inglêsa (English Colony) clustered on the hill around the Casa Grande (equivalent to the Count House) and to the south west of the hill in an area that became known as the Retiro. It was separated from the well-defined area called ‘Timbuctoo’, home for the Negro slaves, and the majority of the Brazilian townspeople who resided in nearby Nova Lima, and eventually encompassed the Bairro das Quintas where the British Club was located. The well-built housing of the Colônia Inglêsa resembled the whitewashed single-storey local architecture but had a definite British aura evident in the cottage-style gardens with lawns, boasting varieties of plants introduced from Britain. Some houses had a veranda, but these usually belonged to the bosses! The three acre hospital garden was said to have been particularly well stocked with peas, beans, potatoes, turnips and cauliflowers, as well as many indigenous plants including orange and banana trees.

The growing population of miners and their families from Britain resulted in the St John del Rey Mining Company’s decision to allow a small chapel to be built in the 1840s. An even larger one with a schoolroom was constructed in the 1850s to coincide with the arrival of a Church of England minister to administer the rites of life and instruct the children in Christian principle as well as an acceptable British curriculum. After years of lobbying by the company’s directors, the British Government passed a special act in 1867 legalising marriages consecrated by Anglican clergy at Morro Velho. The Church at Morro Velho was fairly well attended in dry weather, the congregation numbering about 100 souls, the miners sitting on the left side and the mechanics on the right. The Cornish, being mainly of the Wesleyan Methodist persuasion, started Sunday schools for the children.

Indeed, many of the cultural activities at Morro Velho had a Cornish flavour, particularly the annual tea treat and miners’ festival, the latter centred on St John the Baptist’s Day at Midsummer, a celebration that had for centuries been popular in Cornwall. That of 1857 involved around 100 company employees and their families, including scholars from as many as three Sunday Schools. In the afternoon, headed by the minister, some 60 children brandishing banners and flanked by their Sunday school teachers and two Head Mining Captains paraded around the Morro Velho establishment accompanied by an amateur brass band. The party partook of a tea of oranges and plum cake voluntarily provided by the community. Hymns and recitations, tunes from the band, addresses to the audience and the presentation of a book to each scholar for good attendance at Sunday school followed. Bemused Brazilian onlookers stood on the hills nearby to witness the parade, one of the Sunday School banners declaring Dios Vos Guarde, (God Protect You). This was an attempt to foster good relations with the host community that saw several Brazilians invited to the festivities, including the Roman Catholic Vicar of the neighbouring parish.

But there was not a high degree of social interaction between the communities, as is revealed by an examination of the parochial registers from the mid-nineteenth century for the Parish of Congonhas de Sabara (the former name of Nova Lima). For most of the nineteenth century almost exclusively the Cornish married among themselves although after 1900 intermarriage became a little more common. At Morro Velho the British applied for and received permission from Emperor Pedro II to set aside their own Protestant burial ground. This cemetery may still be seen, which reinforced a sense of separation and exclusiveness.  

Other cultural activities popular in Cornwall also found their way to Brazil. One example was Cornish wrestling, with special competitions being held at the annual Miners’ Festival throughout the decades of the mid-nineteenth century. A sports club was later constructed by the company at the Quintas and was complete with facilities for soccer, tennis, cricket and pool and was only open to members of the British community. By the turn of the twentieth century, cricket and rugby matches were popular as they were also in Cornwall at this time; in 1913 there were two teams, one named ‘Cornwall’, consisting entirely of Cornish immigrants, and the other ‘Morro Velho’ that included Cornish, Morrovelhenses, Welsh and English. There was little interaction between the Brazilian population and the immigrant workers, but football that had been introduced primarily by young Cornish miners became fashionable at nearby Nova Lima and the St John del Rey Company donated the ground for the Vila Nova Athletic Club’s football stadium. In addition, there was a Freemason’s Lodge and a well-equipped library, in which could be found Cornish newspapers such as the West Briton and the Cornish Post and Mining News. During the rainy season many Cornish liked to go on fishing trips to the River das Velhas some two miles away, and shooting wild game was also a popular distraction.

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Morro Velho Cricket Club
Photo Courtesy Rich Trezise
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Morro Velho Football Club
Photo Courtesy Rich Trezise
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Clemence Family at Morro Velho
Photo Courtesy Rich Trezise

However, there was little entertainment specifically for the women outside of the odd performance with the amateur dramatic society, so many devoted their time to helping to organise the annual tea treat and miners’ festival. Some found it difficult to adapt to life in the tropics. One woman pined away and died of homesickness in 1867 that so alarmed the company it considered sending another in apparent distress back to her native community to avoid a repeat of this unfortunate occurrence. 

Back in Cornwall, Morro Velho became a household name in many Cornish mining villages as families moved back and forth and women waited for a regular monthly disbursement from Brazil and chapels and organisations benefited from charitable collections sent from Morro Velho and other parts of Brazil. Some people eventually returned home, leaving a legacy of their ties with Brazil in house names: there is a cottage named Nova Lima at Pool near Redruth and another house at Helston, named Minas Gerais, survived until relatively recently when the owners sadly renamed it St Johns. 

By the 1930s the once dense migration chains that bound Cornish communities with Morro Velho began to break down, mainly as fewer Cornish were recruited as hard rock mining contracted across Cornwall. But the Cornish legacy is still visible in the area around Nova Lima. Contact with Britain brought a regimentation to life in Nova Lima and prompted changes in architectural styling, the use of more diverse furniture, new manners of dress, new cultural tastes, eating habits, practices of hygiene and of course, a passion for football. Today, tea taken with milk and Christmas cake known as ‘queca’, introduced by the Cornish miners, is not found outside Nova Lima, while there are families who speak flawless English with no trace of an accent, and bear names such as Hosken and Roscoe.

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