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Ex-West Briton writer helps tell tale of Mexico's Cornish miners

By This is Cornwall  |  Posted: December 09, 2010

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JOHN HOSKEN is an enthusiastic British journalist who has been researching for some time now everything related to the Cornish miners.

He is a devoted follower of all vicissitudes of this group from Cornwall, which have also contributed to the world with their wisdom.

Hosken accepted the invitation to write an article for this edition.

He looked among the West Briton journal archives —whom I wish to thank for their contribution as well.

He describes the perception of people in Cornwall County when the Cornish miners headed for Mexico (1824-1826), a crucial moment for the understanding of these adventurous men's feat to work in the mines of Real del Monte.

The Cornish Arrive In

Mexico 1825

John HOSKEN

April 2008

THE appalling yet heroic struggles of the Cornish miners as they crossed Mexico in 1825 to reopen the mines of Real del Monte could have been averted. Many lives could have been saved from vomito, a swamp fever which killed no fewer than 15 Cornish miners. Altitude sickness on the journey into the Sierra killed others. These men had been born at sea level and no one had cared how they might fare in mountains. Much machinery could have been saved from the sands and swamps near Vera Cruz had the Mexican themselves been fully in control of their own situation when the Cornish arrived.

The organisation for their nightmare journey, from 1824 to 1826 by sea and then their epic crossing of Mexico to its mountainous heights, with so much sickness and suffering, had been shockingly misconceived by Englishmen comfortably at home, anxious for Mexico's silver and gold.

While South America reeled from Simon Bolivar's revolution, Mexico had gained its independence in 1821. Therefore, was Mexico not rich and ready for the exploitation of its abandoned flooded mines in the high altitudes of the Sierra Madre?

So thought the Englishman John Taylor. He recruited a Cornishman, John Rule, a captain of the famous United Mines of mid-Cornwall, to assess the abandoned silver mines of Real del Monte.

This fateful reconnaissance led to what Professor Philip Payton has described in his meticulously-researched book The Cornish Overseas as "a complex and bitter-sweet relationship between Cornwall and the new lands of silver, gold and copper".

The Cornish expedition had clearly been ill-advised about the political situation in a newly-free Mexico. To give a most crucial example, the defeated Spanish still held the fort of San Juan de Uloa at Vera Cruz and mischievously – disastrously – delayed the foolhardy Cornish expedition when it arrived, undoubtedly wearied by the sea voyage.

Poverty-stricken

Let us examine what an over-ambitious Cornish expedition John Taylor was responsible for. The West Briton, Cornwall's most important newspaper to this day and with a long and distinguished history, reported on March 26, 1824, that Cornish miners were being dispatched to Mexico. A further group was shortly to join them from Falmouth in Cornwall, a seaport famous for possessing the third largest natural harbour in the world.

The money offered to poverty-stricken Cornishmen who must leave their families and their beloved Cornwall was irresistibly high. Mine captains would receive up to £1,000 a year: 20,000 pesos, for that is what £1,000 represents. It would have been a fortune in 1824. Ordinary miners would undoubtedly be lured by generous lower wages.

On April 1, 1825, The West Briton further reported that a second party of Cornish miners had set sail from Falmouth aboard the ship Melpomene. There is a hint of the horrors to come in The West Briton's report: "During the embarkation a band of music played airs and the hardy adventurers were saluted with the firing of cannon."

But now comes the gigantic naivety of the Cornish venture. AC Todd, in his excellent book of 1997, Cornish Miners In Mexico, records that along with the Melpomene from Falmouth sailed three other vessels, the Courier, General Phipps and Sarah.

There were 350 Cornish miners of high quality in this fleet besides nine Trevithick beam engines, and tons of other equipment from Harvey and Co of Hayle (a world-famous mining company near Camborne, at the very heart of Cornish mining). Off they sailed to the sound of the band... into undoubtedly the greatest ordeal of their lives.

For other "Cousin Jacks", as the Cornish are nicknamed round the world, ordeals came soon at sea. Professor Payton, in his book, neatly ties in the fact that other Cornishmen set sail for Mexico in the ship Cambria. In the boisterous Bay of Biscay off Spain, they came across a vessel called the Kent, on fire and sinking. It was largely due to the strength and courage of the Cornish miners on the Cambria that the lives of 547 passengers from the Kent were saved.

All this Mexico-bound activity had been fostered not only by John Rule's investigations in Real del Monte, but by a Scotsman and a former soldier in the Royal Engineers, Captain James Vetch. He too had been recruited by Taylor and the two had set sail together from Liverpool in the north of England, far away from Cornwall, on March 24, 1824.

They travelled via New York to Tampico and arrived at Real del Monte on June 11. This was the founding voyage, leading to the Cornish miners setting forth from Falmouth the following year in the little fleet to Mexico: for it was Vetch who, as the Cornish struggled and died at Vera Cruz, organised the awesome expedition to Real del Monte.

Individualism

The Cornish received scant thanks from Vetch after they arrived. Relations between this military captain and the mining captain John Rule became increasingly strained as Vetch complained that the Cornish miners were ill-disciplined: or, as Professor Payton puts it, Vetch "resented the independence and individualism of the Cousin Jack miners".

Vetch even began to question Rule's competence as a practical miner. Rule pleaded sickness and returned to Cornwall, deeply embittered.

He was not the only Cornish miner to return home prematurely. Two from the good ship Melpomene arrived home inCornwall because they could not cope with Mexico. The West Briton, on April 7, 1826, reported that the town of Redruth had been enlivened by the arrival of the two survivors in a post-chaise (a horse-drawn carriage for hire). They had been "heartily welcomed". One of them, The West Briton further reported, "astonished the natives by appearing in the streets of Redruth in the dress usually worn by the Mexican miners".

This was probably the first true taste that the Cornish in Cornwall itself had of the distant exotic land of Mexico: yet Pachuca and Real del Monte were to taste the full flavour of the Cornish.

To somewhat simplify the history, the anti-Cornish military Captain Vetch went, at last replaced in 1832 by mining Captain John Rule who now triumphantly and successfully returned from Cornwall.

So many of the Cornish stayed. They brought their wives, who grew the Cornish herbs which to this day bedeck the hills up to the Panteon de los Ingleses, where so many of the planters, their sons and daughters sleep as at home. Their descendants now live there. So does their heritage, from the pasty to football. They're Mexicans, yet Cornish. Their very names chime, like bells, the sound of Cornwall: Trevethan, Rule, Straffon.

The Straffons, I know, are well-known in Pachuca. Guillermo Straffon was given his first job by my grandfather, who was a leading man in Pachuca, chief assayer at the Loreto Mill and British vice-consul. How delighted I was to be taken to an ancient restaurant near the Reloj (itself a Cornish inspiration and gift) to meet old men who had known my grandfather when they were young men: Captain Josiah Perry Walters who came home, dying, to Cornwall when I was still a youth.

I met him, though. And I've met the people of Mexico who knew him. Maybe there are bonds between we Cornish down by the sea and you Mexicans up there in Sierra Madre which have made us one. If so, the awesome sacrifices made in 1826 by my ancestors were worthwhile after all: for all the mines are dead, and we are alive and friends.

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