Mines across Latin America were amongst the first to attract significant Cornish labour away from the British Isles.
Having recognised Cornwall as a leader in mining expertise, Latin America had begun to recruit miners from the region by the 1820s and continued to do so until the 1930s. Many of the defining features of overseas Cornish migration during the 19th century have their roots in Latin America.
Cornish labour in South America
In the early 19th century, South America’s once great gold and silver mines lay derelict. In contrast, Cornwall’s booming mining industry had given it a reputation as one of the world’s leading mining regions. Subsequently, South America looked to Cornwall to provide the technology and expertise that would regenerate its once thriving industry. By the 1830s Cornish miners were already being recruited to work mines across the continent.
As new mineral deposits discovered across the Americas forced world prices down, the Cornish industry suffered. This increased the numbers of Cornish mine workers choosing to migrate in search of better prospects, strengthening existing transnational communities.
South America looked to Cornwall to regenerate its once thriving mining industry.
The community of Morro Velho grew up around the gold mine of the same name in Brazil. From 1830, this was worked by the St John del Rey Mining Company who recruited British labour and encouraged their families to join them. It was the Cornish who made up the majority of the British immigrants that settled in Brazil. There were about 350 Cornish settlers working at the mining camp in the 1860s through to the 1920s.
The Gongo Soco gold mine was purchased in 1825 by the British financed Imperial Brazilian Mining Company. Again, Cornish miners made up the majority of the European work force. Cornish labour was recruited on 3-5 year contracts resulting in a high turnover of men. As the miners travelled back and forth between South America and Britain, Gonco Soco became well-known to the mining communities around Gwennap and Redruth.
Cousin Jack’s legacy
Cornish settlers introduced many things to South America. Some of the cultural impact is still prominent today. Architectural style and cuisine have been influenced in some regions by the Cornish. Young Cornish mine workers helped to popularise Brazil’s favourite sporting pursuit of football at the nearby Nova Lima. The St John Del Ray Company even donated the ground for the Vila Nova Athletic Club’s football stadium.
By the 1930s the transnational links between Brazil and Cornwall began to break down as fewer Cornish were recruited. Some eventually returned home to Cornwall where they acknowledged their ties with South America in their house names; there is a cottage named Nova Lima in Pool near Redruth and until recently a house in Helston was known as Minas Gerais.
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