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great migration

The first signs of the mass mining migration that would so characterise Cornwall’s Great Migration began in Latin America. In the early C19th, the former colonies of Spain and Portugal were swept into a maelstrom of revolutionary fervour as the peoples there began to throw of the shackles of Iberian hegemony which severely impacted their mining industries. These newly independent nations looked to Britain, the ‘Workshop of the World’ and the only capital-rich country capable of the large-scale financial backing necessary to rehabilitate mining. The subsequent 1825 London Stock Market boom led to the opening up of the Latin Americas to British capital, the first time that the mining industry was financed by share capital to this extent. It heralded a new era which saw the globalisation of the modern mining industry and its attendant labour market.

The new companies looked largely to Cornwall to supply the technology and the skilled miners to modernise the Latin American mining industry. Importantly, over a third of the Directors of these new companies which included the Foxes, the Williams, the Taylors – had Cornish connections through birth or business interests. These men, their appointed Mine Captains or resident recruiting Agents, ensured that the Cornish were the skilled labour of choice for their companies’ mines. This gave rise to what has become dubbed the ‘Cousin Jack network’ – a system of recommendation that enabled the Cornish to edge out rival ethnic groups and to dominate the international mining labour market from the get-go.

Cornish miners, historically predisposed to migration, were enticed overseas by initial offers of high wages on fixed-term contracts which came complete with regular quarterly disbursements sent via banks in Cornwall for their families, thus offering financial security of the type not commonly found there. Also, there was the opportunity to rise far higher, far more quickly, up the mining hierarchy overseas.

World War One was a turning point as it disrupted migration chains that had been in place for decades, many of which were permanently sundered. The political, economic and financial ascendancy of the United States precipitated the decline of Britain on the world stage. The global encroachment of American capital, the rise of American giants like Anaconda Copper Company or Kennecott Copper Corporation, utilising new technologies and modern mechanisation, meant that there was no longer a need for the practical Cousin Jack miner of old. The loss of managerial positions meant that the Cornish stranglehold on the metalliferous mining industry was loosened and Cornwall’s Great Migration ended.