The Cornish Diaspora

Cornish miners had always moved freely within Cornwall pursuing work where it was to be found. When times were hard their search would spread to other parts of the British Isles. Cornwall had developed its mining expertise throughout Europe and had begun to export its technology and skills worldwide for which it earnt a sound reputation. Emigration developed momentum after the Napoleonic Wars and the Cornish miners found themselves much in demand for their skills and knowledge. Between 1815 to 1914 it is believed a quarter of a million people had emigrated from Cornwall. A third of these traveling to the United States and the rest to the South American countries of Mexico and Brazil and The British Territories of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and South Africa. Not all migrants were miners and men such as smelters, farmers, boat builders, blacksmiths and shopkeepers seized this opportunity to improve their lot.

The shortage of corn and the potato famine in 1840 hit the poor hard and fuelled the tide of emigration. The opening up of new mines in other parts of the world offered good prospects to miners and Cornish miners, in demand, made emigration worth considering. When Richard Trevithick emigrated to the silver mines of Peru in 1816, it is possible that his high pressure steam engines influenced an industry that preferred the skilled Cornish miners. Supporters of Trevithick even suggested that his efforts had provided the first ever market for British investment. This impetus created the need for technology and promoted the specialised export of mining equipment from Cornwall, such as the new boilers Harvey’s of Hayle were producing, and with them the men who could make them work. Unfortunately, at home the Copper price crashed in 1866 and the tin price crashed in the 1870’s and miners found themselves looking for work.

Methodists encouraged emigration as their radical thinking saw it as self-improvement and a way to raise above despair. Individuals as well as businesses became involved in the emigration ‘trade’ as a way of increasing their dwindling profits. Mine managers, clergymen, solicitors and journalists all became involved, acting as agents for overseas mining companies. Local meetings were organised and talks on the benefits of emigration were given in glowing terms. Overseas mines were so keen to employ Cornish workers that they sometimes offered free passage or reduced fees for family. The Cornish miner would likely be going to an already established Cornish community; sometimes with friends and relatives already there and knew what to expect. Sometimes he would have to move about many times to find work, ending up in the outback, a jungle or inhospitable place before his short life ended. Everyone knows the Cornish always helped each other and if asked if they could recommend a fellow miner they would answer “Cousin Jack” and then find a fellow countryman to do the job.

The Cornish economy profited from emigration as individuals who emigrated sent money home, small amounts here and there but sometimes enough to purchase land. Wives often saved enough to enable them and their children to join their husbands. When the Cornish settled they formed tight-knit communities and bought their way of life and pastimes with them. Today, in distant and remote parts of the world you will find pasties, saffron cakes, wrestling contests and rugby. The largest Cornish Festival is the revived Kernewek Lowender at the Copper Coast towns of Moonta, Wallaroo and Kadina, South Australia. The Cornish heritage is still richly celebrated in Mexico and America and other parts of the world.

The Cornish Global Migration Programme exists to record Cornish Migration Worldwide and is based in the historic 17c Murdoch House, Redruth. Staffed by dedicated volunteers and funded solely by public donation with established connections to Cornish Associations worldwide, it should be the first port of call for anyone tracing their ancestors back to Cornwall. The Project will ask you to register your family migrant and may be able to help you link with common ancestors but they do not undertake Family History Research.
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