The Zimapanners

 

 

 

 

                                                

 

Cornish Miners in Mexico 

 

 Disaster at Mocambo Beach

1824-1827

 

 

Introduction 

In 1824, 25 years before the start of the Californian Gold Rush, Cornish hard-rock miners emigrated to Mexico to re-open the silver mines that had been closed for years there. This is a heroic account of how Cornish miners, crippled by malaria and dysentery, managed to salvage 1500 tons of Cornish mining equipment dumped in the sands of Mocambo Beach near the port of Verz Cruz, and then manhandled it 250 miles from the Mexican coast up to the mining town of Real del Monte (10,000 ft).

 

Background 

By 1826, 10 British, American and German mining companies were already competing among themselves for the best mining concessions in Mexico. Seventy percent of them were British-owned.

British-owned
1. The Real del Monte Mining Company.
2. Bolaños.
3. Tlalpujahua.
4. Anglo-American.
5. United Mexican.
6. The Mexican.
7. The Catorce

American-owned
8. The Company of Baltimore.
9. The Company of New York.

German-owned
10. Eberfeld


The Real del Monte Company
 

By the mid-1820s, the Real del Monte Mining Company was looking to expand its mining empire in Mexico. To do so, it needed additional manpower and resources. Commissioner James Vetch, who was in charge of the logistics, proposed having Lieutenant James Colquhoun supervise the Company’s Bolaños mine. The plan was to bring over Colquhoun from Cornwall with more Cornish miners and their families, fresh equipment and stores and the long-awaited Cornish beam engines needed to unwater the mines; the rich seams of silver currently lay inaccessible underwater.

 

Four ships sets sail from Falmouth (Apr 1825) 

Four ships [Courier; Melpomene; General Phipps; Sarah] arrived at Falmouth and loaded their cargo of 1500 tons of Cornish mining gear and a fresh batch of Cornish miners. The Cornish mining equipment included:


- shovels, hammers & drills

- guns & capstans

- pig- and sheet lead

- copper ingots & wrought iron

- 150 heavy-duty military wagons and harnesses

- iron/brass cylinders & boilers

- ron bars, wood & cast-iron pumps

- Cornish steam engines

 

Expedition dogged from outset 

The expedition, which was destined for Vera Cruz on the east coast of Mexico, was plagued by problems from the offset. The party was expected to reach Vera Cruz by early June 1825, the dry season, but because of high tides and Spring gales, the ships were unable to leave Falmouth on schedule. As a result, the four ships instead arrived at Vera Cruz in early July 1825, a month behind schedule. July was the “unhealthy”, rainy season, marked by outbreaks of malaria and dysentery occurred.

 

Ships refused entry at Vera Cruz (Jul 1825) 

The Commander of the St Juan de Uloa fortress, which protected the approaches to Vera Cruz’s harbour, refused to allow Colquhoun and the ships to enter the harbour. In addition, the Mexican Commander of Vera Cruz refused to allow the ships to unload their cargo of Cornish mining equipment. With no legal alternative open to them, the ships crews had to unload their cargoes onto the open beach at Mocambo.

 

Heavy metal cargo sinks into sand 

The Cornish miners and their families helped the crews with the unloading work. The cargo had to be manhandled into lighters, in shark-infested waters and in boiling surf. Once the cargo was landed on the beach, the heavy metal equipment began to sink into the soft sand. Some lighters capsized, throwing Cornish iron and pit work into the sea, never to be recovered. The men were thwarted once again when the Mexican customs officers refused to clear the cargo through customs. The impasse was eventually resolved after the British Consul in the City of Mexico, Charles S. O’Gorman intervened.

 

Vetch unaware of expeditions' problems (May 1825) 

Logistics manager, Vetch, who was completely unaware of the problems that had befallen the beleaguered expedition party since their late arrival at Vera Cruz, and who had assumed that the ships had left Falmouth on schedule and would arrive with the mining gear any day, sent out a requisition to Colquhoun for waterwheels, stationery, miner’s dials, chains and carpenter’s tools. Three months later, in August 1825, Vetch received a message for help from the expedition’s commander, Colquhoun, saying that he planned to abandon the ships’ cargo because bad weather, malaria and dysentery had taken its toll on the expedition party, and that those that had survived would be moved to a safe location.

 

Survivors moved to Jalapa 

The weakened survivors were eventually moved from Mocambo Beach to high ground near Jalapa, 60 miles inland from the malaria-infested swampland of the coastal belt. The party was exhausted and depleted on arrival but fortunately the British Consul there, Robert Heaven, offered the survivors a safe haven where they were looked after until they slowly recovered their health and strength.

 

Cornish steam engines salvaged

Moving the mining equipment that was rusting away on Mocambo Beach and transport it over the mountains to the Real del Monte Company’s farm of Guajolote (10,000 ft), would be a long and arduous journey under the best of conditions. However, as malaria and dysentery weakened many of the ships’ passengers and crew, who by then were slowly arriving in Real del Monte in dribs and drabs, additional men would need to be found.

 

English mercenaries hired for salvage operation 

Josiah Smith, the British Consul at Vera Cruz, informed Vetch that a number of English mercenaries (former seamen) were due to be discharged from their duties of fighting for the Mexican Army, and that they could be usefully employed for his emergency project. Vetch, who by this time was desperately looking for a quick fix, welcomed the idea, and agreed to pay each of the 20 men the princely sum of £50 a year! For this, the men not only had to move the badly needed Cornish steam engines from Mocambo Beach to their destination, but also to work afterwards in one of the Real del Monte Company’s mines or on its farm.

 

Main salvage operation begins (Feb 1826)

In February 1826, seven months after arriving at Vera Cruz, a large party of men was assembled at Mocambo Beach, ready to move the remaining abandoned equipment the 250 miles from the coast through the mountains to Guajolote. The group comprised 120 Mexicans, 550 mules and 50 wagons to be used to carry the heavy engine parts, and some Cornishmen.

 

Mocambo Beach to Encero (Feb-Apr 1826)

It was a real struggle for the Cornishmen, the Mexicans and mules to move the heavy mining equipment. Over a period of two months, this motley crew manhandled, dragged and hauled the equipment along the first leg of the journey from the sandy beach at Mocambo to Encero, which was situated about half way between the coast and Jalapa.

 

Rough terrain hampers salvage operation 

To move all the equipment, man and mule had to cross and re-cross the difficult terrain between Mocambo Beach and Encero four times, each time suffering losses of men and mining gear. The terrain was peppered with gullies and ravines that had been dry and sandy on the outward journey, but which were filled with gushing water on the return journey as a result of torrential rain. Much of the route lay across low, swampy plains criss-crossed by deep fissures, watercourses, and rough thickets covered with lava masses. Some 36 hundredweight (1.8 tons) of Cornish iron and nine mules were swept away by the torrents. The Plains of Appan were sprinkled with shallow lakes, and there the party lost 21 mules overnight, swept away by a flash flood.

 

Salvage expedition reach Guatimape (Apr 1827) 

The men then had to drag all the plant and equipment up steep mountains, stumbling over the tracks made by earlier wagon wheels, eventually reaching Guatimape on 8 April 1827. The men were weakened by dysentery and exhausted from the arduous uphill mountain slog. It would take the party a further three weeks before they reached Guajolote, the Real del Monte Mining Company’s farm (end Apr 1827). To compound the difficulties, the party suffered from altitude sickness; they were 10,000 ft up in the mountains. However, they resolutely struggled on and arrived in Real del Monte shortly afterwards.

 

Triumphant welcome (± May 1827) 

It had taken the salvage team more than a year to travel the 250 miles from Mocambo Beach to the town of Real del Monte (Feb 1826 to ± May 1827). The salvage team was greeted by trumpets, violins, guitars, Mexicans dancing in the streets and fireworks. The church bells were pealed and the town erupted into a fiesta of dancing, music and fireworks. In August 1827, the Cornish pumps were installed and two months later the Moran mine had been completely pumped dry of water.

 

What initially had been a disaster at Mocambo Beach, had finally turned into a triumph of the human spirit, and to a large degree, was attributable to the dogged determination of Mexicans and Cornishmen alike.

 


© Peter King Smith, Oct 2009
Adapted from Pt. 2 of The Search for Silver,
by Dr. A.C. Todd, 1977 (2000)