Over five years ago, I received a “blast from the past:” an email from an organiser of a UNESCO workshop in Antigua in the mid-1980s on the use of mini/micro computers in information work (see the end of my June 6 Beacon commentary “Roadmap proposed for UK, VI”). Author Sue Appleby subsequently invited my help with some research on the copper mine on Virgin Gorda, for a book she was writing.
I gladly shared with her my own research on the mine, combed through microfilm of the Virgin Islands Legislative Council minutes in the Archives Unit, and took her around the iconic ruins. However, I can claim no other credit for the work that went into The Cornish in the Caribbean, a very informative and enjoyable read, produced to a very high standard. As I mentioned in my June 13 commentary “VI-Cornwall links explained,” the book was published in February.
Ms. Appleby’s minutely detailed and meticulously referenced story of the miners who worked on Virgin Gorda takes its place among accounts of other Cornish visitors to the Caribbean during the 17th to 19th Centuries, including merchants, plantation owners and seamen. She stresses the important role that their shared Methodism played in the lives of the Cornish miners and the Virgin Islanders who worked with them.
Most Cornish miners travelled alone to their work abroad, some later sending for their families or marrying local women. Exceptionally, several who came to Virgin Gorda brought their wives with them. Perhaps that may have been a tribute to Virgin Gorda’s healthy climate, as they suffered from only one death — that of a baby — before the mine closed and they returned home.
I mentioned last week that an 1857 issue of the West Briton (a Cornish newspaper) had referred to a Cornishman as the “President administering the Government of the British Virgin Islands.” The issue for March 11, 1853 quotes an obituary in the St. Croix Avis for Lieutenant George Bennett Lawrence, born in Lostwithiel, Cornwall:
He “died at St. Thomas’s … on the 15th of January . … For some years past he has been employed in surveying the Virgin Islands, including Crab Island (now Vieques) and Culebra. … He came to this island to survey its coasts and reefs also. … His skill and talents as a surveyor are conspicuous in those charts of the British Virgin Islands which are already published, and equally so in his surveys of the Danish islands, St. John’s, St. Thomas’s, and the numerous small islands.”
Cruzans must have been used to distinguishing each island in our archipelago by its colonial ruler long before Transfer Day.
I have briefly covered the history of the Virgin Gorda copper mine in past commentaries.
In 1835 English investors led by Liverpool lawyer John Whitley established the Virgin Gorda Mining Company to re-open old copper mine workings on the island. Resident mine agent Bajan Peter J. Minvielle directed clearing and developing nearby 190 acres of freehold land and 800 acres of leased land and reopening the waterlogged site unworked for 105 years.
In 1838 the first shaft was sunk, and Mr. Minvielle went to England early in 1840 to hire a few miners and buy a second-hand steam engine which had been working in a Cornish mine, pumping water and lifting ore from the mines while powering ore-dressing machinery. He also bought a second-hand Cornish boiler of the type invented in 1815 by the Cornish engineer Richard Trevithick, to produce the steam to drive the engine.
Mr. Minvielle recruited 31 male and five female miners from the St. Austell area of Cornwall, and Joel Hitchins as the mine captain from a nearby copper mine. They were housed on Virgin Gorda in new cottages north of the mine. Fifty-five local labourers, 13 masons and carpenters developed and maintained the site while the Cornish miners extracted the ore. The Cornish wives and 64 local women and children were probably employed as surface workers as in Cornwall, gradually breaking the ore by hand tools into gravel-sized pieces which they crushed with a special hammer.
Meanwhile, John Whitley negotiated with Customs and Excise in London for permission to ship directly in and out of Virgin Gorda, with the company paying for a Virgin Gorda-based superintendent. On his return to the Virgin Islands, Peter Minvielle petitioned the local Legislative Council and Assembly for permission to cut a road from the mine to the harbour at Spanish Town, to ship out the ore and import provisions, construction materials, the workers’ wages and coal to power the steam engine. Some shipments would come on the ore ships, some from St. Thomas.
Some Methodist missionaries to the VI came from Cornwall, where Methodism has always flourished, like the Rev. Benjamin Tregaskis (a really Cornish name) who served on Tortola until 1839. Mine captains were chosen by management for their shrewdness, mining expertise and administrative skills, but they were often lay preachers, responsible to the men for their spiritual welfare as well as their health and safety at work.
Sunday was free from mine work, and religious observance an important part of the day. Many Cornish miners were Methodists, and they would have felt comfortable in worshipping with the local community as Methodism was well established in Tortola and a Methodist chapel had been built on Virgin Gorda in Spanish Town back in 1823.
Three Quakers visiting the Caribbean were interested in the well-being of recently freed slaves, so early on Dec. 15, 1840 they were rowed across to Virgin Gorda on a barge provided by the Methodist missionary. But when they got to the island they found their meeting would be in the evening, so they went to see preparations to re-open the copper mine.
The visitors reported later that the island’s poor soil and droughts had discouraged the “coloured people” into neglecting cultivation, so in the Quakers’ view freedom had made them no better off. However, the copper mine’s manager, Joel Hitchins, had offered them higher wages than they had ever had.
The Quakers added, “Charles O’Neal, a young coloured carpenter, told them a great deal about his people’s condition and provided for us the best his house could afford, without reward — desiring no other than our prayers for his preservation.”