Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Clotted Cream and Guacamole

A Cornish mine, lost in the deserts of Mexico...

This piece appeared in the speciality magazine, Cornwall Today, last week. As only about 37 people read this magazine - and they read this startling personal story in a very truncated form, - I think I am justified in reposting it here: in full and glorious length, with lots of extra photos. Kernow bys vyken!

How I Found the Lost Cornish of Mexico

I am on a rattly bus heading past a huge ancient pyramid. The southern sun is high in a fierce blue sky; all around is dusty scrubland, and desert cacti. This place is about as far away as you can get from green and drizzly Cornwall, yet it is Cornwall that has brought me here. I am on the hunt for the lost Cornish of Mexico, for my ancestors, for a little bit of me.

As the bus heads on into the pine-clad foothills of Sierra Madre mountains, I think back to how my quest began. With a very tiny clue.

It was late October 2003, and I was on holiday in my home county of Cornwall - idly wandering around a disused churchyard, in a damp valley near Truro. The place was a mess of brambles and graffiti, but amidst the wreckage I found a fine piece of Victorian statuary. When I scraped away the moss, the still legible inscription on the gravestone recorded one Captain Richard Skewes, 1824-1885, ‘late of Pachuca, Mexico’.

My mother’s maiden name being Skewes, I was intrigued. Could this man be a relative? If so, why the reference to Mexico? When I headed back to Truro Library, a bit of research told me two things. One, we were probably related. Two, Captain Richard was not a military man, as I had presumed, but a mine-captain: an expert in tin-mining who sailed to the biggest silver mines in history. In the Sierra Madre, Mexico. In other words my distant cousin was part of that poignant but little-known chapter in Victorian history: the great Cornish emigration to Latin America.

According to the Truro Library history books, this unremarked exodus began in the 1820s. Following years of revolution and strife, the new rulers of Mexico found that their famous silvermines were dangerously waterlogged. At a loss for what to do, they called upon the world’s best hard-rock miners: the Cornish. As the Cornish tin-mining industry was at the time in recession, the plea was answered. Over the next decades thousands of tin-miners, and occasionally their families, sailed out of Falmouth for Mexico.

The voyages were terrible and arduous, many miners died of the dreaded ’black vomit’. On arrival in Veracruz the survivors faced even more terrors: a month-long trek across a lawless land. But the Cornish were tenacious, and determined - and tough. When they eventually reached Pachuca they set to work, and fixed the mines. In time the Cornish began to flourish: living happily amidst the Mexicans even as they sent money home. It was several more decades before the exodus came finally to an end; mainly because conditions back in England had improved.

An intriguing story in itself. But one aspect of it was, to me, even more tantalising: various sources hinted that some of the Cornish miners stayed on in Mexico - because they had taken local wives, and produced Spanish-speaking children. Consequently, if my reading of the history books was right, that meant their descendants must still be there: a surreal but exciting thought. Could there really be pink-faced Trevithicks, Pascoes, and Pengellys, living amidst the dark-skinned Mexicans? Walking out of Truro Library into the autumnal cold, I resolved to find out.

Fast forward a few months. Here I am: in Mexico. I've quit the drizzly winter of England for the eternal spring of Mexico City. From the Mexican capital it is about sixty miles to Pachuca, capital of Hidalgo State.

This two hour bus journey takes me past through the enormous shanty towns around Mexico City, past those famous ancient pre-Columbian pyramids of Teotihuacan, and into the green barren hills where the Aztecs mined obsidian - the black glass the Aztecs used for their heart-ripping knives. To me this journey is something of a culture shock; God knows how it must have appeared to an illiterate tinminer from Penzance, circa 1840.

Finally we reach Pachuca. This turns out to be a charming and buzzing Mexican city, where the first ghosts of the Cornish past are not hard to find. On almost every street corner there is a bakery selling oval-shaped pies called pastes. It seems almost too good to be true: but it is. These pastes are a direct descendant of the steak-and-potato pasties favoured by Cornish miners for centuries. The only difference here is that the pastes are full of pineapple, or coconut, or even mole (it’s pronounced moh-lay), the Aztec sauce comprising one half chilli, one half chocolate.

Another Cornish leftover is the architecture. There are lots of Cornish-looking stone buildings in and around Pachuca, their thick masonry and manly proportions stand in stark contrast to the local adobe shacks. Then again, the ugliest building in the city is another Cornish legacy: a huge, louring, redbrick Methodist chapel - which is now a school full of noisy, giggling Mexican children, as I discover when I creak open the door.

The sea of universally dark infant heads gets me wondering. Where are the Mexican-Cornish? Where are the suspiciously freckly Pachucans of my imagination? Back in Truro Library, I had happily pictured a town full of long lost fifth cousins who would feed me saffron buns with salsa. But in Pachuca there are, in truth, only ghosts.

On my last day I consult the history books again. They tell me that the greatest legacy of the Cornish in Mexico was football. The tin-miners introduced the sport to Mexico in the middle of the nineteenth century; it’s been a national passion ever since. The books also tell me that the very best place to find any remaining ‘Cornishness’ is actually a few miles north of Pachuca. Here, between the fir-clad hills, nestles the little town of Real del Monte. This is where the bulk of the Cornish lived, mined, married and died.

A taxi takes me up into the sunlit mountains, into the neat and flowery mining town. Up here the air is notably sharper, fresher, more Cornish in fact. But will there be anything other than air to remind me of my emigre cousins? My first visit is to the silvermines themselves. Although the glory days of the enormous Sierra Madre silverlode are long gone, some of the shafts are still working - apparently. I am mildly hopeful that I might find something.

Crossing the town I head for the biggest mine-head. Here I rattle the old wooden door, and am let in by a wizened security guard. Inside, the place looks pretty much disused. Then I see that clouds of warm steam are billowing from the yawning black mineshaft. This, the guard explains to me in halting English, is the concentrated breath of the miners still hewing silver half a mile below. But are there Cornishmen down there? The security guard laughs and says no. Nada. There are no more Cornishmen in Mexico. ‘All gone. All...’ He smiles sadly. ‘In the cemetery.’ And he points up a hill.

Half an hour later I climb up to the ‘English cemetery’. After a quick visit to the key-keeper, I enter the pine-shaded graveyard. Immediately I come across a grave with the name Jory. My maternal grandmother’s maiden name was Jory. Nearby is a grave with the name Moyle. My paternal grandmother’s maiden name was Moyle. Remarkable. Half my ancestors seem to be buried on this tranquil hilltop in the remote mountains of sunny Hidalgo, central Mexico.

The feeling is weird, in fact almost melancholy. I had hoped to find living, breathing Cornishmen, not just lonely graves. Slightly disconsolate, I trudge back through town towards the taxi rank that will take me to Pachuca. But in my gloom I get slightly lost and take a different turning. This brings me past a pretty church, past some dark-eyed girls munching red mole pastes, by a miners’ monument.

And it’s there I see it. Directly opposite the monument is a big sign: Doctor Henry Baltazar Skewes. Dr Henry Skewes?! This man is surely a distant cousin; probably a descendant of Cap’n Skewes! I am seriously excited. Nervously I knock on the door. At the last, a fifty-something man answers. His hair is dark, but perhaps in that Celtic way. His eyes are brown - but lighter than the Mexican average. Or am I just kidding myself?

The doctor looks flatly at me. In extremely fractured Spanish I try to tell him my mother’s maiden name; stammering, I explain that I am probably his relative. The doctor shrugs, and burps a mescal-y burp, and goes to shut the door on my face. And then, suddenly, his eyes light up. ‘Skewes!’ he says, pronouncing it skoose, rather than skew-ez. ‘Skoose! Cornwaal! Inglese!’ And then he embraces me as the long lost cousin I probably am.

Inside his little office we drink tequila. I try to explain to the doctor my delight in finding him, one of the ‘lost Cornish of Mexico’, the most obscure of British emigrants. My cousin Doctor Skewes nods at me, and smiles. Lost Cornish? Laconically he leans into his desk, and gets out the phone book, and then he points out a few names. Diego Pengelly, Enrique Trewortha, Juanita Skewes. There are hundreds of them, the Mexican-Cornish. All very much alive; all living hereabouts. And all with names as gloriously hybrid as I had fondly hoped, way back in Truro Library.

Then the doctor tells me, mainly in sign language, about his family. It turns out most of them are dentists or doctors. I ask where they live and
work; the doctor replies: 'Pachuca, in the mines. Helping the miners'. As I sink my last tequila, I ponder this thought. The last mines in Cornwall
may have closed down, all the miners of Camborne may be stacking supermarket shelves, yet halfway across the world, another Cornishman, a
relative, a Skewes, is still working the old underground trade - in the famous silver mines of Mexico. Y Viva Trelawny!
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1 comment:

Matt Fox said...

Hi Sean

I came across your blog today after a visit at the weekend to Baldhu and Chacewater cemeteries, both just outside of Truro, Cornwall. I saw the grave of Richard Skewes and was intrigued by the mention of Mexico. I was even more amazed when I "accidentally" found another Skewes grave in Chacewater which is why I Googled the name and discovered a bit more about Cornish history. Have you any more photos from your trip to Mexico as I'd be really interested to have a peek!!!