The miners who brought British culture to Mexico
No, Pachuca and Real del Monte were not founded or conquered by the British, but these foreigners left such an indelible mark on them that “being British” is now part of the identity of these towns.
These neighboring communities are located about three hours north of Mexico City. This region of Hidalgo state has a long history of mining, starting with green obsidian shortly after the first humans arrived, until the Mesoamerican period.
This mining operation came to an abrupt end with the Conquest simply because the Spaniards had no interest in it. But the discovery of silver in the 1550s caught their attention. By 1560, the population of Pachuca had tripled, putting the region on par with the mining communities of Taxco and Zacatecas.
Pachuca and Real del Monte (officially known as Mineral del Monte) will remain important for three centuries, although mining has seen its ups and downs. One of the main reasons for this was the depletion of accessible ore, given the technology at the time.
Colonial-era mining depended almost entirely on human and animal muscle, and by the War of Independence, these had taken all the ore they could. The new country of Mexico needed to restart mining but lacked modern equipment. So they convinced a group of British investors to form the company Caballeros Aventureros de Real del Monte y Pachuca and take the technology to the other side of the Atlantic.
The first steam engine ships and 15 Cornish miners arrived at the port of Veracruz in 1824, but the machinery was so heavy and the roads so bad that it took almost two years to reach the high mountains of Hidalgo .
The miners felt at home in the cold and humid climate of the area, and by 1827 there were 3,500 Cornish miners and their families. Despite their numbers, they mostly went their separate ways, establishing communities such as Straffon, Oliver, Noble, Rule, and Ludlow with their own schools, (Protestant) churches, and shops.
The British company dominated mining in Hidalgo State until 1849 when it went bankrupt. The Mexican-American War was part of the reason, but the reality was that despite the sheer amount of money, the Caballeros Aventureros never quite recouped their astronomical initial investment.
The owners of the mine were forced to sell to a Mexican company, but managed to secure a stipulation that their Cornish miners could continue working if they wished. Most decided to return to England, but some stayed because they had strong business and family ties.
The Mexican company regained profits that the British never managed to achieve. Pachuca and Real del Monte became extremely important mining centers for the rest of the century and a target during the Mexican Revolution.
This war once again disrupted operations and the Mexicans sold to an American company. The Americans dominated mining in Mexico just like the British had done before, but they never had the same cultural impact.
In 1965, when the mines became unsustainable again, the company fell into the hands of the Mexican government, which virtually ended operations. It will be decades before the economy of Pachuca recovers by turning to industry and that of Real del Monte to tourism.
Today, Pachuca is the capital of the state of Hidalgo, its educational and cultural center and one of its most economically diverse. Real del Monte has become a Pueblo Mágico, or Magic City, promoted for weekend excursions. The forest areas around both locations are filled with second homes and cabins for residents of Mexico City looking for a quick getaway.
Both places deserve to be visited because their architecture testifies to their common history. The colonial past is best seen in Pachuca, especially at the Caja Real (royal vault), a fortress to safeguard the 20% share that the Spanish crown demanded of all mines.
However, Pachuca’s most distinguished architectural monument is a 40-meter-high white volcanic stone clock tower in the main square. Built between 1904 and 1910 for the centenary of Mexican independence, its style pays homage to the region’s British heritage as well as Mexican history. The watch movement is a replica of the one made for Big Ben in London, made in the same Austrian factory.
This is not the only British heritage. The Mina La Dificultad in Pachuca, now a mining history museum, was built in the British industrial style. In Pachuca and Real del Monte there are homes that would be home from across the Atlantic, as well as Methodist and Anglican churches. Real del Monte is home to a famous British cemetery.
Perhaps the most important cultural contribution of Cornish miners to Mexico as a whole is the introduction of football. They began playing there soon after arriving in Pachuca, with formal teams established in the late 1830s and the city’s first professional club in 1901. Today, Mexico is one of the most addicted countries. football to the world.
Less well known is a culinary contribution: the dough (HAP-steh). It’s the Mexican version of Cornish pâté, the food miners brought with them from the depths of the basement for lunch. The crust of these handmade pies hasn’t changed much, but the cooks at Pachuca and Real del Monte have taken some liberties with the toppings.
The savory ones vary, almost always with chili, and there are even sweet toppings. Their popularity has grown regionally outside of Hidalgo, especially at intercity bus stations in central Mexico, as they are cheap and easy to pack.
Today you will not hear English spoken in both cities and all signs in the language are created for tourists. But there are a number of prominent families with English surnames and others who can trace their lineage back to European minors. And the appearance of lighter skin, hair and eyes in some people here indicates the descendants of those Cornish miners who came to Pachuca and Real del Monte.
Leigh Themadatter arrived in Mexico 18 years ago and fell in love with the land and the culture especially its crafts and art. She is the author of Mexican cardboard: paper, paste and fiesta (Schiffer 2019). His culture section appears regularly on Mexico Daily News.