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Virgin Gorda Copper Mine British Virgin Island Caribbean

" Ere wang, look e here. There’s a copper mine under that there 'ill", says Trebor.  "Aaargh, wang and yackaboo" replies Stumpy.

Such is the language caving breeds in simple folk as they pour over a map of Virgin Gorda prior to jetting out for a fortnights diving in the warm, clear waters of the Carib.

The map says "Copper mine", "ruin", "copper mine point", "Copper mine bay", and "Mine hill" so we thought it safe to assume there was a mine somewhere abouts.  Little more to be done until we got there.

On a break from diving, Pat and I sought out the local library, full of well soiled books in the centre of Roadtown, the capital of Tortola the largest of the Virgin Islands some 60 miles east of Puerto Rico and nowhere near the Blue Holes.  Apart from a few common-as-muck caving books we found nothing on mines, mining, copper, silver, gold or Butcombe.  We were however directed to the Institute of Caribbean Studies around the corner, essentially a small room with books in it, where a little girl was very helpful.  Out came three or four books with some useful facts and good references.

It transpires that this particular mine was opened up by the Spaniards in the early 1500's on the way back from obliterating the Aztecs.  They came over from Puerto Rico to explore the southern tip of Virgin Gorda, an island some 10 miles long and 1 1/2 miles wide at its widest point.  It is the second largest of the Virgin Islands and 1 1/2 hours sail from Tortola given a hefty breeze.

The mine is located only some 75ft above sea level and little more than 50yds. in from the very rocky shore on the very southern tip of the island in a remote location served by a rough track.  Nobody has any great cause to go there.  Written terms like "sporadic", "reactivated" and "reopened" infer that the mine had a rather cheque red history.  Our knowledge of events between the 1500's and 1840's is nil and we hope to obtain further information but at present we only know that in 1840 some 40 imported Cornishmen, assisted by 150 locals, re-opened the mine.  A British Virgin Island Mining Company was set up at an unknown date, presumably in 1840, based in Liverpool but as it went bankrupt in 1842 "operations were suspended."  This fact does not tally however with a reference which states that "between 1860 and 1862, exports valued at £16,224 were sent to Britain, consisting mainly of copper ore obtained from the reactivated mine on Virgin Gorda."  Somebody else must thus have taken over the Liverpool based company's operations.

A limited reference to quantities was forthcoming - 90 tons of copper was produced in 1841 and geologists have estimated that 10,000 tons of copper ore were taken out altogether during its history.  A survey carried out in 1858/60 by an unknown group estimated that a small quantity of copper and molybdenum was still present in the area.  "A copper mine on Virgin Gorda was also believed to be a potential source of great wealth" (Ref: Calendar of State Papers, America and West Indies 1724/25).

After the research, the action.  Pat and I were dropped off by yacht and dinghy onto a beach so we could hike across a couple of miles of thick scrub in 90 degrees of heat to get to this blessed mine (mad dogs and Englishmen).  The anchorage on the correct side of the island was positively dangerous with reefs and swell so there was nothing to do but hoof it.

Despite its total lack of maintenance and the misuse over 100 years, the mine buildings were remarkably recognisable; with a chimney, machinery housing, the boiler and other odds and ends but no evidence of housing to accommodate Cornishmen or natives. A systematic search to find a shaft or adit proved unfruitful.  The ruin of a small building on top of mine hill had what could have been a blocked shaft but, subject to further research, we suspect the area could well have been open cast.  The disappointment of not being able to use Petzl zooms, compasses and surveying gear will no doubt the tempered by the possibility of further research with the defunct BVI•Mining Co., formerly based in Liverpool.

Pat Cronin and Mike (Trebor) McDonald.

References:

i)          A Guide to Historic Places in the British Virgin Islands (1979).

ii)          Tales of Tortola and the BVI by Lewisohn.

iii)         A History of the BVI 1672-1970. by Dookhan.

iv)         Various letters 1841, 1859, 1862 and 1724.