‘Poldark‘, the popular BBC series uses the Cornish mining legacy as a backdrop and you might have come across its relics on a coastal walk or moorland walk. Neither the picturesque views of landscape and sea, nor the glamour, heroism and romance helps us to understand the full story of thousands of years of metal mining history in Britain. From pre-Roman Britain through the Industrial Revolution to supplying today’s high-tech industry, mining has been driven by the pursuit of wealth and power at the expense of the welfare of untold numbers of individuals and to the detriment of the environment.
I often wonder how many people died an untimely death while on a poor wage during the height of arsenic mining in the latter quarter of the 19th and early 20th century in the Tamar Valley (Devon/Cornwall, UK), from where half the world’s arsenic originated at the time (Stewart, 2013). Arsenic poisoning resulted from poor working conditions while working the mines, processing the ore and refining the product. In addition, the rural population living near the mines was exposed to contaminated dust, fumes and water. Although I can’t find reference to it, I guess the health of agricultural workers in the US, many of whom were slaves, spreading arsenic pesticides on the cotton fields (see ‘Toxic’ Places) and orchards may have also been affected.
the 20th century, fatalities associated directly with the extractive industries have fallen considerably as safety in mining is taken more seriously and advances in robotics take the human element out of the more dangerous working environments. Still, some 12000 annual fatalities in mines around the world (BBC, 2010) are part of the price we pay for consumer goods containing mined resources, from paper (china clay) to energy (e.g. oil, uranium) to electronic gadgets (…where do I start: iron, silicate, gold, rare earth elements, copper, oil… ).
BBC News (2010) The dangers of mining around the world. By Olivia Lang 14 October 2010. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-11533349 [accessed 22/10/2017]
Stewart RJ (2013) Devon Great Consols. A Mine of Mines. The Trevithick Society, Camborne. Obtainable from The Trevithick Society [link]
Image: Hemerdon tungsten mine operated by Wolf Minerals in Devon, UK. Photo (c) C Braungardt, 2017.