Another nugget from Across the Plains, Stevenson’s account of his train journey to the west of America in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Those who l know me know I have a special affinity for Cornwall. It’s part of England but really a Celtic place as distinct as Wales or Scotland. As soon as you cross the Tamar and the place names change from Bridport, Brixham, Plymouth to Polzeath, St Blazey and Lanteglos, you know you are in a different land.
There was a group of Cornish miners on his train. As their tin and copper mines became unprofitable there was something of a Cornish diaspora. Driven by poverty and desperation, miners sought work in North and South America, South Africa, Australia, and elsewhere, where their expertise of working in difficult and dangerous conditions was much valued. In the words of the wonderful, moving Show of Hands song:
Where there’s a mine or a hole in the ground
That’s where I’m headed for, that’s where I’m bound
I’m leaving the county behind, and I’m not coming back –
Won’t you follow me down, Cousin Jack
(‘Cousin Jack’ being a sort of generic name for Cornishmen.)
And RLS was every bit as conscious that these were technically English, but different:
…I can make nothing of them at all. A division of races, older than and more original than that of Babel, keeps this close, esoteric family apart from neighbouring Englishmen. Not even a Red Indian seems more foreign in my eyes. This is one of the lessons of travel – that some of the strangest races dwell next door to you at home.