From whatever direction you approach Mazarrón, one feature stands out – that immense area of now abandoned mining above and to the west of the town. Indeed, it quite dominates Mazarrón. There are two remarkable features about this area. First, its incredible history, and, second, the area it occupies which is far greater than appears from a cursory glance from below.
Different types of mining have been important to Mazarrón at different times in its history. Modern Mazarrón’s very foundation in the Middle Ages resulted from the granting of alum mining rights to the Marqueses of Vélez and Villena in 1462 by King Henry IV, but it is metallic ores, especially lead which have dominated the mining scene at other times.
The area was very important for its lead during Roman times, although, clearly, the Phoenicians had been very active also even before then. Two Phoenician ships sank just off one of Mazarrón’s beaches in the 7th Century BC, one of which (“Mazarrón II”) had on board 2100 kg of lead ingots. Certainly, many Roman artefacts were uncovered when lead mining revived in the 19th Century and other lead ingots from Mazarrón have been discovered in Rome. It is suggested that as many as 40,000 people were involved in working the mines around Cartagena and Mazarrón around the Roman era. Of course, the overwhelming majority were slaves and life expectancy was, shall we just say, very short indeed!
Following the Romans, it was not until the mid-19th Century that lead mining revived in the Mazarrón area. Even then, it seems to have had a strange rebirth with the equivalent of the Californian Gold Rush. Apparently, in 1848, individuals were seeking areas in which to prospect Mazarrón’s “arenas auriferas” (gold sands). The head of the Murcian Mines Prefecture actually visited Mazarrón in early 1849 and quickly realised that gold was not going to be the area’s fortune!
In the last quarter of the 19th Century, spurred on by new laws which produced a relatively liberal environment for mining development, foreign capital was invested in Mazarrón’s mines. The Compagnie d’Águilas, which was incorporated in Paris in 1881, was soon responsible for half of Mazarrón’s lead production, itself at one time 30 percent of the Murcian total. In 1891, it was said that 332 mines were operating in the Mazarrón district. Among these were even a handful of British companies though they failed to leave their mark.
Fortunes were made from mining at this time. There was a spate of civic building toward the end of the 19th Century of which the old Town Hall is the most notable example. A mineral railway, which also carried passengers, was inaugurated in 1886 between Mazarrón and its port where a large German-inspired smelter was built which, at one time, employed around 300 people. The arrival of the electric telegraph and the establishment of a bank in the town during the 1880s were further signs of progress from mining wealth. The Águilas’ company introduced a new German pump – the most powerful then operating in Spanish mines – into one of their concessions above Mazarrón.
If fortunes were made, this was for a very few and the ordinary miner’s lot was a particularly dangerous and miserable one. Children of 9-12 were employed to carry 20kg loads of ore to transport points and there were numerous accidents recorded with inevitable losses of life. The worst was in 1893 at over 1000 feet depth in the Águilas’ company’s Impensada mine above Mazarrón when carbon monoxide caused the death of 28 people. This was a particularly sad affair as work had been taking place on the installation of that new pump mentioned above, involving, among others, two Belgian mechanics who had arrived the previous day from Cologne. There were also eight bricklayers (many from the same family) who had only descended for the handover of the pump, having completed their work! Over 2000 were said to have attended the funerals.
Nothing lasts for ever and decline began in the early years of the 20th Century, even if some of the mines managed to stutter on for a few more years. One, the San Antonio mine, even struggled on into the 1960s. Efforts to revive the industry, which even included a proposal for a rail link with Cartagena, could not succeed in the face of economic realities. Consequently, the working population of Mazarrón began to vote with its feet and total population numbers more than halved between 1900 and 1940, having increased from around 5000 to almost 25000 during the 19th Century.
Today, the old area of mining above Mazarrón is a fascinating zone of rich industrial archaeology. Its wealth effectively made modern-day Mazarrón. There are even remnants visible of the Roman activity and much of the landscape has a weird and eerie look to it, although it is at the same time a richly varied one both in colour and in form. In some places the soil has been sterilized and nothing grows. Yet, even here, the colours can be extremely vivid – lakes which are bright yellow or blood red, except in the drier periods when they evaporate.
Based upon extracts from the book “Exploring Murcia – Mazarrón” by Clive and Rosie Palmer, available from www.lulu.com, Best Wishes on Camposol, or contact firstname.lastname@example.org