I thought it was tin!
Long before Jane was pushed down a mine-shaft, before her fictional contemporary Alice fell down the rabbit-hole, even before King Arthur trod the bleak landscape, people had been coming to the west country for tin. Tin is an essential component of bronze, and it was perhaps in the Bronze Age that Cornwall (and Devon) first came to the attention of the outside world.
In their search for mineral ores, the British west country may have caught the perfunctory attention of the wily Phoenicians, but Spain had proved to be a richer source. Then some time in late Antiquity, Spanish tin ran out, and the world turned to Cornwall. From as far afield as Egypt they would travel for tin — indeed some Egyptian travellers got lucky, as this story illustrates:
‘We sailed for twenty days and nights, and owing to a violent wind we were unable to tell in what direction we were going either by the stars or by the coast. But the only thing we knew was that the steersman saw the Patriarch by his side holding the tiller and saying to him: “Fear not! You are sailing quite right.” Then after the twentieth day we caught sight of the islands of Britain, and when we had landed we found a great famine raging there. Accordingly when we told the chief man of the town that we were laden with corn, he said, “God has brought you at the right moment. Choose as you wish, either one ‘nomisma’ for each bushel or a return freight of tin”. … ‘Then we set sail again,’ said the captain, ‘and joyfully made once more for Alexandria, putting in on our way at Pentapolis.’ The captain then took out some of the tin to sell – for he had an old business-friend there who asked for some – and he gave him a bag of about fifty pounds. The latter, wishing to sample it to see if it was of good quality, poured some into a brazier and found that it was silver of the finest quality. He thought that the captain was tempting him, so carried the bag to him and said, ‘May God forgive you! Have you ever found me deceiving you that you tempt me by giving me silver instead of tin?’ The captain was dumbfounded by his words and replied: ‘Believe me, I thought it was tin!’