Patagonia: the Welsh connection

Each summer, flights arrive at London airports carrying South American visitors. Many of them have trouble communicating with English personnel at Passport Control, and yet once they have crossed the border into Wales, destined for the National Eisteddfod, they are able to converse fluently with the Welsh locals.

Who are these fascinating travellers? Well, they’ve come to Wales from the Argentinian, Welsh-speaking outpost of Patagonia – 8,000 miles away, and when they arrive, they are proud to speak the ‘language of heaven’ – their interpretation of Welsh, which dates back to the early 1800s.

But… how? How did part of Argentina become a far-flung outpost of Wales? Why did 150 Welsh people travel across the Atlantic to establish a remote community in South America? How on Earth did they survive?

The answer: an extraordinary dream galvanised the Welsh people to act, and cooperation, companionship and resilience brought their plans to their fruition.

Pushing back against English imperialism

In the early nineteenth century, the impact of the Industrial Revolution in the Welsh heartland meant that rural communities began to disappear, replaced with the mechanised churn of coal, slate, iron and steel. This was seen by many Welsh folk as the absorption of Wales into England (which they, naturally, resented), and compounded for by them being persecuted for their language and culture. This was the catalyst for many seeking their fortunes elsewhere.

Welsh immigrants had attempted to set up several colonies in order to retain their cultural identity in America – Patagonia wasn’t the first. Others included Newfoundland in Canada, Remsen in New York and Malad Valley in Idaho.

In 1861, a group of men from North Wales discussed the possibility of founding a new Welsh settlement outside the USA. Vancouver Island in Canada was considered but Patagonia in Argentina seemed more viable. Michael Jones, principal of Bala College and a staunch nationalist, had been in correspondence with the Argentinian government. The settlement of an area known as Bahia Blanca was discussed, where Welsh immigrants would be allowed to retain and preserve their language, culture and traditions. The Argentinian government was more than happy to oblige because it gave them control of vast swathes of land subject to a long-running dispute with its neighbour, Chile.

In 1862, Lewis Jones, Caernarfon-born publisher and printer, travelled to Patagonia’s Chubut Valley where he was offered land by an Argentinian minister (the fact that the region was already occupied by an indigenous tribe was, sadly, inconsequential). Later that year, the marketing campaign began.

A pamphlet extolling Patagonia’s virtues was distributed amongst Welsh people by Hugh Hughes, whose promises of a land much like Wales were grossly overstated. People wholeheartedly bought into the hype, however. 150 people, many from the Rhondda Valley communities of Aberdare, Mountain Ash and Abercwmboi boarded a tea-clipper and set sail on 24 May from Liverpool to their new home in South America, affectionately named Y Wladfa or The Colony.

Teething problems

Just over two months later, the Welsh pioneers landed in Patagonia. Much to their dismay, the promised paradise was nowhere to be found. It was midwinter but arid due to the effects of a prolonged drought. The drought didn’t last long though – severe flooding followed, destroying one of the early Welsh settlements. Believe it or not, this environmental chaos made safe drinking water hard to find!

Eventually, an innovative settler, one Rachel Jenkins, devised a plan to irrigate the land. The pioneers’ agricultural troubles became a thing of the past and wheat crops were popular and plentiful.

The local Tuhuelche people were a godsend to the settlers. The Welsh learnt to hunt under their careful tutelage and a strong trading relationship meant that the indigenous people bartered guanaco (a type of llama) meat for Welsh bread, establishing the Welsh in their new community.

A new era

Fifty miles south of Patagonia is Trelew, an active hub for the wool trade. The region celebrates an annual Eisteddfod here. Fitting really, as several bilingual Welsh and Spanish schools are also in the town. Welsh tea houses are still popular, and if you love bara brith, a Patagonian alternative is served locally, called torta negra in Spanish and cacen ddu in Welsh. Over thirty Welsh Protestant chapels populate the area too!

Nine miles upriver is Gaiman, home to the Museo Histórico Regional, a museum devoted to celebrating Welsh Patagonian history. The museum has been built into the old railway station which helped develop the region.

Elsewhere the Welsh Language Project does amazing work in the region, promoting the use of Welsh in local schools and workshops, and organising social activities across the Chubut Valley. A permanent teaching coordinator from Wales remains employed in Patagonia and their efforts are bolstered by a network of native Argentinian Welsh speakers.

Y Wladfa’s story isn’t simple, nor was it prosperous or romantic, but the community endures, and with it, so too does our transatlantic relationship. 

Image courtesy: Lisandro Moises / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)