THE PATAGONIAN WELSH
How the Welsh settlers in Argentina continue to flourish

The Welsh first arrived in Patagonia in 1865. The reason for this first migration of Welsh settlers was to protect their culture and language. Professor Michael D Jones was a Welsh nationalist Preacher who came from the town of Bala. This town is located in Snowdonia at the head of Llyn Tegid, in countryside of outstanding natural beauty. Indeed today it falls within the confines of the Snowdonia National Park.

Jones was dismayed by the encroachment of the English language and culture and called for the creation of a ‘Wales beyond Wales,’ where the people could flourish and keep their language and traditions free of the powerful English influence.

Having considered where this new Welsh homeland could be created he eventually settled upon the region of Patagonia in Argentina.  This area would be ideal as it was remote from the influence of English and held much potential for agriculture. The Argentine government also provided a very generous package of 100 square miles of land along the Chubut river for the establishment of settlements. This was also a good deal for the Argentines as it helped to cement their territorial claims over land that was to become a point of dispute with neighbouring Chile.

In 1862, Welsh representatives of Michael D Jones visited the area to check its suitability and viability for settlement. Having been satisfied that settlement would be feasible, the venture was duly funded and organised. On July 27th 1865 the first group of 153 settlers arrived from Wales on the converted tea clipper, ‘Mimosa’.

As with so many settlement ventures in the new world the arrivals from Wales found that they had been sold a dream that had all the potential to become a nightmare. Having been told that the area was like lowland Wales, they discovered that it was in fact a semi arid desert along the coastal plain with no available drinking water. They had to then set out on the arduous trek inland to the Chubut river valley where conditions were far more amenable to beginning a new life.

Upon reaching the valley they established the first settlement that was to grow into the modern town of Rawson. The first year was a difficult one in which there were floods and crop failures but despite all that, the hardy Welsh settlers endured.

In the following couple of years and with the help of the local Indian population, with whom they had established cordial relations after some initial friction, the settlement became established. It began to really flourish when a system of irrigation was introduced which greatly increased crop yields. It was in fact the very first irrigation system in Argentina and became the most productive wheat growing area in the whole of Argentina.

The Welsh settlers were self-governing in the beginning and had little interference from the national government in far off Buenos Aries. In 1886 another 465 settlers arrived from Wales and that year also saw the construction of a railway that connected the Chubut valley settlement with the settlement of Porth Madryn on the coast. This allowed for greater ease of agricultural exports out of the valley. The construction of the railway also saw the development of the new Welsh town of Trelew.

By about 1880 all the good productive land in the Chubut valley had been allocated and the Welsh settlers sought permission from the Argentine governor to mount an expedition of exploration into the Andean part of Chubut. This was granted and led to the discovery of fertile land where another Welsh settlement was established.

This area of land became a subject of dispute between Argentina and Chile and brought the two nations to the brink of war. To avoid conflict, a vote was given to the people who had settled the area, overseen by the British government who were acting as an ‘honest broker’. Despite blandishments of larger areas of land being offered to each settler by the Chilean government, they voted to remain in Argentina, the nation that had helped them establish the first Welsh settlement all those years ago.

During the next couple of decades up until the outbreak of the First World War, development continued apace. There were disputes on occasion with the Argentine government, who introduced conscription that caused a lot of bad feeling in the Welsh community, due to its insistence upon conducting military drill on a Sunday. Despite that the settlements grew and prospered, and by the beginning of the 20th century there were some 4,000 people of Welsh descent in Chubut.

After the First World War there was a lot of migration to the area but not from Wales. Most of the new settlers arrived from Italy and other parts of southern Europe and it did not take long for the Welsh to become a minority. Due to an absence of direct contact with Wales, the Welsh language gradually declined until 1965, when once again links became strong as the centenary of the establishment of the first settlement in Chubut was celebrated, and a large group of people visited from Wales. Those links have remained strong  and grown ever since.

In 2004, the Welsh community of Patagonia asked the Welsh Assembly in Cardiff if they could be provided with Welsh television programmes. Around 1,500 people in Chubut still speak Welsh and programmes in the language would help to encourage its growth and keep it alive. It is a remarkable achievement that such a small community has been able to keep its native tongue alive whilst being surrounded by a sea of Spanish. It is a tribute to the tenacity of the Welsh spirit and the endurance of the Celtic people in general who are certainly no strangers to adversity and struggle.

A BBC documentary made in the 1960's about the Welsh in Patagonia

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