Y Wladfa - The Welsh in Patagonia Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Y Wladfa - The Welsh in Patagonia

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A train running through Patagonia

In 1865, a boat full of Welsh men, women and children sailed from Liverpool to Patagonia, southern Argentina, in the hope of creating a new Wales. The Welsh were searching for a land in which to preserve and develop their culture and language - a refuge from cultural and economic oppression in Wales.

The idea of a Welsh colony was first mooted at a meeting in Bala, Gwynedd where Michael D Jones, a nonconformist minister and principal of Bala College, had been in discussions with the Argentine Government. When considering emigration, Jones noted that second-generation Welsh emigrants to North America were more likely to lose the Welsh language and culture, so he decided to locate his flock in Patagonia, which was thought to be fertile and known to be sparsely populated.

The Argentine government, keen to establish some control over the southern region of their country, were prepared to offer a hundred square miles to the Welsh, and at the meeting it was decided to publish a handbook of Y Wladfa1 for prospective emigrants.

The First Settlers

In 1865 a tea clipper named Mimosa set sail from Liverpool on a two month journey to South America with 159 people on board. The majority of the pioneers were from the Bala area and on 28 July, 1865, they landed on a bleak beach which later became known as Porth Madryn.

There to meet them in Porth Madryn was Lewis Jones who had arrived from Buenos Aires, having signed an agreement for the land with Dr Rawson of the Argentine government.

The land was not the rich, fertile ground they had expected. Instead it was a dry desert-like wasteland, and for the first three years, the Welsh settlers had a hard time creating a successful colony.

Creating Y Wladfa

Life for the early settlers was particularly hard and even the birth of the first Welsh child in Patagonia, Mary Humphries, did little to dispel the belief of the settlers that they had made a mistake in coming to such a desolate, inhospitable location. The colony seemed as if it would be doomed to fail due to a lack of food.

Lewis Jones travelled to Buenos Aires to try secure some livestock for the settlers and returned with a number of sheep, cattle, pigs, poultry and horses.

The Welsh were totally unaccustomed to hunting, but cordial relations with the native Indians, the Teheulche, saw the Indians teach them how to catch the guanaco, rhea, and those other sources of food available on the prairie. The Teheulche would also exchange meat for bread, calling from house to house to ask for poco bara2 (a bit of bread). Some of the Teheulche even learnt Welsh and their descendants still take part in the annual Eisteddfod in Trelew.

In the late 1860s more settlers arrived, bringing with them supplies and by 1875 the town of Gaiman was established, with more Welsh arriving from the mother country and from New York.

The formation of the Porth Madryn Railway Company in the late 1870s to transport goods to Porth Madryn for export and the formation of a farmers co-operative (Companía Mercantil de Chubut3) saw the region flourish.

A further 130 people arrived in Patagonia on the Orita, but 234 people lost faith in the project following heavy flooding on the Andes plains and moved to Canada.

The Welsh Language is Oppressed

In 1930 a cruel twist of irony saw José Felix Uriburu seize power in a coup d'etat in Buenos Aires and the right wing politician declared that Welsh would no longer be allowed as a language of business.

Uriburu also banned any public display of support for the language, and Welsh became a private language used at home, in the chapel and at the eisteddfod but not in public.

In 1938 Cymdeithas Cymru-Ariannin4 was formed to create stronger links between the two countries.

Y Wladfa Today

Today the population of Patagonia is around 150,000 with 20,000 descended from the Welsh settlers and around 5,000 able to speak Welsh.

The National Assembly for Wales has been involved in promoting the Welsh language and culture in the Chubut Province of Patagonia in Argentina, and in 2001, the First Minister Rhodri Morgan visited the region on an official visit.

Seven hundred people of all ages are currently learning Welsh in Chubut, and the BBC's Welsh language internet service, BBC Cymru'r Byd, has a section devoted to forging links between schools in Wales and schools in Patagonia.

1Y Wladfa is the name given to the region by the Welsh. Roughly translated it means homeland.2Poco is the Spanish word for little and bara the Welsh word for bread3Chubut is the eastern region of Patagonia.4The Wales-Argentina Society

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