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The Welsh Language in Patagonia
This article was originally written by Jeremy Wood to be serialised by 'Ninnau', the North American Welsh newspaper.
When the Mimosa dropped anchor in New Bay (close to where the town of Porth Madryn now lies) on July 26, 1865, the lingua franca of the 150 or so settlers on board was Welsh: pure, unadulterated Welsh, equal in origin from north and south, with no English pollutants. The same is true today. The language is still unsullied by English (although slightly tarnished by Spanish) and now spoken with accents more akin to Caernarfon than Caerfyrddin (towns in the north and south of Wales respectively, with similar sounding names, but with dramatically different Welsh).
In the intervening years, however, the language went through one crisis after another and, without the timely help from an unlikely source, South American Welsh could well have disappeared and joined Cornish and Manx in the roll-call of once common, but now almost deceased, Celtic tongues.
The Welsh had been invited by the Argentine Government to settle a land that few Europeans had ever seen and into which few Argentineans dared go for fear of being slaughtered by merciless natives. But they were there on their own. No one had ever settled in this remote place and it had only ever been visited by the odd passing ship, cattle hunters and nomadic Indians. With encouragement from the Argentine government who, at the time, had no desire to join the Welsh in such inhospitable regions, this band of colliers, labourers, clergymen and clerks organised their communities professionally, even to the extent of devising their own courts system. The construction of chapels, which doubled as schools, gave them the foundations, through religion and secular education, upon which their "New Wales" could be built. Those memories from Wales of religious suppression, language intolerance, absentee landlords and interference from politicians in remote capitals were to be a thing of the past.
Or so they thought.