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The Welsh in Patagonia

Imagine  deepest  rural  Wales  in  the  middle  of  the  nineteenth  century:  feelings  ran high   among   local   people   that   the   depression,   oppression,   suppression   and repression  directed  towards  them,  their  language,  their  religion  and  their  culture was  caused  by  a  combination  of  their  lack  of  control  over  their  own  land  and  the remoteness and, hence, total absence of understanding of, and sympathy with, their situation by an English government located hundreds of miles away in London. They dreamed of a New Wales where they could develop their lives out of the shadow of these forces and where they could reap the benefits of working their own land.

Argentina  at  the  same  time  was  in  the  middle  of  one  of  its  interminable  border disputes with Chile, its neighbour to the West, and was looking to settle empty areas of  the  country  in  order  to  reinforce  its  territorial  claims.  The  government  was  well aware of the inhospitable nature of Southern Patagonia and the difficulty they would have  in  persuading  already-settled  Argentineans  to  relocate  there  and  so  reacted positively   when   an   opportunity   presented   itself   to   invite   hard   working   and committed Welsh people to settle a small area (256 square kilometres) of land over one and a half thousand kilometres south of the capital, Buenos Aires.

In  May  1865,  inspired  by  the  dream  of  Michael  D  Jones,  a  preacher  from  Bala,  and fortified  by  the  strength  of  his  personality  and  religious  commitment,  about  160 settlers  set  sail  from  Liverpool  aboard  the  tea  clipper  Mimosa.  In  July  1865,  they landed at  Penrhyn  yr  Ogofâu  (now  Punta  Cuevas),  which  lies  today  on  the  outskirts of Porth Madryn, a location previously scouted by Lewis Jones and Love Jones-Parry, who  had  reported  a  safe  anchorage  with  readily  available  building  materials.  The nearby  town  of  Trelew  was  subsequently  named  after  Lewis  Jones,  but  only  after Llanfair, the preferred name, had been rejected because few non-Welsh could say it! Puerto Madryn was named after Jones-Parrys ancestral home, Madryn Castle, near Pwllheli. The voyage had witnessed considerable hardship, with 5 deaths, two births, several    near    mutinies,    desperate    overcrowding    and    widespread    sickness. Throughout  the  long  journey,  the  settlers  must  have  been  aching  to  reach  their Promised  Land.  So,  when  they  finally  arrived  to  be  greeted  with  the  enormous barrenness of the Patagonia steppe, made even more inhospitable by their arrival in the middle  of the harsh Patagonian winter, it  is hard to imagine how desperate and disappointed they must have felt.

Rev. Michael D. Jones
Lewis Jones is among the  Tehuelche,  1867

But,  with  the  hardiness  and  resoluteness  genetically  implanted after  so  many generations  of  oppression,  the  settlers  took  to  their  tasks and  the  Colony  (now known  in  Wales  as  Y  Wladfa  or  Gwladfa  Patagonia  -  the  Patagonian  Colony)  slowly began  to  thrive  and  flourish.  The  settlers'  fervent  Christian  beliefs  prevented  them, in stark contrast to all other colonists in America before and since, from warring with the   local   Tehuelche   Indians,   and   they   soon   developed mutually beneficial relationships  of  all  types,  including  a  vigorous  trade  in  Rhea  feathers  (a  bird  similar to an ostrich), at the time worth more in weight  than gold! As the Colony grew and available   arable   land   became scarcer,   pioneers   struck   out   to   the previously unexplored  West. 

A  group  of  horsemen  (Los  Rifleros)  set  out  in  October  1885  to follow  the  Chubut  river  west  and,  just  over  a  month  and  700  kilometres  later reached  and  ascended  a  high  ridge  a  few  kilometres  south  of  what  is  now  Esquel, and then descended into a foggy valley. The following morning, they saw spread out before  them  the  most  beautiful  and  fertile  valley,  set  before  an  indescribably breathtaking  backdrop  of  snow-clad  mountains.  Cwm  Hyfryd  (Beautiful  Valley),  as the  exultant  Welsh  Riders  called  it,  is  now  where  Trevelin  (the  Town  of  the  Mill)  is located,  which  name  reflects  the  successes  subsequently  enjoyed  by  the  settlers  in becoming  one  of  the  major  wheat-growing  areas  in  the  whole  of  Argentina.  This agricultural  success  continues  to  the  current  day,  with  tulips  being  exported  to Amsterdam and cherries to Marks and Spencer!


And  so  today,  with  the  assistance  of  the  Welsh  Government,  the use  of  the  Welsh language  in  Patagonia  grows  stronger  and  the  cultural  heritage  is  protected  and enhanced  through  the  successes  of  the  Eisteddfodau  and  other festivals  in  Trelew and  Trevelin  and  is  jealously  guarded  by  communities  in  the  other  Welsh  centres  in Esquel,  Comodoro  Rivadavia,  Sarmiento,  Gaiman,  Dolavon,  Tir  Halen,  Porth  Madryn and Rawson.  At  this  moment,  Wales,  prouder  now  than  at  any  time  in  recent  years of  the resurgence  in  its  Welshness,  sends  many  of  its  sons  and  daughters  as  tourists  to witness  a  similar  resurgence  in New  Wales.  We  in  Argentina  welcome  our  Welsh guests  wholeheartedly  to  our  country  and  hope  they  will  find  it  to  be,  as  it  was  for their forefathers, a home away from home.

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