Each year, flights arrive in London carrying Welsh-speaking passengers bound for the National Eisteddfod. These aren’t Welshmen returning home, however. These visitors speak little to no English, yet they are able to communicate freely once they have crossed the border into Wales.
They have come from Patagonia, nearly 8,000 miles away in Argentina. The story of how this Welsh outpost has survived in a Spanish speaking country is quite a fascinating one, and it begins in the early 1800s.
In the early 19thcentury, Wales was becoming increasingly uncomfortable for the Welsh. Much of the land was owned by the English, and the rich landowners were trying to impose change on the Welsh culture and religion. The Welsh heartlands were being rapidly given over to industry. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing, and Wales was a source of much iron, steel, slate, and coal. Little by little, rural communities dwindled away as burgeoning industrial centres took over.
This civil unrest (likely combined with the allure of the new world) caused a considerable Welsh migration to the Americas and Australia. Welshmen and women set out to establish communities across the Americas. Some of the most notable settlements were in Utica, New York and Scranton Pennsylvania.
While a few communities were somewhat successful, many Welsh immigrants found that they were generally under great pressure to learn the English language and integrate into the American way of life. If they hoped to be accepted into the community or find gainful employment, being able to speak and understand the English language was crucial. Thus, much of their native culture and language was lost over time.
Welsh patriots were concerned about this. They wanted a place where they could be isolated enough to retain their native language, culture, traditions, and beliefs – and the United States didn’t seem to be an option. In 1961, a group of men met at the north Wales home of Michael D. Jones (a staunch nationalist) to discuss what could be done. For a time they discussed the possibility of Vancouver Island; however, it soon became apparent that Patagonia in Argentina held all the elements they were searching for in a true Welsh promised land.
Michael Jones corresponded for a time with the Argentine government about settling on a tract of land called Bahia Blanca. Due to an ongoing dispute with Chile regarding this bit of land, the Argentine government was only too happy to have the land settled by the Welsh. They allowed the Welsh to freely colonize the area, and gave them the freedom to live however they wanted.
In May of1865, the first group of 163 Welsh natives set out from Liverpool aboard the tea-clipper, Mimosa. In eight short weeks, the ship arrived at Puerto Madryn, Argentina.
While the natives of Patagonia were welcoming and assisted the Welsh migrants as they settled in the territory, the land wasn’t the fertile, friendly terrain the settlers had expected. The land was barren with no water, little food, and few materials available for building shelter.
The Welsh migrants founded their first settlement on the banks of the river Camwy in the Chubut valley. The colony suffered fiercely during the early years, and nearly failed due to lack of food. Finally, through much backbreaking labor, the settlers were able to irrigate the land with a water management system, utilizing the occasional flooding of the Camwy. This ultimately saved the settlement.
The colony succeeded and thrived with more settlers arriving from Wales and Pennsylvania in the following years. By late 1874, the population exceeded 270 souls. The fresh blood brought new life and energy to the settlement, and farms and colonies began to emerge along the banks of the river Camwy.
When the Argentine government officially granted the land to the Welsh settlers in 1875, many new settlers began to make their way to Patagonia. Great depressions in the coalfields of Wales brought several large influxes of settlers in the late 1800s and early 1900s. All of these settlers made further irrigation of the Chubut valley possible, and the Welsh had soon transformed the arid wasteland into one of the most fertile spots in all of Argentina.
For many years, the Welsh had their utopia. Welsh was the language of home, church, school and government. In time, the Argentine government stepped in and enforced Spanish as the language of school and government; however, Welsh continued as the language of home and chapel. The community continues to thrive to this day, celebrating their proud heritage in language and custom.