notes from a small curate
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK
Modern Welsh History
An essay for University of Wales, Cardiff, Welsh History Course, Lent term 1986
Why can the Welsh settlement in Patagonia be thought to be a success?
The story of the arrival of the tea-clipper 'Mimosa' at the shores of Patagonia in 1865 and the struggle of the settlers' early years there, has all the ingredients of a large-scale tragedy. The small group of poor, dispossessed Welsh families who were to make up the first colony, sailed from Liverpool hoping to create a new, free Welsh community, a self-governing extension of the traditions and culture of their land in a new place. The barren, forbidding and ill-prepared place which they came to, led many to despair. Hopes of a bright new land where rapidly dissolved into the harsh realities of a fight to survive, a fight which continued for many years. A later arrival in Patagonia remembered her initial reaction on coming to land:
"There we were landing at Madryn, and nothing, no nothing, but desert, desert, desert. Well, I sat down and tears rolled down my cheeks."
They were tears which were to be repeated many times throughout the early years of the colony as the Welsh settlers took on the task of living a life of arguably greater hardship than that which they had left back home. In administrative and economic terms, the Welsh settlement in Patagonia was a disaster. But in one sense there has been a measure of success in the situation. The above quotation was given in 1969 by an elderly lady in Gaiman, in the Lower Chubut Valley. She was sitting in the Plas y Coed Tea Room there, and her name was Senora Dilys Owen de Jones. Four generations on from the first Welsh settlers there, Patagonia still has a thriving Welsh community. Although Argentinian-controlled and primarily Spanish-speaking, Welshness survives. In this essay I will attempt to show the development of all aspects of the Welsh settlement in Patagonia, and judge whether this last factor could be considered to have made the settlement a 'success'
During the latter part of the 19th century, emigration from Wales was an increasingly common social phenomenon. There were a number of factors causing this. In rural Wales, anglicised landlords and government taxes were squeezing money from Welsh smallholders, and farming for many, became barely a subsistence lifestyle. The rapid growth of industry in the coalmining centres of the south of the country called for a correspondingly large population increase. Many Welsh workers moved from rural areas to the coalfields to find work in the mines and the steel and service industries. Added to this, there were large numbers of immigrant workers from the midlands, Ireland and other parts of Britain. Nationalism rose in part as a reaction to the large numbers of non-Welsh people in the new communities of the urban centres. But the Church was the major social force amongst the Welsh at this time, and it was Church philosophy and propaganda which powered the emigration movement. Rev. Michael D. Jones, principal of the Independents' College at Bala, said this of his countrymen:
"Because the Welsh are a conquered people in their own country... they have lost their self-confidence; they do not believe that they can do much, and for that reason they attempt very little. They believe, like all serfs, that it is their master alone who has the power..."
The church-motivated- dream of creating a free Wales across the sea, where self-government would replace alien oppression. and the Welsh could live in equity, took shape in moves across the Atlantic and to English colonies overseas. The apex of this movement was Patagonia.
Jones and a number of other leading nationalist figures, negotiated with the Argentinean government (who were actively encouraging settlement at that time) for the right to settle in Patagonia, and toured Wales to win support for their new venture. The main aim of the Welsh settlement in Patagonia was 'to create a new nation across the sea', to escape from the poverty and oppression of the homeland in the hope that in a new land they would find freedom and better conditions. Bryn Williams records that "Jones suggested that a unified Welsh colony would " preserve the culture and serve to spread a strong moral and religious influence among other nationalities."
153 Welsh people, the majority from the South Wales coalfield and Merseyside, made the first journey. An over-eagerness on the part of the organisers meant that the colony was not prepared for the arrival of the assorted party on board the ex- tea-clipper 'Mimosa' , which sailed from Liverpool on 28th May 1865. Patagonia was at this time an unsurveyed land, inhabited not by the Argentinean people but by wandering Indian tribes. Argentina desired settlement to counter Chile's claims on the area, and offered inducements of land to the settlers, which Jones and his colonial society accepted willingly. When the first settlers landed it was with three months provision and to find that the fertile Chubut valley was a desert-trek away. In late summer 1865, it was obvious that a harvest would be inconceivable for at least another year, and that near-starvation was to become a fact of life until then. Initial grant aid from the Argentinean government ensured survival in the early months, as the settlers reached Chubut and began to piece together a physical community. The subsistence allowance of £140 per month, together with a constant supply of provisions and a supplementary grant of livestock, ensured their survival but also meant that the Welsh were entirely dependent on the Argentineans for their continued presence in the land. Clearly this negated their hopes of complete self-government and was a rightful embarrassment to the colonial society whose mismanagement had caused this situation. A report of the Secretary of the British Legation in Argentina concluded that without the monthly allowance from Buenos Aires the settlement would virtually cease to exist.
Necessity ensured that the Welsh were not slow to organise themselves into a working community. They devoted themselves to a strict programme of physical work, though few were farmers or experienced labourers. A committee of twelve was set up to regulate the affairs of the colony and to hold together the community in situations of dissension and unrest. A justice of the peace was elected, and a jury set up in case it was needed. In actual fact no gaol was ever used while the colony was self -governing. Early marriage was encouraged and it was common for girls of 14 and 15 to marry. The vote was given to every person in the community over 18, this almost a century before the same measures became statutory in Britain. School books were produced for the children and the language of the community, at all levels, was Welsh. Bryn Williams has said that this was "The first example of practical democracy in South America" and Gwynfor Evans takes this one stage further by suggesting that it was the only example the world has ever seen of Welsh democracy, and it was created by the Welsh 'gwerin'. This is not entirely true, as many of the community leaders were educated and influential men, and the Welsh were not alone in sustaining this way of life. We have already seen the extent of Argentina's involvement in the colony and, until the land became workable it was the local Indians who ensured that the Welsh learned to conquer their physical surroundings by hunting and learning to survive and trade off the pampas.
Gradually the land became workable as the settlers created an efficient wheat field irrigation system in the Chubut valley. Lengthy and complicated negotiations with the Argentineans eventually led to the Welsh obtaining a boat, with which channels of trade were opened up. In ten years the Chubut colony had become established, a working Welsh community in the pampa lands of Argentina. Meanwhile, the Argentinean government began to put into motion their plans to subordinate the colony, along with all the other settlements in the republic. Argentinean Foreign Minister, Ortez, told the British government that,
"A colony of foreigners arriving in a country enjoying its own independent rights could not have any pretext for expecting that they would be allowed to introduce their own municipal institutions and ignore the authority and even the language of the national government."
Thus began the subordination of the Welsh, along with the Indians, in Patagonia. By 1885, the territory had its first governor, Luis Jorge Fontana, who ruled over a municipal council. At the outset, the language of the council was Welsh with Spanish translations, and in the government- funded schools Welsh and Spanish were taught alongside each other. By the end of the century, however, Spanish was the established tongue of the area, with Welsh relegated to use in the original settlers homes. In 1895 Governor Tello decreed that all Chubut-born youths over 18 should serve in the National Guard and that Sunday would be drilling day. This created an uproar of opposition amongst the rigidly nonconformist, sabbatarian Welsh, and was eventually overthrown. However, Tello's successor, O'Donnell, was merciless and as well as insisting on Sunday parades, he requested a garrison in Chubut and demanded the replacement of Welsh schoolteachers with Argentineans. By 1900 the repression had become that strong that the Rev. David Richards chaplain, of the visiting HMS Flora, estimated that 75% of the colonists wished to leave Chubut.
By this time, Patagonia had expanded from its early settlements in the Chubut valley. By 1881, 90% of the 100 hectare farms in the Lower Chubut Valley had been claimed and further expansion was necessary for the development of the area. In 1888 T. M. Thomas penetrated the foothills of the Andes, 400 miles to the west, and discovered Cwm Hyfryd, which grew rapidly to become the second major Welsh settlement in Patagonia, though different in character than the Chubut valley. Many compared it to the hill areas of North Wales and Bryn Williams surmises that it appeared "that at last they had discovered their 'paradise'." Others were discovering it too. In 1890 there were about 2,500 Welsh people in Patagonia, the families of the original settlers and those who had joined their countrymen as the settlement had become more established. In 1895, 3,000 inhabitants lived there, and many of the 'new' settlers were of other nationalities, notably Italians. The trend was set to continue and, despite many attempts to encourage new Welsh settlements in other areas of the land, the Welsh gradually became integrated into a mixed culture. In Gaiman in 1915, 21.2% of the population were Argentinean, 5.6% Spanish, 5.6% Welsh, 1.8% Chilean and 1.3% Italian. In Rawson the Welsh formed the minority group, in terms of nationality. There is more than a hint of irony in the judgement of the Emigration Committee in 1901 which concluded that South Africa and Canada had become "The two countries which offered the best prospects for the foundation of a Welsh Colony." The dream of a free, independent Welsh colony had faded.
Welsh immigration ceased before the start of the First World War, and the history of the Welsh in Patagonia since that time has been one of intermarriage with Spanish, Argentineans and Italians, and a redefining of identity. Spanish has become the first language of the fourth-generation Welsh Patagonians, and there has been an inevitable share of cultural heritage in Patagonia. The nonconformist chapel still forms the hub of community life in places with names like Dyfryn Camwy, festivals of verse and song are regular occurrences. Although the Welsh language has been relegated to the home, a recent estimate was that there were approximately 6000 Welsh-speaking Welsh in Patagonia, together with 6,000 non-Welsh speaking Welsh and 10,000 of mixed marriages, who consider themselves partly Welsh.
Kyffin Williams, a Welsh artist, visited Patagonia in 1969 and records his impressions of an Indian-Welsh family which he spent some time with, where all the Indians spoke Welsh, and the wife:
"...always referred to the Wales she had never seen as the 'Hen Wlad' or the Old Country. Senor Goronwy had so imbued her with the Welsh spirit and the Welsh religion that she was indeed more Welsh than many in Wales..."
Williams' reflections on leaving Patagonia at the end of his three-month visit, are also worth noting:
"I kept hearing the words of the Swiss pastor in Trevelin when he praised the Welsh for the example they set. I heard Don Diego Neil saying how great was his admiration of them. I remembered the quiet dignity of the farmers as they farmed the land that would never be an agricultural paradise and I tried to listen again to that enthusiastic and talented choir in Gaiman. Oh yes, I thought in spite of all the early inefficiency and hardships, it had all been very worth while."
These are the subjective reflections of a confessed aesthete who may well have found his 'evidence' for the continued strength of the Welsh community in Patagonia by ignoring many contrasting factors. Taking his words at face value however, we reflect that the Welsh settlement in Patagonia was itself the brainchild of a similarly-minded man. Rev. Michael D. Jones was an idealist and visionary who neglected many important economic and environmental factors in his urgency to form a thriving Welsh community overseas. Clearly, his dream has been far from completely fulfilled - Argentinean control and the assimilation with other nationalities have seen to that, but in Jones' terms, the Welsh settlement in Patagonia could be thought to have been successful. A strong and influential Welsh community still exists there, living, speaking and worshipping in the ways he originally intended.
R. Bryn Williams: The Welsh Colony in Patagonia.
G.D.Owen: Crisis in Chubut.
Glyn Williams: The Desert and the Dream.
Glyn Williams: The Welsh in Patagonia - a critical bibliographic review. e
Glyn Williams: Cwm Hyfryd - A Welsh Settlement, in the Patagonian Andes (Welsh History 'Review, 1978.)
Kyffin Williams: An Artist in Welsh Patagonia (Anglo-Welsh Review, 42, pp. 5-32.)
G. Evans: Land of My Fathers
G. Pendle: Argentina.