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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.
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.