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Thread: The Welsh in Patagonia (a "Folkwandering")

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    The Welsh in Patagonia (a "Folkwandering")

    Folkwanderings, entire migrations of Germanic tribes, were a regular occurence ancient times. When driven by need, or pressed by hunger, enemies or Mother Nature, tribes organized themselves, picked themselves up, and off they went. To start a clean, fresh life in a new land, free of the problems the drove them to such lengths.

    Perhaps it is time for for another folkwandering? A terraformed Mars would be nice (but let's be realistic)

    Here's the story of the Celtic Welsh, in their attempt to start anew in the Mountains of Argentina for an idea: a touchable, recent example for starters.

    I'll post the stories of the Cimbri & Teutones, the Helvetii and others later...


    The Welsh in Patagonia
    It's a tale of chapels, tea houses and gauchos - as Grahame Davies explains.

    Flying over the Patagonian desert, hundreds of miles of featureless arid landscape, it is hard to understand what could have driven people to emigrate to Patagonia in Argentina, leaving behind the green hills and valleys of Wales.

    The answer is that sometimes dreams can be stronger than reality. Against all the odds, Welsh settlers carved out a living in this inhospitable place, and more than 150 years later their descendants are still there, 20,000 of them, claiming Welsh descent, and hundreds, some say thousands, able to speak Welsh.

    To understand why a South American desert could seem preferable to Wales, you have to know what motivated that first party of emigrants, who sailed from Liverpool in 1865, aboard the ship the Mimosa. Very simply, they wanted freedom.

    These people were Welsh by language and nonconformist by religion. In the mid-19th Century that made them part of the majority in Wales. But the majority didn't call the shots. If you wanted to get on you needed to be English-speaking, and also, if being an Anglican was not an absolute necessity, it certainly helped.

    The answer was emigration. But where? In America, various attempts to establish Welsh colonies had failed as the colonists had been assimilated into the majority societies there. The same would be true of anywhere in the British Empire. Patagonia, however, was far enough away, eight thousand miles to be exact, to avoid other European settlers. It wasn't British, and the Argentine government would let settlers have land in order to cement their government's claim to the region.

    Michael D Jones of Bala was the Moses who led, or rather sent, for he never actually emigrated himself - his people to this Promised Land. An early Welsh nationalist, he energetically promoted the vision of a free, Welsh-speaking, nonconformist Wales in Patagonia. He knew British surveys had branded Patagonia a desert which could never support human life. But, with the aplomb of a spin doctor, he and his fellow idealist Lewis Jones - who did emigrate - glossed over that fact, and presented a considerably greener picture to the prospective emigrants.

    By May 1865, enough pioneers had been found for the Mimosa to sail. Bala was the project's home area and still holds an annual celebration, the Gwyl y Glaniad (festival of landing), to mark the anniversary of the emigrants' first landing on 28th July.

    However, this was by no means exclusively a rural project, many pioneers came from the new, industrial areas of the south Wales valleys, and they found their skills, as railwaymen or miners, worse than useless when they landed at Port Madryn, on the Atlantic shore of Argentina.

    They survived - just. Reduced to near starvation on occasions, they were periodically bailed out by the Argentine government. But they persevered and secured a foothold in the Chubut valley, where a river they christened the Camwy cut a narrow channel through the desert from the Andes.

    There, the Welsh immigrants made their dream a reality, and the Chubut valley, painstakingly irrigated by hand labour, became a patchwork of farms, all inhabited by Welsh people, their numbers reinforced as further emigrants arrived.

    They established friendly relations with the local Indians, not killing or enslaving a single one. The only clash was in 1883 when three young Welshmen on a hunting trip were killed by Indians who mistook them for stray members of the Argentine army, then pursuing its ruthless "Conquest of the Desert" extermination policy against the Indians.

    The Welsh had no part of such policies, and often acted as advocates for the Indians against the government in Buenos Aires. They concentrated on building their own utopia: their schools were Welsh, their numerous chapels were Welsh, and Welsh was the language of their local government, which was the first community in the world to grant women equal voting rights with men.

    Having outgrown the available land in the valley, they had even founded an offshoot community in the Andes. It was too good to last. However idealistic the colonists' dream of freedom had been, their community was never realistically going to be allowed autonomy by an expansionist Argentine government intent on consolidating its control of the region.

    By the turn of the 20th century, with the Welsh having established a European presence in Patagonia, the Argentine government stepped in, said "muchos gracias", took over direct control and extinguished the Welsh people's governmental and educational autonomy. Ironically, this happened just as the Welsh language was being grudgingly allowed into the education system back in Wales where, now, a quarter of all children attend Welsh-medium schools.

    Direct rule meant the end of Welsh in local government and schools, and the beginning of a flood of Spanish and other European immigration which made the Welsh a minority in the colony they'd founded.

    The dream should have ended then, with the Welsh assimilated within a generation. Astonishingly it persisted. Many generations on from the first emigrants, the Welsh language can still be heard in Patagonia.

    Despite having received no further emigrants from Wales after 1914, and despite the Spanish-only education system, Welsh remained the language of the homes, the chapels, the eisteddfodau.

    And when, in the last decades of the 20th century, it started to show signs of serious decline, it was given an unexpected new lease of life. Cheaper air travel made communications with Wales much easier. More and more people from Wales began to visit. Measures were taken to support the language in its only outpost outside Wales.

    In 1996 the Welsh Office began a programme, still continuing under the National Assembly, in which groups of teachers spend a year in Patagonia teaching the language. Some 700 people are currently enrolled in classes. A surprising number come to fluency. A British Council internet project keeps the groups of learners in touch with Welsh speakers in Wales. 21st century technology sustains a 19th century ideal.

    Ann-Marie Brierly visited Patagonia as a teacher in 2001. One of her students was Fabio Lewis, whose great grandfather, Lewis Davies, had come over on the Mimosa. Soon, Fabio's relationship with the land of his fathers had reached an unexpected level of engagement, and he and Ann-Marie were married at her home village in south Wales in the summer of 2003.

    "I wonder what my great grandfather and mother would have thought to know that a small part of them had come back to Wales to make a home here," says Fabio. Now he and Ann-Marie organise tours of Patagonia for the growing number of people from Wales who make the 8,000-mile trip.

    Those visitors can tour Welsh-named communities such as Trelew, Trevelin, Puerto Madryn or indeed Fabio's home village of Dolavon. They can walk down streets named after "Miguel de Jones" (the Spanish for the founder, Michael D Jones), and see statues to the founding fathers of the colony. Visitors can attend a service in one of the Welsh chapels, sample tea and bara brith in one of the numerous Welsh tea houses, stroll round the Gorsedd circle in Gaiman, or attend one of the numerous eisteddfodau , now bilingual in Spanish and Welsh , which still thrive.

    And if they can speak the 'language of heaven' they could pass the time of day with one of the many people who can still speak Welsh in this corner of South America, where a people's love of their culture and their religion proved that not even a desert can be stronger than a dream.

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    Great stuff mate , that was a good read.

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    We have a WAU Chapters in Chile & Argentina and they have told us many stories about Patagonia, right now Patagonia is condemned to disappear if the government does not take immediate measures to avert its destruction.

    Sad Sad World we Live In, people would rather give money to nigs who can't even secure their own existence...

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