Patagonia bound

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On 31 May 1865 a group of 153 Welsh men, women and children set sail from Liverpool on the converted tea clipper Mimosa. Their destination: the Chubut Valley in Argentina. It was the start of Y Wladfa Gymraeg, the Welsh Colony of Patagonia.

The idea of a Welsh colony in an area where the cultural identity of the settlers could be maintained was first put forward by Michael Jones, a nonconformist preacher from the Bala area of north Wales. He had spent time in the USA and had seen how Welsh immigrants were quickly first subsumed by and then incorporated into the American society and way of life.

Jones wanted to create what he called a "little Wales" beyond the reach of other cultures where the settlers could keep their unique identity and speak their language without undue interference. A number of locations were considered, including Australia, New Zealand and Vancouver Island off the coast of Canada.

However, by the second half of the 19th century the Argentine government was actively encouraging European immigration, in an attempt to populate the country regions outside places such as Buenos Aires. And when the potential settlers were offered 100 square miles of land along the Chubut River, an area that was still wild and unconquered, the offer was readily accepted.

The land was explored by Captain Love Jones-Parry and Lewis Jones. They encountered severe weather, their ship Candelaria being driven towards land by a storm. But their report was favourable and the call for settlers went out.

At a charge of £12 for adults, £5 for children, the tea clipper Mimosa was obtained, converted at a cost of £2,500, and a party of just over 150 settlers was assembled. They consisted of carpenters, tailors, miners - but, surprisingly, very few farmers. The party arrived in Argentina on 27 July 1865 and immediately set off for their new home.

The story of the hardships they faced has been told many times. They had no option but to walk across the desert, pushing their food, clothing and belongings in wheel barrows. They quickly discovered that Patagonia was very far from the idyllic paradise they had been promised. It was dry, dusty, inhospitable and the Tehuelche Indians of the region were, at first, unfriendly.

There were several deaths on the trek and one birth, Mary Humphreys. When the settlers arrived at the Chubut River, they built themselves a fort, a settlement that in time grew into the town of Rawson. Flash floods washed away houses and crops but, with Lewis Jones as the driving force, the settlers stuck to their task.

By the end of 1874 Rawson had a population of 273. Two years later this had risen to 690. While many of the early settlers gave up the dream and returned to Wales or moved on to America, others stayed and, in time, were reinforced by further migrations in the early years of the 20th century.

The arrival of over 400 new settlers in 1886 brought further strength to the colony and when the Argentine government granted permission to build a railway it was something of a lifeline to the intrepid colonists. The development of an irrigation system soon turned the Chubut Valley into one of the most fertile parts of Argentina.

The colony also expanded westwards, towards the Andes Mountains as people began looking for new land to farm. Forty-four Welsh settlers, for example, soon decided to leave Chubut and establish another colony in Coronel Suarez. It was one of several such movements of groups and individuals - clearly the emigration of Welsh men and women had been a success.

By the early years of the 21st century it was estimated that nearly 50,000 Patagonians were of Welsh descent with around 2,000 of them still speaking Welsh.

In the early days the colony was totally self governing. Everyone over the age of 18 was entitled to vote and, while the settlers were spread over a fairly wide geographical area, a sense of unity remained.

It could not last and, perhaps inevitably, the aims of Michael Jones and the other leaders of the emigration movement were not fully realised. Over the years the unity of the colony began to fall away as settlers from other nations - not to mention the arrival of Argentinian nationals - began to come to Patagonia seeking a new life.

A wholly unique Welsh colony could not hope to survive - politically, the Argentine government could not allow such a free standing unit to exist within its borders - and nowadays Patagonia is a fully developed and important part of Argentina.

The Patagonians remain proud of their Welsh roots so although the isolationist element of the plan was doomed to failure, the overall success of the settlement has been maintained.

The Welsh Colony was a fascinating attempt to implant a settlement with a specific cultural identity in a foreign land. To an extent, it worked - and to think it all began with 153 brave men and women taking ship from Liverpool on 31 May 1865.

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