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28 October 2014
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Immigration and Emigration
Bethel Chapel, Trevelin.
Bethel Chapel, at the foot of the Andes, Patagonia, Argentina

© BBC
Chapels, tea houses and gauchos: The Welsh in Patagonia.

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.

Words: Grahame Davies More...

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Michael D Jones
Comings and Goings: Patagonia
Wales-Argentina Society
National Library of Wales's Patagonia collection
British Council Wales - Argentina Project
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