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The Welsh in Patagonia

Last updated: 15 August 2008

Welsh immigrants, particularly in North America, were under immense pressure to learn the English language and adopt the ways of the emerging American industrial culture.

When they had mastered the language, they would rapidly disperse into the country on the look out for new opportunities.

As a relatively small immigrant group, they tended not to meet other Welsh people after that, and by the second generation, immigrants were often fully assimilated into the American way of life.

Michael D Jones, a Welsh nonconformist minister and ardent nationalist recognised this pattern amongst immigrants to the United States and decided to do something about it.

Initially, he organised societies to help the Welsh retain their identity, but rapidly realised that the forces for assimilation were too strong and proposed that only a unified Welsh colony could preserve the Welsh language and culture.

The first choice for the new colony was Vancouver Island, in Canada, but gradually an alternative destination began to be considered which seemed to have everything the colonists might need. The new choice was Patagonia, Argentina.

The first group of settlers, about 150 people gathered from all over Wales, sailed from Liverpool to Patagonia aboard the tea-clipper Mimosa, landing in New Bay (Port Madryn) on 28 July 1865.

Unfortunately, they found that Patagonia was not the friendly and inviting land they had been led to believe. They had been told that it was much like lowland Wales, but there was no water, very little food and no available shelter.

Allegedly, the settlers' first homes were shelters cut out of the soft rock of the cliffs in the bay. They struggled to reach the proposed site for the colony in the River Chubut valley about 40 miles away, and eventually the first permanent settlement was established at Rawson at the end of 1865.

But their trials were not over. Floods, bad harvests, arguments over the ownership of land and the lack of a direct route to the ocean where they could export their goods and import necessities made life very difficult.

Many decided to move to other areas to try their luck, and as a result the population at Rawson decreased. One of the settlers went back to Wales as well as the United States and recruited new settlers for the colony.

As a result, a small vessel called the Electric Spark carried 33 new settlers from Pennsylvania in 1874 and joined a group of 49 settlers who had come from Wales. By the end of 1874, the settlement had a population of 273.

In 1875, the Argentine government finally granted the Welsh settlers official title to the land, and this encouraged people to join the colony.

Over 500 people from Wales - mostly from the south Wales coalfield, which was undergoing a severe depression - made the journey to Chubut from 1875-1876. A further 27 settlers arrived from New York.

By 1876, the population numbered 690. Of these, 135 were second generation Welsh and 35 were non-Welsh settlers.

The influx of willing hands meant that plans for a major irrigation system in the Lower Chubut valley could finally go ahead. The new irrigation system revolutionised agriculture in the area and contributed greatly to its rapid expansion and later success.

There were other substantial migrations during the periods 1880-1887. In the period 1904-1912, a considerable number joined the Welsh colony in response to continued economic depression and insecurity in the south Wales coalfields.

However, other nationalities were also beginning to settle in Chubut in greater numbers and the colony's Welsh identity began to be eroded. By 1915, 50 years after the original settlers landed at Port Madryn, the population of Chubut had grown to 23,000 with about half of these being foreign immigrants.

The Lower Chubut valley - so inhospitable and barren when they landed 50 years previously - had been transformed by the Welsh settlers into one of the most fertile, productive agricultural areas in Argentina, and they had expanded the territory into the Andean foothills into the settlement known as Cwm Hyfryd.

Of the 12,000 people living in the Lower Chubut Valley, only about 4,000 were Welsh. The success of the Welsh colony and government initiatives to encourage economic growth in the area had attracted European immigrants from Spain and Italy as well as a massive influx of Argentine nationals and small numbers of Chileans.

During the next 50 years of the Welsh settlement, many of the institutions which had been established in the early days of the colony, such as the Co-Operative Society, were split into factions by arguments. The unity of the community - so important to Michael D Jones, whose dream they had worked so hard to realise - began to crumble.

But despite these problems, the community still survives. It has recently been the subject of a co-ordinated attempt by the Argentine government and the National Assembly of Wales to promote and maintain its distinctly Welsh heritage and identity.

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The Welsh in Patagonia

In 1865, the Mimosa, a tea-clipper set sail for South America.

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