And Wladfa, the colonization of Argentina by Welsh emigrants

eisteddfod is the Welsh name of a cultural festival of poetry and music whose origins date back to Cardigan in 1176. Its name means “to sit” because attendees had to remain so during performances by poets and bards, who competed for a seat at the table of Count Rhys ap Gruffyddd, the creator of the event. Now if we specify and talk about the Eisteddfod And Wladfa we would be referring to an edition that since 1865 has taken place thousands of kilometers away from Wales, in various cities of the province of Chubut, in Argentine Patagonia.

Rawson, Trevelin, Puerto Madryn, Dovalon, Gaiman, Trelew… are some of the names of unusual Welsh origin of these towns. The reason for such a strange location is that these sites were born as a result of the and Wladfa, a term translatable by La Colonia, in reference to his birth. Because if we already know that Argentina is a curious puzzle founded from the fusion of indigenous cultures with the Spanish, from the 19th century others from almost all of Europe were added, the Italian being the most prominent case; but there was also a little-known Welsh contribution whose memory, language and traditions are maintained today by more than seventy thousand people.

The first Welsh came from the promotion in this sense that began to make Michael Daniel Jones, a young Protestant pastor who is considered the father of Welsh nationalism, who aspired to found a colony far from any area of ​​​​influence of England to avoid the frequent loss of identity of emigrants from their country. After considering remote territories in Oceania or the Middle East, they decided on Patagonia because the Argentine government offered them 260 virgin square kilometers in that desolate region (the Tehuelche natives obviously did not count) at the rate of a hundred acres per family, with the condition of not proclaiming themselves independent but constituting themselves as a province once they reached twenty thousand inhabitants.

Welsh settlements in Argentina/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

There was strong opposition for fear that the British character of the candidates and the proximity of the Malvinas were the beginning of a covert invasion, apart from the fact that the Welsh were not Catholics. The reality was different: London, which had been displacing Welsh institutions for centuries to assimilate them to its own and abolished its legal system in 1830, marginalized de facto Welsh language and customs, so many saw the march from the British Isles as a way to get rid of oppression.

Something to which the rivalry between the English immigrants established in the Welsh countryside, of Anglican faith, and the native peasants who professed other Protestant branches, such as the Congregationalist, the Methodist, the Presbyterian or the Baptist, who rejected centralization, was not unrelated. hierarchical from the other.

So the operation was launched. The Liverpool Emigration Commission, founded in the city of the same name because the ships that made the transatlantic crossings used to set sail from there, was in charge of organizing the trip, which followed the previously inspected and decided route on site for a commission.

At the end of May 1865, the bricboat weighed anchor. Mimosa carrying on board 153 Welsh settlers (56 married adults, 33 single or widowed, 12 single women and 52 children). The price of the ticket was 12 pounds per adult and 6 per child, and there were people with the most varied trades to be able to found a settlement.

It was a difficult voyage due to the discomfort of the ship, inadequate for that function, and due to the storms that hit it as it left the Brazilian coast behind. There was conflict when the young captain ordered the women to shave their heads to face an epidemic of lice, four minors died, another two were born, a couple got married and everyone celebrated the tradition of crossing the equator. Finally, after two months at sea, they arrived at Golfo Nuevo, in Chubut, in the middle of the summer of 1863. Mimosa He anchored and disembarked the passengers, for whom some cabins had been prepared with some cattle in order to make it easier for them to face the first moments.

The bricbarca Mimosa/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

In general, the immediate feeling was disappointment, initially prevailing over the illusion of a new life. The peasants had been told that the land was similar to that of Wales but it turned out to be completely different, semi-arid, with a nasty climate and no available water, forcing people to move to a better place carrying what they could with their belongings. The march was hard and since they did not have a doctor there were some deaths, although, as in the ocean crossing, there was also a marriage and a girl was born.

The arrival of two ships, the Black river and the mary helen, loaded with horses and carts, allowed the colonists to be divided in two, with the men advancing on land and women and children embarked. Paradoxically, this second group had a worse time because the bad weather turned what had to be only one journey into fifteen days and there was not enough food, which caused new illnesses and deaths.

Finally they all reached the valley of the Chubut River, where they settled in a kind of fort named Trerawson, Rawson Town in Gaelic, from which the name of the current city was derived (it was in honor of Guillermo Rawson, the Argentine minister who had led to his arrival).

Once the foundation was settled and made official under the Argentine flag, the new neighbors began to build adobe houses and a couple of wooden buildings that served as a store, church and school. They also constituted a Cyngor and Wladfathat is, a Council or municipal government that was in charge of distributing the lands as agreed and directing the community.

There were still hard times ahead, since, being miners, most of the families did not know how to farm and when they finally managed to grow crops (mainly corn and potatoes), the persistent drought in the region ruined them; that when the floods of the river did not take them ahead along with their houses.

Welsh settlers in Patagonia around 1900/Photo: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

The colony was able to get ahead thanks to the fact that the government of Buenos Aires provided them with a Navy schooner, the chubutwith which they could transport goods from the nearest city, Carmen de Patagones.

Trade with the Tehuelche natives was also decisive, with whom, after a few moments of enmity, they ended up maintaining a good relationship; they taught them to sow, to ride a horse and to hunt with bolas. However, the life of the settlers was very poor and some proposed to leave the place in search of another more fertile one; in the end only a few left, to the province of Santa Fe.

Others left for different reasons, the case of Lewis Jones, who had been chosen as head of the Council. Jones, who was already frowned upon for having been the one who falsified the panorama by saying that Patagonia was an authentic orchard of fruit trees and pastures, had proposed to commercialize the abundant guano in the area but people made him ugly that this plan was only going to benefit the company he wanted to create and he was fired. He went into exile in Buenos Aires followed by his faithful and was replaced by William Davies.

The bleeding of neighbors could be corrected when irrigation channels were opened to guarantee the survival of the crops. The success was such that in a few years the colony prospered, producing thousands of tons of wheat and even founding a second settlement, Gaiman, in 1874. and Wladfa took a run and the next step, given that the hard work of the chubut already revealed insufficient, was to start the construction of a railway line that linked the valley with Puerto Madryn.

Lewis Jones himself promoted it under the name of Ferrocarril Central del Chubut. In the works, which began in 1886, he collaborated with a new wave of Welsh immigrants and that train, which in the following decades would spread to other towns, would allow the founding of new cities like Trelew.

Not everything came rolling, of course. In 1884 a gold expedition confronted the natives, ending with the death of three settlers in a place that from then on was known as Valle de los Mártires.

Welsh settlers working on the road that was to link Chubut with the Andes (1889)/Photo: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

The following year, the foundation by the Welsh of a new settlement near the Andes, Colonia 16 de Octubre (they called it Cwun Hyfrwdwhose romantic meaning in Welsh is Valle Encantado), from which the cities of Esquel and Trevelin would be born, originated a border controversy with Chile.

And the call to ranks of those who were already considered new Argentine citizens did not please the Welsh community because they were forced to work on Sunday, a precept contrary to their strict religion.

The expansion from the 19th to the 20th century led to the presence of more than 4,000 Welsh in Patagonia. However, after the First World War, emigration stopped and in its place people from southern Europe arrived, especially from Spain, Italy and Portugal, leaving the British in a minority. However, they managed to preserve the memory of their customs, their religion and their language; architecture, place names, festivals, gastronomy and other cultural manifestations attest to this today.


Patagonian history (Susana Bandieri)/Immigrants 1860-1914. The story of mine and yours (Daniel Muchnik)/immigration stories (Lucia Galvez)/Patagonia (Jaime Said)/Patagonia. A cultural history (Chris Moss)/Wikipedia

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