Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Y Wladfa - Homeland

In 1865 the Mimosa lifted anchor in Liverpool. She was a back-up ship, rotten and hurriedly prepared. But she was full of hope, filled with Welsh men, women and children leaving for the other side of the world, escaping the economic depression, in the hope of creating a new Wales.

They’d been beguiled into making the voyage by Michael Jones, a non-conformist preacher who provided a beacon of hope for those in the coal industry, faced with increasing English cultural and economic oppression. That he knew little about the ‘promised’ land or its agricultural capability, no one seemed to notice.

After two months journeying, four deaths, two births and a marriage, the Mimosa landed on a bleak beach on a western peninsula of the Southern Cone. Today it's known as Puerto Madryn.

But there were no verdant fields, just a vast arid steppe of stone and rock. The largest desert in the Americas.

Promisingly for the Welsh, the new Argentine government, keen to establish some control over the wild southern region of their country, were prepared to offer them a hundred square miles. At the time, the Welsh didn't know the real reasons the government were so willing to relinquish territory. This would come later. In the form of conflict and accord with natives and the realization that they were taming the steppe on behalf of the nascent argentine government.

Creating Y Wladfa

Life for the first settlers was extremely hard and even the birth of the first Welsh child in Patagonia, Mary Humphries, did little to dispel the belief of the settlers that they had made a mistake in coming to such a desolate, inhospitable location.

The hardship was compounded by the fact that most of the immigrants had come from the South Wales coalfields and mines. Farming, even on good land, was anathema to them. So farming the  Patagonian scrub was akin to asking an Argentine gaucho to create a coal mine.

Because the Welsh weren’t accustomed to hunting, they had to develop good relations with the Teheulches, native Indians, who taught them how to catch the guanaco, rhea, and other sources of food. The very people the Argentine government hoped they would displace became their trading allies.

By the year 1875 the town of Gaiman was established, and the end of the hardship was in sight.

150 years later, the National Assembly for Wales has been involved in promoting the connection, and there around 45,000 Welsh speakers still in Patagonia, principally in Chubut.

Seven hundred people of all ages are currently learning Welsh in Chubut, and the BBC's Welsh language internet service, BBC Cymru'r Byd, has a section devoted to forging links between schools in Wales and schools in Patagonia.

Walk into Gaiman now, and you'll hear Welsh on the street and in the shops, and you can take Welsh tea and scones in the tearooms, rather than Argentine empanadas in the panaderias.