We shouldn’t romanticise the actions of the Welsh who colonised Patagonia
In a year of Black Lives Matters protests and subsequent reflection, it was inevitable that the role and context of the Welsh in Patagonia should be considered and re-assessed.
The process was already underway with Geraldine Lublin’s keywords article on ‘Gwladfa’ in the most recent edition of Planet, but found its way onto social media on the weekend with a joke about Argentina becoming the first ‘Welsh speaking nation’ to beat New Zealand in 67 years
The poor state of Welsh rugby was the butt of the joke, but the subsequent promotion of the Welsh history in colonising Patagonia sparked a debate that, until now, hadn’t been held in this new milieu.
It shouldn’t require further explanation that, whatever the cultural motives of many of the Welsh in moving to Patagonia between 1865 and 1911, they were settler colonists, just as were the Welsh in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand – and those of the failed settlement in Brazil more than a decade before the Mimosa left Liverpool.
The highly religious and chapel-going group that arrived in Patagonia (many of whom were part of congregations of the Reverend Matthews in and around Mountain Ash) may not have fought battles or deliberately mistreated the local population, but their presence expanded effective Argentine state control further southwards than before.
Argued by Lucy Taylor in the Patagonia context, a long term (ever present?) element of Welsh international diplomacy is a ‘moral superiority’, shown in this case through peaceful trade and writing letters to the government in Buenos Aires to argue for better treatment of the indigenous population. However, this does not abdicate the responsibility that the colonists arrived in an unfamiliar country and settled lands that were, morally, not theirs to settle.
Patagonia, though, is vast and largely empty. The Chubut Province, the provincial government based around the territories settled by the Welsh, is a little larger than Great Britain, but with a population, even now, of barely half a million people. The nomadic peoples who populated the area in the mid-nineteenth century were not large in number. When the Welsh set up their colony, the nearest permanent settlement was estimated to be around 200 miles away – the distance from Cardiff to Manchester. Compared to Wales, the colonists would have felt alone.
Previous colonial attempts by the government in Buenos Aires to establish a settlement near the Camwy (Chubut) River had failed. The Welsh colony had been agreed in principle with the Argentine government who had promised support, including arranging payments to the indigenous population for the land and to protect the Welsh from attack. The land itself was barren and the Welsh Colony was in very real danger of failing.
In this context, the Welsh of the colony’s early years were hardly the robber barons of colonial exploitation, pillaging the valuables of a different civilisation for use elsewhere. For years, the colonists struggled to eke out a living from the land along the river, only making a success through the ingenuity of cutting into the river and irrigating the fields alongside.
Even then, Patagonia could not support mass colonisation, and the numbers who came to Patagonia – some 3-4,000 people between 1865 and 1911 – are tiny compared to the million or so who left Wales for a better life elsewhere during that same period.
Furthermore, Argentina’s immigration policy was designed to attract Europeans to the country. The government were less concerned with the welfare or rights of the indigenous population than securing the border with neighbouring Chile. If it hadn’t been the Welsh who took up the opportunities of Patagonia, then it may have been another group. Further south, oil-rich Comodoro Rivadavia was later colonised by Boers after their war with the British Empire in South Africa.
However, the Welsh were inevitably part of the growth and expansion of the Argentine state. The famous Riflemen expedition, where the Welsh trekked from the Camwy River by the Atlantic towards the Andes, was led by Governor Fontana, and allowed the expansion of the Welsh colony in the Cordillera de los Andes, Cwm Hyfryd in Welsh. The Welsh were rewarded with the hand-out of large and productive farming areas.
It remains unclear whether the presence of the Welsh in the region genuinely affected the British arbitration in setting the Argentina – Chile border in 1902, but the community meeting at a local school in Trevelin, in which the Welsh set out their wish to remain part of Argentina and not separated from their family in the Chubut Valley, is a date set in local history. 30 April remains a provincial holiday. The region remains in Argentina.
The success and survival of the Welsh colony was not inevitable. Persistent flooding at the turn of the twentieth century led to migrations to Canada and to a new Welsh settlement in the Rio Negro, in the north of Patagonia. The Welsh community was soon enveloped by the Argentine state, impacting on education and military conscription. At one point, they even wrote to London to ask for the support of the British Empire. A generation or two later, integration into Argentina was complete and in only a handful of families was the Welsh language itself passed on.
It can be safely argued that the Welsh were settler colonists, that they benefited from the support of the Argentine state and the inherent power dynamics of the relationship with the indigenous population.
Tales of Patagonia (‘the only other Welsh speaking community in the world’) play a strong mythical role in modern day Wales. Our struggle in maintaining the Welsh language mean that we see so-called Welsh speaking Patagonia through rose-tinted spectacles. We see ourselves in Patagonia, but it is an oasis of Welshness decontextualised from local society and wider Argentina rarely, if ever, discussed in detail in Wales.
Nevertheless, the triumphs of the Welsh in Patagonia of establishing and maintaining a colony against the odds are substantial. Those achievements are still celebrated through the settler myth which permeate Patagonian society – the Welsh arrival day (Gŵyl y Glaniad) is also a holiday, celebrated in Puerto Madryn with the ahistorical symbolic welcome of the Welsh by the indigenous population.
The actions of the Welsh in colonising Patagonia don’t need to be romanticised. They can and should be held to the same standards as every other examination that we make of Western action in recent centuries. We shouldn’t be scared to do that.
However, it is ultimately a matter for those in Patagonia to make decisions which best recognise their society and their past. Patagonia may have a strong place in Welsh hearts, but it is up to the present inhabitants to determine their future – not us.
Dr Ian Johnson completed his doctoral thesis on ‘Subjective ethnolinguistic vitality of Welsh in the Chubut Province, Argentina’ in 2007.