Opinion

Why the Wladfa in Patagonia shouldn’t be labelled a colonialist venture

01 Dec 2020 5 minutes Read
Recreation of the landing of Mimosa sailboat in Punta Cuevas, Port Madryn. Picture by Gastón Cuello (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Geraldine Mac Burney Jones

Within the past year a video on Hansh and an article in Nation.Cymru have eagerly labelled Y Wladfa, the Welsh speaking community in Patagonia, a colonialist venture.

Unfortunately, this conclusion has been the result of misconceptions, fallacies and poor argumentation.

Whilst the debate regarding the position of the Welsh settlers in Patagonia towards the natives has arisen recently in Wales, the matter has been assessed and considered in Chubut for years beforehand.

The relation between both cultures has been taught as part of the curriculum in primary and secondary schools all over the province. But there is of course room for reflection and improvement.

The cultural motives of many of the Welsh migrating to Patagonia are not a minor detail. It is not right to say “whatever the cultural reasons” because that is where the difference between settlers and colonists becomes vital.

According to Cambridge Dictionary, a colony is “a country or area controlled politically by a more powerful country that is often far away.” On the other hand the definition for settlement reads: “a place where people come to live or the process of settling in such a place.”

Y Wladfa, y gwladfa, from the word gwladychfa: in strictu sensu is defined as a settlement. Therefore, is it right to establish similarities between the British colonisation of Tasmania, Australia or India and the Welsh settlement in Patagonia?

Or is there a risk of falling captive in the fallacy of false equivalence?

 

Respect

One piece of imperative literature is mentioned in Dr Ian Johnson’s article: the Cheguelcho Treaty. Signed in May 1865 by one of the native chiefs, known as Cacique Francisco or Frances, with the Argentine government, where he transfers the ownership of the lands – later to be inhabited by the Welsh settlers – to the government in exchange for compensation and where he promised to defend the Welsh from the attacks of other tribes.

This is not only the moral basis but the very legal cornerstone of the Welsh right to inhabit the lands, subject to contract.

Llawlyfr y Wladfa states that: “…we cannot disregard the rights of the Indians of the land… [but] … we should attempt to make friends of them, giving them whatever is honest, whatever is just”. Dr. Lucy Taylor, one of the main sources of the article, proceeds to speculate this attitude as follows: “Fair-dealing and non-violence are thus deployed as a powerful tool that can justify settler colonialism”.

The “fair-dealing” referred to included merchandise and skills interchange between the natives and the Welsh, which was beneficial to both and can be factually proven to be economically complimentary and not a consequence of exploitation.

In terms of natives being dispossessed of their land and violently mistreated and killed, the following should be considered: The attitude of the Welsh towards the Conquest of the Desert or Campaña del Desierto, carried out under the command of General Roca.

After that systemic massacre of indigenous tribes, high-ranking military personnel were granted with large land-estates. Welsh settlers wrote to the Argentinian government several letters pleading for mercy. Those documents reflect a profound respect for the natives.

Pacifist attempts by the Welsh settlers to mediate with the government were not gestures to display commendable morality. In reality, their power to act was limited and they were in an extremely weak situation to take up arms against Roca’s forces.

Equals

Patagonians are often viewed in Wales as fictional exotic creatures and subjected to demeaning, yet well intended, observations. Unfortunately, the cinematic image of a white gaucho singing Calon Lan on horseback on his way to a chapel tea or a whole town speaking Welsh with a Spanish accent, are patronising images instilled in Welsh popular belief.

But stereotypes should not be relied upon as the basis for accurate representation of any peoples, the Welsh included.

Let me paraphrase a Patagonian man, descendant of Welsh settlers: “Should Patagonian Welsh speakers and descendants feel guilty of our heritage?” Or should we feel guilty for the permanent efforts that our ancestors and our generation made to keep the language and traditions alive?

My great-grandmother Jane Jones adopted two natives, raised them as daughters and to my nain they were her sisters. On the other hand, my great-grandfather used to stay for days in the paith with the tehuelches, who he considered to be his friends and equals. He was not an exceptional case. Nor are the marriages between natives and Welsh. Therefore, is this a “friendship myth”?

The possibility cannot be denied that any individual or a handful of Welsh settlers could be racist or had felt superiority towards the mapuches or tehuelches. But does that take away the recognition of a collective Welsh community having treated the natives with respect and seeing them as their genuine friends?

The Welsh did not subdue the natives, they did not instil Christianity or sweep away their religious beliefs. They just started a journey to access the right to self-determination without interfering in other’s rights. They did not even dispute them.

Is this not the basis of respect and understanding? Or is this a model of colonial oppression veiled behind a romanticized narrative of friendship?

Geraldine Mac Burney Jones, was born in Gaiman, Chubut. She is a poet and a lawyer graduated from the Catholic University of Córdoba. She lives in Dyffryn Conwy, in the north of Wales.

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