Why Welsh has always been a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural language
Simon Brooks, author of Hanes Cymry, the first history of ethnic diversity in the Welsh-language community.
The Welsh-language community has always been multi-ethnic.
It was multi-ethnic at birth (it was a fusion between the two components of Romano-British culture after all) and has remained so ever since.
It is true that ethnic diversity within Welsh-language culture has peaked at various junctures (the later medieval ages and during the industrial revolution, for example) but there has never been a period when Welsh has not been multi-ethnic.
Furthermore, the strength of
For example, the Roma of nineteenth-century rural Wales were by and large fluent in Welsh. Irish and English migrants to the towns of the industrialising south and north-east learnt Welsh in their thousands. Jewish migrants who settled in communities where Welsh was the dominant language learnt Welsh.
Since the eighteenth century there have been black Welsh speakers: in rural Wales, the coalfield, Cardiff and also too across the border in Liverpool. South Asian speakers of Welsh in Wales are present by the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This is probably an underestimate of their earliest presence in Welsh-language culture as it merely reflects what we can find in the historical record. The reality is that the vast majority of people did not leave historical traces of their existence as individuals.
This does not mean that Welsh speakers from minority ethnic backgrounds did not face racism. The first black speakers of Welsh learnt the language as a consequence of the slave trade. There are accounts of racist attacks on black Welsh speakers in the coalfield, and in 1870 in the Cynon Valley a black Welsh speaker was murdered.
Anti-Irish racism was rife in Welsh-language culture all through the nineteenth century. The Roma faced centuries of racism, as they did at the hands of people all over Britain.
As well as their involvement in the slave trade, Welsh speakers were also involved in colonialism. As they were not part of the core of the British elite, their involvement was of necessity more peripheral than that of the English upper classes. Nevertheless, they developed specifically Welsh-language forms of colonialism, in Patagonia and also as Welsh-speaking missionaries.
A visit by the Welsh missionary ‘John Davies, Tahiti’ to the island of Rapa-iti in the south Pacific (a journey on which he read Welsh-language theology) was the first contact between a white European and the island’s Polynesian inhabitants. The death of the majority of the population of Rapa-iti from disease was the direct result.
Yet at times the Welsh could constitute an ethnic minority themselves. That was certainly true in Liverpool in the nineteenth century where the Welsh maintained over 50 places of worship, had a Welsh-language press, ran parts of the local economy, congregated in particular communities such as Toxteth, and passed on a cultural identity based on the Welsh language to the second, third and occasionally fourth generations. They faced discrimination too. In advertisements for domestic servants in newspapers on Merseyside in the 1850s and the 1860s, the refrain ‘No Welsh need apply’ was remarkably common.
Thus issues pertaining to ethnic diversity were part of Welsh-language discourse and the Welsh-language experience. Ethnic minorities spoke Welsh. The Welsh partook in European colonialism and also partook in racism. Yet in Wales, the Welsh viewed themselves as a displaced minority (the supposed original inhabitants of the Island of Britain), and in England they were sometimes racialised themselves as an undesirable minority.
Can we apply this history to contemporary Wales? Some have argued that Welsh-language culture as a minority culture has a tendency towards tolerance. Others have suggested that Welsh-language culture was largely exclusive. The reality is that while neither of these statements is inherently true both have been true at particular times in particular places.
For much of its history, the Welsh-speaking community formed a marginalised social group, both economically and also in relation to Anglophone power. It had undergone Conquest. Thus the history of Welsh-language interaction with other minorities is not always a simple relationship between a majority and a minority.
It was normally a relationship between two minorities, although we must remember too that the Welsh-speaking minority always had more power than groups excluded on the basis of race. Nevertheless, the fact that the Welsh-speaking community is itself a minority means that Welsh models of multiculturalism cannot be theorized in exactly the same way as in America or England.
And many people belonged to both groups, and were members both of the linguistic minority as well too as of racial and ethnic minorities within that linguistic minority. The nature of ethnic diversity varied over time and it varied too according to place. But of one thing we can be certain. In the 1500 year-or-so history of the Welsh language, not a single moment has passed in which the Welsh-speaking experience has been confined to one ethnic group.
What does this mean today? Welsh-language culture has always been multi-ethnic and multi-cultural in the past, and it will be so too tomorrow. In this instance then, the past does indeed shine a light into the future.
Hanes Cymry: Lleiafrifoedd Ethnig a’r Gwareiddiad Cymraeg (The History of the Welsh: Ethnic Minorities and Welsh-language civilization) is published by the University of Wales Press priced £19.99 and can be bought here.
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