Land of their fathers

8th November 1996 at 00:00
Welsh settlers dreamed of founding a home from home in South America in 1865. But their descendents almost lost their language and culture. Harvey McGavin reports on a revival supported by the Welsh Office.

Patagonia is the southernmost part of South America, sometimes called the "uttermost part of the earth". A barren expanse of deserts and sierras, this tongue of land is a place of few people but many myths and fables. And of all the stories it can tell, few are more fabulous than that of the Welsh people who went to live there.

There are still dragons in Patagonia. Welsh dragons, in the tea rooms and souvenir shops of Gaiman and Trelew, Rawson and Trefelin, towns that stick out like misprints on the map among the florid latino place names of Puerto Deseado and Arroyo Pescado. But they are signs of a friendly invasion, permanent reminders of the Welsh emigrants who settled in the remote Chubut valley 130 years ago.

In 1865, a chartered tea clipper, the Mimosa, dropped anchor off the Patagonian coast. One hundred and fifty three Welsh men, women and children went ashore and christened the spot Port Madryn. This was the beginning of Y Wladfa, The Colony, a home from home, and a new Wales where they would be free to express their language and culture far from the oppression of the English.

In the years that followed, some 3,000 others joined their pioneering compatriots. The Argentinian government gave them land along the Chubut river, and left them to their own devices. The indigenous Indians taught them how to hunt, exchanged skins and furs for simple food, and called the new arrivals "the bread and butter people".

Led by strict non-conformist nationalist clergymen, the settlers' life revolved around the home, school and the chapel and Welsh was spoken in each place. A new currency and legal system were introduced. The arid soil was made workable by irrigation and sheep were farmed on the high land. Welsh language primary schools were set up and women were given the vote many years before the same advances were made in their homeland.

Having travelled so far, the settlers were unwilling to see their dream diluted by the dictates of ministers hundreds of miles away in Buenos Aires. But their new found autonomy was soon under threat. In 1878, the Argentinian government sent a teacher to set up a Spanish speaking school in the area. He did not succeed, but Spanish was soon being taught in schools, causing alarm and consternation among the Welsh speaking population.

"The drilling and frequent repetition of a string of completely unintelligible words to the children is not education," protested a local journal's Christmas edition of 1883. "While the sphere of the children's home and play remains Welsh, it is a waste of time befuddling their minds with the vocabulary of another language," said Ein Breiniad.

But by the turn of the century, Spanish had become the language of instruction in schools. A single school, Camwy Intermediate College, continued to teach the language until its closure in 1947. As the years passed, the Welsh language fell into decline, and was heard only among the older generation.

Thirty years ago, the courageous attempts of the first settlers to establish a new Wales were being written off. A 1962 study of the Welsh community in Patagonia came to a grim conclusion: "Before long the ideal and the dream of founding a new Wales in Patagonia will dwindle but it will always be remembered as one of Wales' great failures."

In 1973, Welsh language professor Robert Owen Jones journeyed to the Chubut province, which by then had become a half-forgotten outpost of Welsh civilisation.

He left convinced that the Welsh language would not outlive the few remaining old people who spoke it. "I had seen at first hand the death of the Welsh language," he recalls. "Hardly any children were being brought up to speak Welsh. The language was not being passed down to the younger generation. There had been a slow but certain erosion of the language. The situation seemed hopeless."

But today the Welsh speaking community in Chubut is experiencing a revival in its fortunes that would gladden the souls of its founding fathers. When he revisited the valley again this year, Robert Owen Jones could hardly believe his ears. "Now there is a regeneration of Welsh in education and in people's consciousness. There is great enthusiasm, particularly among the young. "

The survival of the language through five generations has amazed linguists and enthusiasts alike. The catalyst for its remarkable revival has been the efforts of a group of volunteer teachers.

In 1990, Gwilym Roberts, a retired teacher from Cardiff, was watching television when a programme about Patagonia caught his attention. He discovered that the Welsh Argentine Society was looking for people to teach the language in the province and volunteered his services.

Trelew had become a commercial town of 70,000 with barely a trace of its origins. The Welsh were a minority, submerged by the pervading culture and disallowed until recently from giving their offspring Welsh Christian names.

"The situation was quite desperate then. The Spanish influence was so strong - like the English influence in Wales."

Even so, Roberts found in Gaiman (population 4,000) a last refuge of his native tongue. "When I went out I was a bit apprehensive because I knew no Spanish at all. But there was a Welsh speaker in nearly every house.

"People say why bother to go to Patagonia when there is plenty of work to do in Wales. But it is the only place in the world where the Welsh language has survived for so long away from home. There's something romantic about it. "

The same sentiment captured the imagination of Sian Emlyn, secretary of the Welsh Argentine Society. As a girl, she was transported to the dusty plains of Patagonia by the storybook tales of Welsh speaking cowboys. Wales' Wild West, she calls it. Even so, it was some time before she went there for real in 1975.

The symbolism of what the settlers were trying to achieve is one of the enduring appeals of the place. "When the settlers went there it was a time of great oppression and depression in Wales," she explains. "There was great disquiet about the way landlords treated the farming community. Welsh was squashed in the schools."

The Society has paid for volunteer teachers to go to Patagonia for the last six years and for a handful of Patagonian students to attend intensive Welsh courses at Lampeter college, modelled around the method known as ULPAN used to teach Hebrew to Jewish refugees in Israel. A recent award of Pounds 40, 000 from the Welsh Office for three full time teachers of Welsh to go to the province for the beginning of the next school year in March will continue its remarkable longevity.

After existing on the fringes of Patagonian life for so long, Welsh culture is once again an integral and respected part of the social life of the region. Children from Spanish speaking homes are learning Welsh so that they can sing in the annual bilingual Eisteddfodd, and compete for the honour of representing the province at similar events in Wales.

Welsh folk dancing, although "not as skilful as the tango" Sian Emlyn admits, is growing in popularity. The anniversary of the first arrivals, July 28, is a holiday throughout the province, celebrated with tea and rock cakes in the chapels.

Sian Emlyn believes Patagonia's Welsh heritage is finally getting the recognition it deserves. "The Argentinian government acknowledges the bravery of the early Welsh pioneers and is naming streets after them."

Whatever happens, there is a corner of South America that will be forever Welsh.

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