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Y Wladfa: The Welsh Part of Argentina

Early Welsh settlers in Patagonia, clad in national dress.

In the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing across Great Britain.  Mills and factories dotted the landscape of England, and were soon appearing in southern Wales.  Southern Wales was a prime candidate for industrialization, due to an abundance of coal, which was vital to powering factories, as well as decent iron deposits and plenty of wool. Wales also had an English-speaking population, having been part of Great Britain since 1282 (except for a brief seven-year separation during the 16th century), so the English language and culture had had plenty of time to dominate the country.

In the cities, English was more prominent than in the countryside, where the Welsh language was still widely spoken.  However, industrialization drew workers (and political power) from the countryside, diminishing the Welsh culture and language.  By the middle of the 19th century, there was a sense among the Welsh that their culture and language might disappear altogether.  Some Welsh felt strongly enough about it to take extraordinary measures to preserve their identity.  Welsh emigrants left Great Britain for the United States in the early 19th century, setting up Welsh towns, where their identity could be preserved.  That was the idea, anyway.  These new Welsh towns enjoyed varying degrees of success, particularly Utica, New York and Scranton Pennsylvania.  Unfortunately, their adopted country put great pressure on the Welsh to start speaking English and abandon their native culture—a common demand that immigrant populations to the United States encounter.

Welsh nationalist Michael Jones hatched a plan to establish a new Welsh colony that would be more resilient than the previous ones.  He started corresponding with the government of Argentina about the possibility of creating a Welsh land there.  The Argentine government was happy to do it, and suggested they move to Patagonia, the southern part of the country.  Argentina had its own interest in the Welsh moving there, too.  Sparsely populated Patagonia was disputed territory between Argentina and its western neighbor Chile.  Argentina wanted to secure its claim on the region, and nothing helps a land claim like a large influx of loyal citizens.

In 1865, the Welsh started moving into the Chubut Valley.  As promised, Argentina allowed them to retain the Welsh language without pressure to abandon it in favor of Spanish.  Eventually Chile dropped its claim to the territory, fearing war with Argentina over it.  Argentina had been working for much of its history to subjugate all the indigenous states in Patagonia through a policy it referred to as La Conquista del Desierto, or The Conquest of the Desert.  In 1884, the region where the Welsh made their new home became the National Territory of Chubut.  In 1955, following the discovery of mineral resources in the territory, Chubut was made a province.

The Chubut Valley: not quite as lush and green as the Argentine government promised.

Patagonia was sparsely inhabited for a good reason.  The policy of The Conquest of the Desert offers a clue as to why.  The region, referred to as the pampas, is not entirely desert, but it is rather arid—very different from the lush, green landscape the Argentine government had promised them.  The agrarian settlement the Welsh hoped to form needed water, which was hard to come by.  The lack of trees also meant a lack of raw materials to build houses.  The local Teheulche people helped the Welsh settlers figure out how to live off the harsh landscape, but it wasn’t enough.  The first colony got by mostly on charity from people in the homeland, sending food and lumber to help them get the colony off the ground.  The first Welsh settlement was established late in 1865. The town was called Rawson, in a region the Welsh referred to as Y Wladfa, on the banks of a river the Welsh named the Camwy.

Rawson was about 40 miles inland.  This offered a challenge to the settlers, since a port would make it easier for supplies to be delivered.  The settlers were also plagued by floods and poor harvests, as well as disputes over land ownership.  Welsh Patagonia got off to a rocky start, and things were staying rocky.

Colonial records show it was a settler named Rachel Jenkins who conceived of an irrigation system that would allow the valley to be properly irrigated.  This success turned things around for the colony of about 200 inhabitants.  Soon after, more Welsh arrived from both Pennsylvania and Wales.  The colony was thriving.  In 1875 the Argentine government granted the Welsh settlers title to the land.  The strong local government attracted even more settlers.  Not all new arrivals were Welsh, though.  By 1915, nearly half the population of the Chubut Territory was from somewhere besides Wales.  The Welsh nationalists were starting to feel their Welsh identity was threatened.  Indeed, the Argentine government changed its attitude toward the Welsh, imposing more direct rule on Chubut.  The Welsh schools were closed, and Spanish-only education was the law of the land.  Welsh-language newspapers were permitted to be published, but with a government growing increasingly hostile to the population, the Welsh utopia appeared to be on the decline.

The Welsh language in Patagonia, like the Welsh identity, never really died out.  The sudden anti-immigrant shift in sentiment did force the Welsh to retreat somewhat.  Subdued Welsh festivals continued in Chubut, and Welsh continued to be spoken at home and at church.  

In 1965, the Welsh lot started to improve.  On the centennial of the founding of the Welsh settlement in Patagonia, British Welsh started to take an interest in the region again.  Chubut became a popular destination for Welsh tourists, who were also concerned about preserving their language and identity in their home country.  They discovered that the evolution of the Welsh language in Wales and that in Argentina had diverged a little—like the divergence of English in England and North America, or French in France and North America—but the two versions were still mutually intelligible.

A Welsh renaissance happened in Argentina at this point.  Tourism breathed new life into Y Wladfa, with Welsh festivals (known as eisteddfodau) a popular draw.  Despite Argentina’s Spanish-only school system, instruction in the Welsh language has been growing.  In 2017, about 1,200 Argentines started taking Welsh classes.  This is significant, since the number of native Welsh speakers in Argentina today numbers only around 5,000.  Argentina has come to view the Welsh as a cultural asset.  Official government websites play down (or ignore) the cultural suppression of a century ago, and non-Welsh Argentines tour Y Wladfa in increasing numbers these days, as well.


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