It was June 1982, the Falklands War was officially over and Britain had succeeded, at the cost of nearly 1,000 lives, in keeping control of its weird imperial outposts for the foreseeable future.
While the Falkland Islanders, liberated from the Argentines, got back to their lives of sheep farming and fishing, the British Army had the job of repatriating Argentine prisoners of war. As the prisoners disembarked at Puerto Madryn in Patagonia, a Welsh Guardsman from the British Army met with one of the soldiers from the local Argentine garrison.
Having expected the interaction to comprise a series of hand gestures and monosyllabic words, the British soldier was shocked when the Argentine soldier, a man who had never traversed the Atlantic, addressed him in fluent Welsh. How could this be?
The 19th Century was a turbulent time for Wales. Rapid industrialisation disrupted the rhythms of Welsh life. Uprisings occurred against the English factory owners and socialism spread across the small nation. Questions were raised in the British parliament as to why the Welsh had become so violent.
In search of an answer which wouldn’t threaten the economic situation of the ruling classes, lawmakers put about the idea that the blame rested with the continued use of the Welsh language. A report by three monolingual English lawyers published in 1847 confirmed what the capitalists feared: The Welsh were lacking in morals and civility, and the Welsh language was to blame. There was no other option but to stamp this vulgar language out. Work would begin early: in school.
The ‘Welsh Not’ was the most hated symbol of English cultural oppression. When a child was heard speaking their native language the teacher would give the child a small stick. They would hold it until another child was heard speaking Welsh, at which point they could pass the stick on to them. At the end of the day, the child holding the stick was severely punished.
Groups of Welsh people had already tried and failed to set up Welsh colonies in the United States before the 1861 meeting at the house of Congregationalist minister Michael D. Jones. These groups had encountered in the US the same pressure to learn English and adapt an industrial way of life as they had back home, and had quickly assimilated.
So on that night in 1861 Jones and his associates discussed the possibility of setting up a Welsh colony away from the English-speaking world; at the other end of the Americas, in Patagonia. Jones had been in touch with the Argentine government about an area called Bahia Blanca. It would suit the Argentines if someone settled in Bahia Blanca because they were in a dispute with Chile about ownership of the land. In return, the Argentines promised to allow the Welsh language and culture to take primacy in the area. Jones’ group publicised news of the opportunity throughout Wales.
In 1865, 200 Welsh people arrived at the same bay, 7,400 miles from home, which would by 1982 become Puerto Madryn. The first European settlers in Bahia Blanca had a tougher time than they had expected. The Argentines had exaggerated the area’s good points. Bahia Blanca was not akin to the green and fertile Welsh lowlands, as they had promised it was. It was barren and windswept, with little water or food sources, and no trees. The party’s first shelters were in shallow caves on the bay.
Without a proper source of food and materials, the settlers looked to be facing the same fate as the Scots involved in the disastrous Darien Scheme had suffered years previously in what is now Panama. But they pushed on to the planned site of the colony 40 miles away in the Chubut valley, on the banks of a river which they named Afon Camwy — twisted river. Here they founded their first settlement: the town of Rawson.
The Argentine government granted the settlers official title to the land and the settlers began to cultivate it. The population of the colony — Y Wladfa as it was known in Wales — grew to around 1,000 by 1880, as a depression in the coalfields drove Welsh people out of their homeland in search of new lives. The Chubut Valley gradually prospered, with Welsh the language of local government and the church. There were no Welsh Nots to be found; in school children happily chatted away to their classmates and learned maths, history and music in Welsh.
In the space of a few years, the settlers had transformed a barely populated, scrub-filled land into one of the most prosperous parts of Argentina. They had found their haven.
But soon this success began to threaten the colony’s Welshness, attracting interest from other parts of South America and Europe. By 1915, 20,000 people lived in Chubut province, half of them from countries other than Wales. Welsh became a minority language.
It wasn’t just Welsh people who sought a new life in South America. All over Europe, people were in situations just as difficult as those in Wales, and the melting pot of the New World offered them a new start.
The beginning of the 19th century also brought the imposition of direct rule by Argentina. Going back on their earlier promises, the Argentine government decided Chubut province was now too valuable not to control. Direct rule brought the use of Welsh as the official language to an end. The dream of Michael D. Jones appeared to be disintegrating. In a letter, the old man lamented:
‘Although there are families who are still faithful to the language and traditions of Wales, I am afraid that the Welsh life there will but slowly waste away, and may not survive another generation. A generation is raised there who has never been in Wales, some of them who have trouble reading Welsh despite continuing to speak the language occasionally, some who consider themselves Argentine subjects and give Argentina pride of place in their minds and hearts.’
With time, the descendants of the settlers abandoned the idea of a Welsh colony. Instead, Chubut valley accepted its place as a uniquely Welsh part of Argentina. For a long time, Welsh continued to be the language of the chapel. Bara brith — a Welsh type of fruit loaf — continues to be served in tea houses. Welsh chapels and windmills dot the landscape and many towns and cities bear Welsh names.
Back home, Welsh culture and language have experienced a renaissance. Wales has its own parliament (Senedd) whose members frequently speak in Welsh and the general public are encouraged to learn the language. In 2015, 1,220 people took Welsh courses in Patagonia. Three schools continue to teach children bilingually, in Spanish and Welsh.
The story of Y Wladfa is one of the many curious outposts of old European culture one encounters in the Americas. The exploration and conquering of the continent led to the near wipe-out of many indigenous cultures, but at the same time provided a second chance for oppressed peoples of Europe; Irish people fleeing famine, Highland Scots turfed out of their homes by the landed gentry, Italians searching for something better than the poverty of Southern Italy.
The quaint Welsh tea shops of Patagonia and the Schnitzel restaurants of Rio Grande do Sul serve as a reminder of the lengths Europeans had to go to survive the poverty, racism and wars which chronically plagued Europe until the advent of peace mere decades ago.