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The Welsh of Patagonia | Insight Guides Blog

The Welsh of Patagonia

Flag of the Welsh colony in Patagonia
Flag of the Welsh colony in Patagonia. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/public domain

Patagonia is partly pampas, largely desert, and unrelentingly windblown, with only small areas of fertile soil and little discovered mineral wealth. Why would anyone leave the lush valleys and green hills of Wales to settle in such a place? The Welsh came, between 1865 and 1914, partly to escape conditions in Wales that they deemed culturally oppressive, partly because of the promise – later discovered to be exaggerated – of exciting economic opportunities, and largely to be able to pursue their religious traditions in their own language.

The disruptions of the 19th-century Industrial Revolution uprooted many Welsh agricultural workers: the cost of delivering produce to market became exorbitant because of turnpike fees, grazing land was enclosed, and landless labourers were exploited. Increasing domination of public life by arrogant English officials further upset the Welsh. Thus alienated in his own land, the Welshman left.

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LEFT: The Rev. Michael D. Jones (1822-98), one of first Welsh settler in Argentina. RIGHT:  Welsh traditions in Argentina in present day. Photo: People's Collection Wales/Wikimedia Commons and Fercho85/public domainLEFT: The Rev. Michael D. Jones (1822-98), one of first Welsh settler in Argentina. RIGHT:  Welsh traditions in Argentina in present day. Photo: People's Collection Wales/Wikimedia Commons and Fercho85/public domain

Spiritual journey

Equally powerful was the effect on the Welsh people of the religious revivals of the period, which precipitated a pious religionism that continued beyond World War I. For many, the worldliness of modern life made impossible the quiet spirituality of earlier times, and they saw their escape in distant, unpopulated areas of the world then opening up. Some had already tried Canada and the United States and were frustrated by the tides of other European nationalities which threatened the purity of their communities. They responded when Argentina offered cheap land to immigrants who would settle and develop its vast spaces before an aggressive Chile pre-empted them. From the United States and from Wales, they came in small ships on hazardous voyages to Puerto Madryn, and settled in the Chubut Valley.

Although the hardships of those gritty pioneers are more than a century behind their descendants, the pioneer tradition is proudly remembered. Some remain in agriculture, many are in trade and commerce. Only a dwindling number of the older generation still speaks Welsh, but descendants will proudly show you their chapels and cemeteries (very similar to those in Wales), take you for Welsh tea in one of the area’s many teahouses, and reminisce about their forebears and the difficulties they overcame. They speak of the devastating floods of the Chubut that almost demolished the community at the turn of the 20th century, the scouts who went on indigenous trails to the Andean foothills to settle in the Cwm Hyfrwd (the Beautiful Valley), the loneliness of the prairies in the long cold winters, the incessant winds, and the lack of capital that made all undertakings a matter of backbreaking labour.

Unfortunately, the old ways are being discarded in our modern technological era. The Welsh language will not long be spoken in Patagonia. But traditions are still upheld, and descendants of the Patagonian Welsh still hold eisteddfods to compete in song and verse. They revere the tradition of the chapel even when they do not attend, and they take enormous pride in their links with Wales.

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