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The Welsh “Y Wladfa”: A Rare Instance of Peaceful Foreign Settlement in South America

Primera casa de Gaiman, Chubut, Argentina. Imagen en Flickr del usuario Pablo Flores (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

The first house in Gaiman, Chubut, Argentina. PHOTO: Pablo Flores (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

On July 28, 1865, one of the world's most curious migrations began. Known in Spanish as La Colonia (The Settlement), or Y Wladfa in Welsh, the 150 individuals that travelled from Wales to the Chubut Province in Argentinian Patagonia, were not looking for wealth, but instead to save a lifestyle that was threatened in their hometown.

In an article titled the History of Patagonia, Ben Johnston explains:

In the early 1800’s, industry within the Welsh heart lands developed and rural communities began to disappear. This industry was helping to fuel the growth of the Industrial Revolution, with the supply of coal, slate, iron and steel. Many believed that Wales was now gradually being absorbed into England, and perhaps disillusioned with this prospect, or excited by the thought of a new start in a new world, many Welshmen and women decided to seek their fortune in other countries.

Usually, the arrival of Europeans on the American continent spelled trouble and violence, but this was somewhat different.

The Wales-Argentina Association sums up the history of this settlement:

Durante el medio siglo que siguió a la migración de los galeses, se fundaron las bases de las que hoy son las ciudades de Puerto Madryn en la Bahía Nueva, Rawson, Gaiman, Trelew a Dolavon en el Valle del Chubut y Trevelin en el Valle Hermoso (Cwm Hyfryd) en los Andes. Muchos de los descendientes galeses también viven en Esquel, al pie de los Andes; en Comodoro Rivadavia, la ciudad más grande de la provincia; en Colonia Sarmiento y también a lo largo y ancho de la República.

Los galeses crearon una sociedad próspera, donde el idioma galés tenía un lugar de privilegio.

For half a century after the Welsh migration, the foundations of what today are the cities of Puerto Madryn at Bahía Nueva, Rawson, Gaiman, Trelew to Dolavon in the Chubut river valley and Trevelin in Valle Hermoso (Cwm Hyfryd) in the Andes, were laid. Many Welsh descendents also live in Esquel, at the foot of the Andes; in Comodoro Rivadavia, the biggest city in the province; in Colonia Sarmiento and all across the Republic.

The Welsh created a prosperous society, where the Welsh language enjoyed a privileged status.

Wales is famous for its valleys, and as Crónicas del sur del mundo notes, it was similar territory in Patagonia that provided a new home for the settlers:

Gaiman es la primera ciudad fundada por aquel centenar y medio de galeses que desembarcó en las afueras de la actual Puerto Madryn y extendió su cultura por el valle del río Chubut hasta la Cordillera, en una colonización de convivencia pacífica con las poblaciones indígenas.

Gaiman is the first city founded by the 150 Welsh people who landed on the outskirts of what today is Puerto Madryn and who spread their culture all through the Chubut river valley up to the Cordillera, in a colonisation based on peaceful coexistence with the indigenous communities.

The settlers of old are fondly recalled in their adopted country:

Fueron especiales las motivaciones que guiaron a estos colonos. No eran aventureros en busca de una hipotética Ciudad de los Césares. Ni errantes buscadores de oro, guiados por el brillo de una riqueza fácil. Tampoco eran científicos con ansias de conocimientos y fama. Era un grupo de personas que deseaba salvar un estilo de vida amenazado en su tierra natal y que buscó, conscientemente, un lugar en el mundo donde poder fundar una nueva nación galesa. Pedían tierra y que respetaran su lengua, su religión y sus costumbres. A cambio, izarían la bandera argentina y se someterían a las leyes del nuevo país.

The motivations that guided those settlers were special. They weren't adventurers looking for a hypothetical City of the Caesars. Nor were they wandering gold seekers, driven by the allure of easy riches. Neither were they scientists yearning for knowledge and fame. They were a group of people who wished to preserve a lifestyle threatened in their homeland, and who were looking, very deliberately, for a place where they could found a new Welsh nation. They asked for land and respect for their language, religion and traditions. In exchange, they would raise the Argentinian flag and would obey the laws of their new country.

Bethel chapel, Gaiman, Chubut. PHOTO: Pablo Flores  (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Bethel chapel, Gaiman, Chubut. PHOTO: Pablo Flores (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

A characteristic of the Welsh people of Patagonia is their piety, as evidenced by the Welsh chapels tourists can visit on both sides of the Chubut river:

Ellos mismos lo dicen: “Cuando un inglés llega a un lugar lo primero que construye es un negocio. Cuando un americano llega a un lugar, seguramente establece una escuela. Pero cuando un galés llega a un lugar, lo primero que hará será levantar una capilla“.

[…] Las capillas galesas, con sus fachadas sobrias de ladrillos cocidos y sus techos de chapa a dos aguas son el distintivo de todas las ciudades chubutenses que ellos fundaron. […] Eran no sólo centros religiosos sino también civiles, educativos y hasta judiciales.

They themselves say that: “When an Englishman arrives somewhere, the first thing he builds is a business. When an American arrives somewhere, he will surely set up a school. But when a Welshman arrives somewhere, the first thing he will do is erect a chapel.”

[…] The Welsh chapels, with their simple brick facade and their gabled tin roofs, are the distinctive mark of all the Chubut cities they founded. […] They were not only religious centers, but also civil, educational and even judicial.

To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the first Welsh settlers to Argentina, a reenactment of the landing of the Mimosa, the ship that brought the first group of settlers, was staged. Overseeing this and other events were the governor of Chubut, Martín Buzzi, and Wales’ Prime Minister, Carwyn Jones, among other guests.

On Twitter, users posted photos and videos of the celebrations of the 150th anniversary of La Colonia in Argentinian Patagonia:

The culture in Chubut also celebrated the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the Welsh settlers with a great show…

Yesterday, we traveled 700 km. from Puerto Madryn to Esquel.

Welshmen in Chubut, 150 years since their arrival in Argentina. My article and more photos on Crónicas…

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  • Sabe_Moya

    “A Rare Instance of Peaceful Foreign Settlement in South America” – how silly and false. The history of Welsh settlement involved many violent conflicts with indigenous people, and now political correctness seeks to avoid remembering this. Even the most famous legend of the Welsh occupation (involving the horse called Malacara and a murderous attack by Indians near Trevelin) deals with these conflicts.

    These “celebrations” are inventions of the present Argentine government, which is producing this propaganda in an attempt to convince the foolishly naive that Argentina would “respect” the Falkland islanders and their way of life. Nothing could be further from the truth. One of the first things the Argentine government would do for the Welsh in the 19th century was a direct violation of their religious practices.

    Try this simple test: go to Chubut province today and try speaking Welsh. People will think you came from Mars. There are only a handful of people today in Chubut who can speak anything even resembling Welsh. The experiment is over, and it failed. The Welsh descendents are nearly invisible, absorbed and assimilated almost entirely by Argentine law, religion, and culture. Even the people who run the phony plastic tea-houses that sell red-lion key fobs and other gimcracks rarely know more than handful of Welsh phrases, and ironically they’re more likely to know more English than Welsh.

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