In the Chubut Valley of Patagonia, is a settlement, where instead of ornate catholic churches there are little protestant chapels and instead of tango bars there are tearooms selling bara brith and scones. A group of Welsh pioneers set sail 150 years ago this summer on an old tea clipper, appropriately named the Mimosa, to look for even greener pastures. The idea was to set up a community away from the shadow of Britain and the threat of cultural persecution.
Expecting to find land as fertile as the one they had left behind, they were disappointed to instead find chilly, desert scrubland. If not for the help of a Tehuelche tribe – native South Americans who taught them to hunt – they probably wouldn’t have survived. However, the Welsh migrants finally settled in the Chubut Valley, where they irrigated the river over a patch of land to produce the most fertile wheatlands in the country.
While it sounds like swashbuckling fiction, the 150th anniversary of this quirky slice of history will be celebrated in Gaiman, Trevelin, Dolavin and Puerto Madryn, the main settlements in the Chubut area. For Wales too, it is an opportunity to explore how the culture has evolved in South America. ‘I would hesitate to call it Welsh culture,’ says Walter Brooks, a professor at Cardiff University and a Welsh Patagonian himself. ‘It’s more like a Patagonian-Welsh or even a Patagonian-Welsh-Argentinean culture.’
The number of people who speak Welsh as a first language is diminishing over generations. School is taught in Spanish and many non-Welsh cultural influences have moved in to the area. However, young locals are eager to learn it as a second language, and are sustaining some of the cultural traditions such as choir singing, Welsh dancing and regular Eisteddfods (literary and cultural festivals). ‘We’re not sure what the future will look like for Welsh Patagonia,’ says Brooks. ‘Today there are people who have no Welsh descent at all, learning and speaking Welsh as a second language fluently. So the culture is really quite dynamic.’
This article was published in the August 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine