By Shafik Meghji
In 1865, 153 Welsh men, women and children boarded a tea-clipper, the Mimosa, in Liverpool and set out on an 8,000-mile journey to what they hoped would be their Promised Land. Fleeing cultural and religious persecution in the UK, the pioneers wanted to create a “little Wales beyond Wales” – a place where they could retain their national identity.
After two months at sea the Mimosa landed in the Golfo Nuevo in northeastern Patagonia, an isolated, inhospitable and – at the time – largely unpopulated land. The pioneers faced serious hardships including brutally cold winters, flash floods, crop failures and food shortages. Some of them returned home, others died. Yet despite these unpromising beginnings the community survived and subsequently flourished. In doing so the Welsh helped to cement Argentine claims on the western section of Patagonia and opened up the region to foreign settlers from around the world.
Today, almost 150 years later, this corner of Patagonia retains a distinctive Welsh flavour, especially in the cities of Puerto Madryn and Trelew and the town of Gaiman. More than 50,000 people in the region claim Welsh descent, and significant numbers speak the language.
At Punta Cuevas in Puerto Madryn, it is still possible to see the foundations of the first Welsh houses in Patagonia. A commanding statue – the Monumento al Indio Tehuelche – marks both the centenary of the arrival of the Welsh and pays homage to the Tehuelche, an indigenous group who provided invaluable help to the pioneers during the early days.
Nearby a fascinating little museum tells the story of the settlers, while outside, a trio of flags fly. Alongside the Welsh and Argentine flags is another, featuring a red dragon on a white background topped and tailed by thin blue strips – the symbol of Welsh Patagonia.
An hour’s drive inland from Puerto Madryn is the region’s hub, Trelew; the name means “village of Lew” in Welsh, a reference to its founder, Lewis Jones. Local children have the option of studying Welsh at school here, and cultural delegations from Wales visit regularly. Every September 0r October, Trelew’s central square plays hosts to the most important of the region’s eisteddfodau, festivals of Welsh culture, music and literature. The highlight of the Trelew Eisteddfod is the award of two prestigious prizes – the Sillón del Bardo (The Bard’s Chair) for the best Welsh-language poet and the Corona del Bardo (The Bard’s Crown), which is handed over to the Spanish-language equivalent.
The most obviously Welsh place in the region – known as the Lower Chubut Valley – is the town of Gaiman. Images of red dragons are prominent here, while street names include “Michael D. Jones” and “J.C. Evans”. The town’s British-built railway station has been turned into a fascinating little museum that looks at the challenges – and triumphs – of pioneer life.
Gaiman’s key attraction, however, is its collection of traditional Welsh tearooms. These casas de té serve up the finest afternoon teas in Argentina, if not South America. Among the delights on offer are torta galesa and bara brith (rich fruit cakes), sweet and savoury scones, hot buttered toast, home-made jams and preserves, and an array of pastries and baked goods, as well as – of course – a pot of perfectly-brewed tea.
The tearooms – many of which are run by descendants of the original settlers – are based in atmospheric, immaculately-kept cottages decorated with old family photos, Welsh-language posters, tea-towels with red dragons on them, paintings of Wales, and other knick-knacks from the old country.
While you work your way through your té gales – a feat that requires at least an hour or two given their prodigious size – it’s easy to forget that you are in Argentina at all.