If you’re coming to Chubut Province looking for Argentina’s answer to Snowdonia, think again. Not only is there not a mountain in sight, but also the Welsh, like the Tehuelche before them, have been absorbed almost seamlessly into Argentina’s diverse cultural identity. Under the surface, though, there remain vestiges of their pioneering culture and a real pride in both the historical legacy – evident in the number of fine Welsh chapels dotted across the farmlands of the Lower Chubut Valley – and the current cultural connection that goes well beyond the touristy trappings.
Halting Welsh is still spoken by some of the third- or fourth-generation residents in the main towns of Trelew and Gaiman, even if it isn’t the language of common usage, and whereas it once seemed doomed to die out, the tongue now appears to be enjoying a limited renaissance. In municipal schools today, young students have the option to study the language of their forebears: a team of Welsh teachers works in Chubut, and cultural exchanges with Mam Cymru are thriving – two or three pupils are sent annually from Chubut to Welsh universities and numerous delegations from different associations ply across the Atlantic. It’s not all one way either: scholars have come from Wales to study the manuscripts left by pioneers and seek inspiration from what they pronounce to be the purity of the language that was preserved in Patagonia.
The medium-sized town of TRELEW – its Welsh name means the “village of Lewis”, in honour of Lewis Jones, its founder – rose to prominence after the completion, in 1889, of the rail link to Puerto Madryn, which allowed easy export of the burgeoning agricultural yields. Today it is home to a couple of excellent museums, while its good transport connections make it a convenient base from which to explore the surrounding Welsh settlements of the Lower Chubut Valley and, to the south, the famous penguin colony at Punta Tombo. The only downside is the shortage of appealing accommodation – nearby Gaiman has a far better selection.
The Lower Chubut Valley
The Lower Chubut Valley
West of Trelew is the broad LOWER CHUBUT VALLEY, a fertile ribbon of land amid some barren steppe, thanks to the Río Chubut, which flows through here from the Andes. The river derives its name from the Tehuelche word “chupat”, meaning clean or transparent. The Welsh began using the Chubut to irrigate the valley in 1867, and it was dammed a hundred years later to ensure a more predictable flow to the farm plots, while also generating electricity for industrial development around Trelew. A string of well-maintained Welsh chapels (capillas galesas) line the Chubut, including – just south of Trelew – the Capilla Moriah; dating from 1880 it’s the oldest in Argentina and many of the original settlers are buried in its cemetery. The small towns along the river’s route are all charming and, though you won’t exactly hear Welsh spoken in the streets, the legacy of pioneering times is still detectable.
The Welsh in Patagonia
The Welsh in Patagonia
In July 1865, after two months at sea, 153 Welsh men, women and children who had fled Britain to escape cultural and religious oppression disembarked from their tea-clipper, the Mimosa, and took the first steps into what they believed was to be their Promised Land. Here they planned to emulate the Old Testament example of bringing forth gardens from the wilderness, but though the land around the Golfo Nuevo had the appearance of Israel, its parched harshness cannot have been of much comfort to those who had left the green valleys of Wales. Fired by Robert Fitz Roy’s descriptions of the Lower Chubut Valley, they explored south and, two months later, relocated – a piecemeal process during which some groups had, in the words of one of the leading settlers, Abraham Matthews, to live off “what they could hunt, foxes and birds of prey, creatures not permitted under Mosaic Law, but acceptable in the circumstances”.
The immigrants were mostly miners or small merchants from southeast Wales and had little farming experience. Doubts and insecurities spread, with some settlers petitioning the British to rescue them, but when all avenues of credit seemed closed, vital assistance came from the Argentine government by way of provisions and substantial monthly subsidies. And despite initial mistrust of the Tehuelche, the Welsh learned survival and hunting skills from their native neighbours, which proved invaluable when the settlers’ sheep died and the first three harvests failed. By the early 1870s, 44 settlers had abandoned the attempt, and sixteen had died, but optimists pointed to the fact that ten new settlers had since arrived, and 21 Welsh-Argentines had been born into the community. They decided to stick it out.
With increasing awareness of irrigation techniques, the pioneers began to coax their first proper yields from the Lower Chubut Valley, and recruitment trips to Wales and the US brought a much-needed influx of new settlers in 1874, the year in which Gaiman was founded. Yet the best indicator of the settlement’s progress was the international recognition received when samples of barley and wheat grown in Dolavon returned from major international expositions in Paris (1889) and the US (1892) with gold medals in their respective categories. The village’s flour mill, built in the 1880s, still works today.