Y Wladfa, or, ‘that was well thought-out’

Hello lovelies,

Well, before we all get sick of yet another natter on about my ego, I thought I’d write about something pretty much totally unrelated to writing.  This will probably happen relatively often; really, there are so many interesting, nifty things that I come across in life, I’d like to write about them!  Hopefully it’ll work as a nice change-up, anyway.

Also, I worked my butt off this morning, will do the same this afternoon, and am feeling sort of pleasantly tired/productive, so this seems a nice way to break the day up.  I’d rather not talk about anything vitally important to the world just  now (see above in re: pleasantly tired), which leaves, more or less, gushing about the 11th Doctor (I LOVE HEEEEEEEEEEEM) or something I’ve been meaning to write about for awhile now:  the Welsh settlement in Patagonia.

You may have come across Y Wladfa (the Welsh name for the settlement) already, if you’ve read Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia (and if you haven’t, you really, really ought to).  I read it some years ago, and have been doing more research into the settlement lately for a project for one of my courses.  It’s absolutely fascinating.

See, towards the end of the 19th century, there was a booming Nonconformist movement in Wales, which I believe had grown out of the already pretty popular Baptist Church.  As part of this religious (and, essentially, political) rebellion, it was decided that a Welsh colony would be established overseas.  The Welsh had already been emigrating for ages by now, notably to Wisconson and Pennsylvania, but what happened was generally what happens when any cultural group emigrates — they were assimilated, and gradually lost their language, culture, and practices.

Establishing an entirely new colony would allow the settlers to hold onto their language and customs, but also to create a new way of life, centred around the chapel.  Or so Michael D. Jones figured, in between apparently growing some impressive facial hair.

Those of you with a vague knowledge of geography will have realised by now that southern Argentina is pretty much entirely unlike Wales, landscape-wise, but that didn’t stop Jones, and after sending a small party to scout ahead and make sure that the place actually existed — interestingly, Jones never actually made it Y Wladfa — the Mimosa set sail with a small group of settlers headed for a land where they could worship as they pleased, have farms and raise families, and retain their essential Welshness.

This is where we get into my favourite part of the story.  Essentially, if you were picking a small number of people as a first wave of emigrants to a virtually unknown world, the people who sailed on the Mimosa would be exactly who you would not pick.  They generally came from large towns and cities, and only three of the 162 (give or take a few — the records are fuzzy) passengers were farmers.  There were families, including babies, and miraculously there were only a handful of deaths during the crossing and the initial landing, as people began to realise that they were royally, epically, extravagantly screwed.  Port Madryn, where intial landfall was made, proved a pretty impossible place to settle.

But this is my favourite part — they survived.  They managed to all move about 40 miles south to the Chubut Valley, and found an abandoned fort that they could move into, until they were able to build houses.  Each man got an allotment of land on the banks of the Chubut river, and someone essentially re-invented irrigation farming.  (There are two accounts of this, and the most popular one seems to be a woman figuring out that one could cut channels from the flooded river to the fields, and water crops.)  Some babies were born, a chapel was built in Rawson, and this tiny, tiny group of people managed to hang on and flourish in this little river valley in the exact middle of freakin’ nowhere.

The initial landing was in 1865, and a new wave of settlers didn’t arrive until 1874.  By then, the Chubut Valley settlement was doing pretty well for itself, specifically in terms of farming (mainly wheat, I think).  Religion, the basic impetus for the move, seems to havemostly been…not abandoned, but does not seem to have overwhelmed the community.

Y Wladfa still exists today, and though the people there have assimilated somewhat into Argentinian culture, Welsh culture and language is still very strong there.  I love this story; I love the idea that people used to be able to pack up and move to the back of beyond, and be allowed to, and basically be left alone.  I love that all these people totally unsuited to a rural lifestyle managed to eke out a living, then flourish.  It’s such a great story, and such a great place.

Glaniad was where I began my research on Y Wladfa; there are tons of other resources out there, but this seems to concentrate most on the stories of the actual people.  I’ve really just glossed over matters (and probably made half a dozen errors), but I hope I’ve at least offered something interesting to read about.

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