A Wales Beyond Wales: The Welsh Language in Patagonia
A little over 150 years ago, a converted tea-clipper called the Mimosa departed from Liverpool heading for Patagonia. On board were 153 Welsh settlers who paid £12 for a one-way ticket to a promised better life in a “little Wales beyond Wales”.
After an eight-week transatlantic voyage, the first Welsh settler stepped onto the shores of modern day Argentina.
They had been promised 100 square miles of fertile land similar to lowland Wales. What they found was a semi-arid desert bereft of agricultural merit with little readily eatable food and virtually no potable water.
The settlers decided to try and cross the parched plain in the hopes of finding more hospitable lands on the other side. With belongings packed into wheelbarrows they set off. Unfortunately, several settlers died during the crossing. Along the way some settlers died and one brave baby, Mary Humphries, was born.
Once they reached more arable land in the valley of the Chubut River, the settlers founded their first settlement, a small fortress which would later grow into the regional capital Rawson.
The original community spoke Welsh and would continue to for the next 150 years despite the rise of Spanish across the majority of South America.
A century and a half later, an estimated 50,000 people across Patagonia have Welsh heritage. Of those, around 5,000 still speak Welsh.
Survive or Thrive
Over the years, there have been sustained efforts to support the language in both Patagonia and Wales. For example, the Welsh Language Project, set up in the late 1990s, has sent three language teachers to Patagonia every year to develop the language through formal lessons and informal social interaction.
Even though the Welsh settlers assimilated into Argentine society, there are still many signs of Welsh heritage throughout the region. Welsh chapels, choirs and tea houses are speckled through communities in Patagonia and annual eisteddfodau (festivals of Welsh literature, music and performance) take place every year in communities across the region.
However, Professor Robert Owen Jones, a leading academic on Patagonian Welsh, has predicted a decline in the language’s usage unless efforts are used to promote the use of the language outside the classroom.
He said: “If the language is to survive – in both Argentina and here in Wales – it must move beyond the borders of the classroom.
“Socialisation and normalisation of the language is needed for Welsh to survive in Patagonia.”
That socialisation and normalisation may come from an unlikely source: music.
The BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales (BBC NOW) recently visited Patagonia as part of a three-week tour of South America.
And why is that important? First Minister of Wales Carwyn Jones explains: “Music has always been a massive part of our Welsh identity.One hundred and fifty years ago, when Welsh families left their homes for a new life in Patagonia they took their music with them. Over a century and a half has now gone by and it’s fantastic that even though there are 12,000 kilometres between us and Chubut Province, we still share a love of song.”
Harpist and composer Catrin Finch travelled with the orchestra and was impressed by the interaction of music and language, saying: “I think it’s the music that is keeping the language alive. Obviously I’ve lived in Wales my entire life, and you hear about Patagonia but you never quite get it, you never quite believe that people really do speak Welsh here.”
The children learn and perform songs in Welsh, it gives them a reason to use the language in everyday life — exactly what Jones says is required for the language to thrive in Patagonia. However, whether it’s enough to sustain Welsh remains to be seen.