Welsh settlers in Patagonia: a legacy that moves the emotions
The arrival of 153 settlers who arrived on the Atlantic coast of Chubut in 1865 meant the starting point of a cultural encounter whose legacy is incalculable and ranges from architectural forms to recipes and culinary ceremonies.
This July 28 marked the 155th anniversary of the arrival to the Atlantic Coast of Chubut of the sailboat “Mimosa” in which, after two months of the voyage, the first Welsh contingent would arrive to settle in Patagonia. From the Atlantic to the Cordillera, gastronomy, words and surnames, the architecture of urban and rural landscapes are crossed by that episode that inaugurated an unprecedented cultural syncretism.
The “Mimosa”, 43 meters long and almost eight meters wide, left the port of Liverpool on May 25, 1865, with a contingent of 153 Welsh settlers: 56 married adults, 33 single or widowed, 12 single women and 52 children. The trip was promoted by Welsh nationalists, who wanted to form a colony in Patagonia where they could develop, protecting their cultures, language and religion. Other migratory currents from Wales, seeking new horizons, arrived in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Their cultural baggage was incorporated and mixed with local societies, relegating traditions.
The ” Mimosa ” arrived on July 28, 1865, in a coastal accident located northeast of Chubut, known as Golfo Nuevo, in the vicinity of the current city of Puerto Madryn. During the trip, there were births and deaths. The crew imagined arriving at an orchard where they could carry out prosperous agriculture, so it was not a small surprise when they noticed that the climate on the land that received them was hostile and the soil arid.
The first years were challenging. Some settlers left for the north, others for the south. The colonial dream of the first Welsh immigrants seemed to begin to materialize twenty years later when “Los Rifleros de Fontana” headed for the mountains on an expedition that gave life to Esquel and Trevelin., and paved the way for a cultural amalgam that little more than a century later, results in an unusual tourist attraction.
A Patagonian Wales
With an idealistic look, the Welsh nationalists saw in Argentine Patagonia an option where they could establish a colony to sustain and reaffirm their identity. Likewise, the Argentine government needed to populate the lands of the South, which were still inhabited mainly by the native peoples. Therefore, the arrival of the migrants was agreed upon with the commitment to allocate land for their establishment.
But when they reached Golfo Nuevo, they came across a steppe landscape as hostile as unexpected, with dry weather and strong winds. There were a few sheds and precarious houses that some previously arrived Welshmen had set up for shelter in the place. One of the first big challenges that the newcomers had was finding fresh water. Because although the idea was to settle on the banks of the Chubut River, the first settlement was only about 60 kilometres from its mouth in the Atlantic.
The bewilderment led some of these settlers to head north and south. Choele Choel and Ushuaia were some cities where Welshmen who broke away from the contingent settled. The story goes that a young tailor started walking alone, looking for a suitable settling place and getting lost. Years later, a body was found with scissors in his pocket, and it was deduced that it was him.
The climate of Wales is humid. It rains a lot, and there is no need to irrigate the crops. The first crops of the Welsh in Patagonian lands were spoiled. They spread seeds, and the plants appeared and ended up drying up. Thus they discovered that it was imperative to have water to produce in these new lands, and by this revelation, they began to build irrigation channels from the Chubut River. Years later, a new contingent arrived with workers from an English company that built the railway between Puerto Madryn and Gaiman. A commercial agricultural and livestock cooperative was also formed, which came to have its own boat.
The expedition that changed everything
It was not until 1885, twenty years after the landing of the “Mimosa” when an expedition on horseback, headed by the governor of the National Territory of Chubut, Jorge Luis Fontana, and the Welsh entrepreneur John Murray Thomas, set out from Rawson to the west, following the recommendations of Tehuelche settlers who pondered the lands of the mountain range. The expedition was made up mostly of Welsh settlers.
The so-called “Fontana Rifles”, after more than a month of travel, at the end of November reached the current Valley on October 16, which the Welsh called “Cwm Hyfryd” (Charming Valley). The central government of Argentina decided to grant a square league of this new land to each expedition member so that they could settle with their family. In this way, they began to populate this valley in what would later become the cities of Esquel and Trevelin.
The identity confirmation of these settlements would be marked by the homeland of origin of the settlers, enriched by the valuable dialogue sustained with the original peoples and the intercultural crossing generated by the new migrations that would arrive over the years in the expansion of the Argentine nation.
A legacy that moves the senses
The arrival of those 153 settlers who arrived on the Chubut Atlantic coast in 1865 meant the starting point of a cultural encounter whose legacy is incalculable and ranges from architectural forms to recipes and culinary ceremonies, and choral singing, which has taken off in recent years to make the Province one of the national references in this discipline.
In the centre of Esquel, the Seión chapel has been maintained since 1904, preserving the spirit of its early years, built on stone and mud, with its baked brick walls and tin roof. Included in the Provincial Register of Sites, Buildings and Objects of Heritage, Cultural and Natural Value of Chubut since 1995, this, like the Bethel de Trevelin chapel, at the time of the arrival of the settlers, not only fulfilled a religious function; rather, it represented the common space where social gatherings were held.
For its part, the Nant Fach Mill, Located about 45 kilometres from Esquel on National Route 259, maintains the memory of the times of the arrival of the settlers in its imposing architecture, in its name, which in Welsh means “Arroyo Chico” and in a valuable cluster of agricultural machines. And sewing and musical instruments that usually generate admiration in the visitors who get to know them.
In gastronomic matters, the so-called “Welsh tea” is characterized not only by its flavour as an infusion; but mainly because of the ceremony around it. Welsh tea is drunk with a splash of milk, “English style”, accompanied by thinly sliced homemade bread and butter. It also includes a tea table, scones with sweets, cheeses and fruit tarts.
The so-called Welsh cake is a recipe typical of the settlers who arrived in Esquel. It is a food rich in nutrients, which used to be prepared to wait for the men who returned home from their jobs on days of cruel cold. It is a food that traditionally could be kept for a long time and was cooked in a can inside open stoves.
Another curiosity is the construction style that Patagonia is known as “Welsh” and that in Wales is not usual. This architectural form is characterized by exposed bricks with flush joints. The Gaiman museum, in the town’s former railway station, is a perfect example of this modality.
Between Wales and the west of Chubut, there is more than twelve thousand kilometres of distance and a history of cultural syncretism that can be seen in the architecture of the chapels, in the tea ceremony, in the traditional Welsh cake and in innumerable denominations that combine roots Welsh with Argentine pronunciations. In these details reside clues to know the social future of a community that arrived on these southern coasts with more dreams than certainties and that, even in an unexplored region for the nascent Argentine Republic, knew how to build its presence and generate substantial contributions to being national, in constant dialogue with the original inhabitants.
Photo credits: Secretary of Tourism of Esquel
Source: Infobae ( mechanical translation )