Not that kind of settlement

Jasmine Donahaye says colonialism is not a cause for celebration.

‘Celebrate’, it says – celebrate… celebratory… celebration – exclamatory and insistent, and so repetitive I counted the instances: eight times on the ‘about’ page of Patagonia150. But since when was colonialism something to celebrate, and why are we being enjoined to celebrate Welsh colonialism?

Because it’s not colonialism, of course. Wales, being colonised, cannot be guilty of colonialism either in her heart or in her deeds – or so the objection goes. When the Welsh settlers arrived in Patagonia they inflicted no violence, imposed no control, oppressed no natives. Colonialism, the objectors argue, entails all these and more: the subjugation of a people by a foreign power. Wales was no such power, and the Welsh settlers in Patagonia were seeking to escape oppression rather than to enact it. Relations with the ‘natives’ were friendly. The Welsh were welcomed. In fact – hallelujah! – just as with the Pilgrims in Massachusetts, the Injuns saved the settlers from starvation. It’s almost worthy of an annual Thanksgiving celebration, not just a sesquicentennial one.

In fact the American Thanksgiving myth shares quite a bit with the Patagonian settler myth, not least in its defenders’ stubborn resistance to revision. The myth of benign settlement, of happy relations with welcoming natives (even though some scholars have challenged that) is comforting, for that is the normative account of colonisation and colonialism. The land for their settlement was acquired legally, not wrested from indigenous people, and the settlement was established with the permission – indeed at the invitation – of the ruling power (as though this ever releases a colonising group from accountability). And when the Argentine government initiated its assault on indigenous people of the area, in the Conquest of the Desert campaign, some settlers objected. That too is part of the potent mythology we’re enjoined to celebrate in much of this sesquicentennial extravaganza: the Welsh on the side of the oppressed, never on the side of the oppressor.

The settlement is to be celebrated as though it was some kind of benign and friendly moving in among neighbours – as though it was neutral; as though no culture change occurred; as though no one was affected. This allows us to maintain the familiar image of the Welsh as never being powerful agents in the world, but always disempowered, even when crossing an ocean to create a settlement in a harsh and empty place – empty, as Wales was (and often still is) to English incomers, as Palestine was to Jewish incomers, and, indeed as Argentina was to Jews, too.

For the Welsh émigrés weren’t the only Europeans looking for ‘empty’ land to settle, and weren’t the only tools used by the government of Argentina to help secure tenuous territorial claims. Just as the country is marked by the vernacular architecture of Welsh settlement chapels, so too it is marked by the vernacular architecture of Jewish settlement synagogues, though the Jewish gauchos are almost all now gone.

The Welsh settler movement wasn’t exceptional in Argentina – and nor was it exceptional more broadly. A few short years after the colony was established in Patagonia, my great-great-great grandmother embarked on a ship at Odessa and travelled to Ottoman Palestine, where she joined the new Jewish colony of Gedera. Of course by the same argument, that first wave of Jewish settlement in 1882 wasn’t colonialism either, or even colonisation. There was no European Jewish motherland of which it was imperial forerunner, and which was imposing its political will. The scattered Jewish settlements in Palestine set up in the 1880s were, like the Welsh colony in Patagonia, established out of the urgent desire of a minority group to live a religious and cultural life free from European oppression. Of course Jews emigrating to Palestine added to the pioneer narrative the claim of roots, and of return after a 2,000-year absence. But it was only near the turn of the century that this became the modern political Zionist movement, with all that the aspiration to statehood entailed. By contrast, in its early years many proponents saw Zionism, like the Welsh emigration, as a cultural movement: an attempt to find a way to live a separate, unencumbered national life. The defenders of that myth are equally resistant to revising their anachronistic view of what that really entailed.

Colonialism is often intertwined with conversionism, and typically the Welsh settler movement saw missionary possibilities in Patagonia. These early conversionist aspirations of Y Wladfa are almost always elided or glossed over, as is the complexity of Welsh conversionism elsewhere. By contrast, Jewish settlement in Palestine did not have this missionary component, but this absence, or the absence of some other features of colonialism, does not mean it was not colonialism – and that applies to the Welsh settlement too.

Colonialism has associations that don’t apply to Y Wladfa, so we don’t call it a colony anymore, even if it means ‘the colony’. But calling it a settlement doesn’t change its nature. It was a settlement of people alien to that place, bringing with them a European language, culture, religion and set of values – people who set out expressly not to assimilate or adapt. ‘Settlement’ is not neutral; nor are settlers; nor is the act of settling. Whether or not it is backed by a state power or a military or an ideology that we find reprehensible, ‘settlement’ is just as charged as the word ‘colony’ or ‘colonialism’. Nevertheless, the Patagonia Welsh settlement was never supported by a state, so we are enjoined to celebrate the colony-that-did-not-enact-colonialism, and the settlers who settled there but did not ‘settle’ – or at least not in ‘that’ way. Because it’s not that kind of settlement. It’s not that kind of colonialism. Because it was a special case – because Wales is always a special case.

It wasn’t a special case, of course, and isn’t. There is no avoiding semantically or otherwise the fact of the nineteenth-century Welsh settlement in Patagonia (or elsewhere), any more than there is any avoiding the fact of the nineteenth-century European Jewish settlements in Palestine. Both imported European people, languages and cultures and contributed to the displacement and culture change of an indigenous population.

This bit of history is not something to celebrate, but instead something to acknowledge. There’s nothing riding on that acknowledgement: no one has to pay; no one has to expiate sin. Nothing is lost by it except the absurd indefensibility of celebrating colonialism. And what is gained is much more valuable: not the old story of helpless and disempowered Wales, but a story of Wales complex and empowered in the world; a sense of Wales as not exceptional but typical, struggling with a past to make sense of a present, as complicit in encounters with the Other as any other European country.

When Wales stops denying its colonial past, and the sometimes reprehensible attitudes it entailed – in the Americas, in Asia, and in Africa – all sorts of possibilities open up. We need to dispense with the celebratory interpretation of the past that elides the reality of empowered Wales, of Wales’s contribution to empire, and sees all naming of colonialism as a hostile assault. That is not to say that we should accept an antagonistic interpretation which seeks to equate cultural and political nationalism and the defence of the language with ethnocentrism, insularity and racism. Neither of these simplifications helps Wales in its current state of fracture.

Given the scale of recent losses, of poets and historians, those shapers of the past, we are certainly in need of celebration at the moment, but not the celebration of denial. What we need is not the perpetuation of a singular, fixed national narrative, the right-or-wrong patriotism that holds to the uncritical, the adulatory and celebratory, but instead the capacious, varied, flexible adaptability of a national narrative that demands and enables repeated change and reinvention. We need a new story, a normative one, a story that can help integrate the country into a complex and contradictory whole – a story that more honestly represents its past, and its present, and can envision and help enact a genuinely inclusive future. That, truly, would be something worth celebrating.

Jasmine Donahaye is a Senior Lecturer at Swansea University. Her latest book is Losing Israel (Seren).

29 thoughts on “Not that kind of settlement

  1. HMM. There has always been a whiff of hypocrisy around the Welsh attitude to their colonial past but we are so good at these myths of Welsh superiority. Even today we export teachers and some funding to keep alive the language in our far-flung outpost and of course we are eager to see the TV programme celebrating Welsh former glories. Already there is something of a tourist trade.

    Perhaps the best that could be said is that we were small time colonists….not really very good at it.

  2. Jasmine Donahaye is a fine and talented writer, but this argument and article is deeply flawed and seems to hinge on tenuous premises at best. It stems from the admirable call for Wales to reflexively examine her role in Empire, but the example of Patagonia is simply inappropriate and inaccurate. I say this as someone who generally enjoys revisionist histories and who has absolutely no time for the hagiographic sentimentalizing which infects lots of Welsh history.

    Ultimately I feel the article is disingenuous and that it is deeply problematic to conflate the situation in Patagonia with ‘colonialism’ (understood as the military and economic exploitation of another country) and its adjunct, the enforced settlement of people.


    “Colonialism has associations that don’t apply to Y Wladfa, so we don’t call it a colony anymore, even if it means ‘the colony’. But calling it a settlement doesn’t change its nature. It was a settlement of people alien to that place, bringing with them a European language, culture, religion and set of values – people who set out expressly not to assimilate or adapt. ”

    Firstly, I would argue that it is dangerous to posit moral equivalence between ‘non-assimilation’ and ‘colonialism’, which is what this passage ultimately implies. There is a huge difference between non-assimilation on the one hand and an imposition of language and culture on the other. Non-assimilation is perhaps problematic in a theoretical sense (even if impossible in practice, as proven by the Welsh ‘settlements’ in North America) but it is emphatically not the same as imposition, because this divorces the debate from the power relations which have to be discussed simultaneously. Historically, diasporas often do not integrate, mainly because the underlying assumption is that their enforced emigration will be temporary, and that the displaced will one day return. Equally, ethnic enclaves do not generally assimilate. There is really very little difference between these two examples and the migration of Welsh people to Patagonia.

    “‘Settlement’ is not neutral; nor are settlers; nor is the act of settling. Whether or not it is backed by a state power or a military or an ideology that we find reprehensible, ‘settlement’ is just as charged as the word ‘colony’ or ‘colonialism’”

    I think this is a slippery and rather cosmetic argument which is reinforced by skillful sentence structure and manipulation of language. Jasmine here discursively conflates the terms ‘settle’ and ‘colonialism’, (often by including them together in the same sentence or paragraph, as above) and therefore discursively ‘chains’ the two concepts together, to use Stuart Hall’s terminology. Is settlement a problematic phenomenon? Yes. Is ‘settlement’ a charged and contested term? Yes. Does that therefore follow that settlement is the same as colonialism? Absolutely not, and placing them together in the same sentence to reinforce a point is wrong.

    Jasmine is right to say that settlement is not a neutral term. It is a term which has to be placed in its historical context each time. Just because it is problematic in some instances it doesn’t therefore follow that it is problematic in all instances.

    “Nevertheless, the Patagonia Welsh settlement was never supported by a state, so we are enjoined to celebrate the colony-that-did-not-enact-colonialism, and the settlers who settled there but did not ‘settle’ – or at least not in ‘that’ way. Because it’s not that kind of settlement. It’s not that kind of colonialism. Because it was a special case – because Wales is always a special case.”

    Well, absolutely. This refutes the entire argument, because Empire and colonialism are enforced by the state and the state apparatuses, by armies and navies. The central point is that ‘settlement’ is generally used by the state as a tool to enforce empire (or as a harbinger of empire)l: the Scots in Ulster, ethnic Germans in Russia and Eastern Europe, white settlers in Africa etc etc- the list goes on and on.

    So when you say ‘it’s not that kind of settlement’, that’s because, no, it isn’t, and it’s vital to make that distinction. Intent and power matter hugely to this debate. There is settlement and there is settlement, the two are emphatically not the same. There are a multitude of patterns of migrationacross the globe. Settlement may be the result of shipwreck, it may be about conquest, it may be exile. Settlement may occur in sparsely or densely populated areas, it may be in contested or uncontested spaces, and so on. Let’s try to keep hold of the nuance involved.

    Ultimately I have a huge problem with the parallels which are being drawn (or heavily inferred) in this article, because they are taking something which is inextricably linked with empire and power- the enforced settlement or plantation of people- and applying it to a historical situation whereby none of these exploitative or repressive features happened; where ‘settlement’ was not supported by the might of a state, and should therefore probably be regarded as a pattern of chain emigration, pure and simple.

    “It wasn’t a special case, of course, and isn’t. There is no avoiding semantically or otherwise the fact of the nineteenth-century Welsh settlement in Patagonia (or elsewhere), any more than there is any avoiding the fact of the nineteenth-century European Jewish settlements in Palestine. Both imported European people, languages and cultures and contributed to the displacement and culture change of an indigenous population.”

    To make the comparison between the situation of the Welsh in Patagonia and the plantation of Palestine is frankly mind boggling in its mental gymnastics, and again rests on a slippery use of language. Moving from Patagonia to Palestine in one breath does not make the two similar in any way shape or form. The Welsh settlement was not irredentist, like Zionism, and again it is in my view very dangerous to conflate the two, because you miss the nuance and empty the debate of power relations which are so important to understanding history. Did the miniscule Welsh settlement in Argentina contribute to the erosion of native Mestizo cultures? No. Was it irredentist? No. Was it the harbinger of larger settlements, like the early Jewish settlements of Palestine? No. The only comparison is that both were in the first instance, the product of domestic oppression, but there the comparison ends.

    Jasmine is absolutely right to say that Wales has to stop denying its colonial past and to stop thinking we are not guilty in the sins of empire. This is a sentiment to be applauded: Wales has a disgraceful colonial past which has been glossed over by certain historians intent on placing industrial South Wales at the heart of Empire. We are long overdue a revisionist wave which slaughters our ridiculous sacred cows.

    But historical accuracy must be at the heart of any reflexive analysis of our past behaviours, and the example of Patagonia cannot be crowbarred into this narrative because it quite simply lacks any of the hallmarks of empire and with ‘settlement’, both of which are terms which cannot be understood without a reflexive consideration of the power relations and the wider historical contexts involved. Unless Jasmine can provide the historical evidence which suggests the Welsh speaking settlers in Patagonia:

    a) enforced their language and culture on the native population

    b) inflicted violence on the native population

    c) appropriated land and resources from the native population

    then I’m afraid the claim that the small scale emigration to Patagonia is equivalent to colonialism is cannot be upheld.

  3. “The absence of some other features of colonialism, does not mean it was not colonialism – and that applies to the Welsh settlement too”

    Actually, the absence of all of the central features of colonialism that Jasmine herself acknowledges (not supported by a state, not about exploitation or removal of resources, not a planned plantation, not involving violence, not involving oppression or hostility towards the native population) precisely means that Patagonia was not colonialism, nor the equally loaded term ‘settlement’

    Indeed, the remaining ‘elements of colonialism’ which support Jasmine’s claims are identified here only as religiosity and *perhaps* a penchant for evangelism, but these are not backed up with any documented historical evidence.

    To appropriate a common idiom: if it doesn’t walks like a duck, doesn’t swim like a duck, and doesn’t quack like a duck, then it’s not a duck. The emigration to Patagonia possesses none of the features of colonialism. It was not a ‘settlement’ in the colonial sense of the word- no more than any of the more famous waves of migration to North America by the Irish and Italians.

    The problem is that the emigration to Patagonia has for some reason just always been called a ‘colony’ or ‘settlement’, rather than the fairly straightforward pattern of emigration that it actually was.

    That this small scale emigration has become known as a ‘colony’ (with everything that entails) is perhaps a more interesting and relevant debate. It is perhaps indicative of an insecure, small nation keen to project itself onto the world stage. This is what has happened when writing the history of South Wales in the British Empire, for example.

  4. One wonders whether the author has ever been to Patagonia, or is just observing from afar (from the ivory tower)? Having been to Patagonia on four occasions since 1992 I can assure Jasmine that the Patagonian Welsh regularly refer to themselves as Colonia Galesa. They are patriotic Argentine citizens and they certainly don’t have any romantic notions about their ancestors. Nevertheless, they respect the hardships that those people endured, and are keen to maintain the Welsh language and cultures that have been handed down. I know that this is very politically incorrect, but one of those traditions is the chapel, and a belief in Christianity. I appreciate that, in these days of banal British nationalism, speaking Welsh and believing in God is remarkably unfashionable, especially amongst ‘liberal’ academics who inhabit our higher education establishments, but I think that your attack on a minority community is a sad reflection of a move towards crass majoritarianism that appears to becoming a trend. It is so sad to see an otherwise respected author falling into this populist trap.

  5. Jasmine Donahaye is fast becoming the first among equals as the challenger of damaging national shibboleths, damaging because they seek to build a society on the basis of self-delusion. This adulation of Patagonia, currently doing the rounds on the Welsh and UK media, is part of a longer running campaign to establish ‘Cymreictod’ as the national representative of Welsh culture. What is not permitted is any critical analysis of this culture and its distortion not just of its own values but of the nature of the whole of Welsh society. When faced with such criticism, the leadership of the Cymreictod cause then reacts by accusing its critics of attacking the language. This is at best a passive-aggressive approach to public intellectual debate but in political terms, it is a cowardly one. There is nothing remotely honourable about hiding a cultural agenda behind a linguistic one. And it is not as infrequent an event as it should be. The difficulty lies however in an agenda which fuses the culture of Cymreictod to the survival of the language. Without Cymreictod, the language will die, therefore no criticism is permitted of Cymreictod. One doesn’t have to pause for too long to see what an inflexible position this is and that the language is just as capable of being held back by a culture that is not rooted in democratic values but prefers the unelected hierarchy of education as the basis of its politics.

    Patagonia represents the pinnacle of this approach. There is a critical history to be not just written but broadcast, if only to demonstrate that we have a strong tradition of historical enquiry in our country that is rigorous in its approach and does not believe in ancestor worship as the basis for public discourse about our past. However to criticise Patagonia would be to question the culture on which such a dubious project was founded and that would lead to questions about the way that culture operates in our society today.

    I have always found it odd that citizens in Wales identify more strongly with a country 7,000 miles away than they do, say, with their capital city. People are of course free to make their own cultural choices but does this not suggest an element of dysfunctionality that the everyday is alien but the remote is treasured like some faraway paradise?

    And there is also the political role played by Patagonia in the cultural life of the language. If you accept the meta-narrative uncritically, then you are one of us, a set of criteria presumably with its roots in chapels of faith. If you question it, then you are against us, and he who is against us is not for us. There is no discussion, no reasoning only rebuff and rejection. It would appear that there are corners of Wales where the Enlightment was simply something that happened to others, but not to us.

  6. Patagonia was a colonial expedition, European settler colonialism of the more benign variety.

    Michael D. Jones is fairly explicit in his writings that the justification is English settler colonialism in the United States and in Wales (also rather benign).

    The problem of the historiography today stems from this. How could Welsh colonialism in Patagonia be condemned without also condemning English colonialism in Wales?

    And so we rather avoid these problems by agreeing that our societies in Patagonia and in Wales are all for the best in the best of all possible worlds. That being the case, carry on and enjoy the Patagonian celebrations! It is all historical make-believe but then so are most things.

  7. We should understand the context of the times and the terms of settlement in Argentina. The modern Argentinian state was established in the 1860’s, and anxious to attract settlers to consolidate its authority over lands in Patagonia. The land on which people settled in Patagonia was previously claimed in the name of the Spanish Throne in the 16 century, essentially by seizure from indigenous people.

    The colonial system in Argentina and other countries in Latin America was an established fact of life. Settlers were attracted to Patagonia (and the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia) by the prospect of holding land. Land in Patagonia was granted by agreement between the Argentinian government of the day and a company (Cwmni Ymfudol a Masnachol y Wladfa Gymreig), bankrolled in part and promoted by the Rev. Michael Jones of Bala and others. Similar companies were established in the UK at the time to promote settlement in various parts of Latin America, including Chile, Ecuador and Colombia. The first reports of efforts to establish a “Wladychfa Gymreig’ appear in the Welsh press in about 1860. A prospectus of settlement, “Llawlyfr y Wladychfa Gymreig,” was published at about the same time, accompanied by mutterings in Wales about the financial probity of the company.

    The settlers from Wales to Patagonia presumably understood the full terms of the deal. In so doing they accepted the colonial origins, norms and laws of the newly established Argentinian state, aside perhaps from adoption of the predominant religion. In effect, they accepted the circumstances of their settlement but maintained a cultural and social connection with Wales, which is celebrated this year. Other settlers either returned to Wales, disillusioned by hardship and other circumstances, or moved to other parts of the world. By 1881, the Patagonia company in Wales faced strong competition from railway companies in the United States, offering 240 acres of land to every family that migrated to Patagonia (tyddyn o 240 erw i bob teulu)”.
    Myth or business proposition?

  8. Intellectual standards must be slipping in the School of Welsh for Simon Brooks to state that most things are historical make-believe. It’s a convenient but intellectually dishonest way of avoiding the unpleasant aspects of Welsh language culture. Sweep it under the carpet and pretend it isn’t there. His view unfortunately is a great deal more representative than it should be. Fortunately Ken Richards provides us with a far more informative and balanced account.

    The difficulty is however that what gets broadcast is the partisan and selective version of the Cymreictod party line that anything done in the name of the language must be wonderful. It is a world in which no-one ever fails or makes a mistake or treats others unjustly. It is in short a child’s view of the adult world at work that refuses to grow up and take responsibility. Everyone else, especially the English, does the bad things whereas the Welsh, by definition, can do no wrong. The way of dealing with the dubious practices carried out in our name is not by a reasoned treatment of the evidence but by changing the word dubious to wonderful and all is right with the world once again. Another triumph for Peter Pan.

    Fortunately we have a tradition of historical enquiry in our country that sets a far higher and far more mature approach to our past than that which gets served up on our media. The difficulty is however that that tradition is kept off the airwaves by those who believe that the management of ‘negativity’ and the promotion of a positive image for all things Welsh is the way to go. What makes this unacceptable is that it is a misrepresentation of what actually happened and putting Huw Edwards on the front cover does not change that.

    There are a good number of debates to come out of Jasmine Donahaye’s piece which is an indication of the quality of her thinking and arguments. One of them has to be the extent to which our history is misrepresented on our screens by turning it into a ‘story’. The recent series called ‘The Story of Wales’ is a good example of that trend, one narrator (can that be Huw Edwards again?), one narrative and closed to questioning. But then who would have thought that Cymreictod could be based on such authoritarian principles. They’re such nice people after all, are they not?

  9. An interesting conflict between delusions informs our attitude towards the Welsh settlement of Patagonia. Our perennial obsession with the survival of the Welsh language is in conflict with the often voiced loathing of the “English colonisation of Wales” which most recently found voice through Simon Brook’s “Cymuned” organisation in the early noughties. “ENGLISH COLONISTS OUT” was frequently found on the walls of Gwynedd where I live and, of course, am technically a colonist in the eyes of Language and Culture nationalists.
    So on the one hand we have the plucky, resilient Welsh speaking natives of Gwynedd fighting the good fight for survival of Welsh to the strains of “Yma O Hyd” and opposing English casual colonisation and on the other hand we have the proud Welsh lauding the colonisation of a small part of Argentina at the request of a much more brutal set of Spanish colonists.
    In both cases the subtext is clear; through our unique language we identify ourselves as separate and different from the rest of Britain. We have “former glories” that we should cling to and return to. The Welsh language is the spear head and shock troops of Independence and the unassailable sacred icon. In Gwynedd “localism” in planning is seen as the platform for perennial domination of politics by Plaid but its justification is “Survival of the language”. In Patagonia focus on the language in our colony is a call to nationhood.

    I find myself in rare agreement with Simon Brooks in this case….in history “shit happens”. Live with it.

  10. An extremely crude knife in the chest for the Welsh language, whilst wrapping up these arguments in talk of a ‘fractured’ Wales. Don’t right-wing academics just love a ‘fractured’ Wales! No mention of capitalism, I note, but then again it is harder to criticise capitalism at its Victorian zenith than lay into a group of people who had hopes for salvation – for their religion and their language. It is becoming very cool to criticise Welsh Patagonia. Unfortunately, Jasmine Donahaye”s prejudices will give succour to her fellow British nationalists, who take every opportunity to deride Wales, its history and its very presence as an existing culture.

  11. I’ve avoided watching any of the centenary and a half Patagonia celebrations as I was sure I’d be irritated by the double standards they’d demonstrate and which Jasmine Donahaye has drawn attention to. I also find the needy way the colony/settlement/whatever is portrayed as being benign/special/different a bit embarrassing.
    The migration including pre and post events are however fascinating and have all the ingredients needed for potential Hollywood blockbusters. Blockbusters that would no doubt have been made if the settlers happened to have been Irish. Not too late though, maybe Catherine Zeta Jones will take an interest and star as Cath o’r Bala in a future cinematic project. It would be an English language film obviously.

  12. People in the 19th century believed in racial heirarchies and saw nothing wrong with colonialism. That is not news. The Welsh settlement, as everyone seems to agree was an unusually benign form of colonialism of marginal land that entailed no systematic violence or expropriation. The reason it is worth celebrating is the very ordinary nature of the settlers, who included no grandees, were not even farmers for the most part before they arrived but who showed a degree of tenacity and endurance that must be admired. They settled an area that had defeated all previous efforts at settlement by the Spaniards and others. It is after all semi-desert and they made it bloom. The Welsh have a reputation in England for being impractical talkers, not very good at the basic business of life, a view we have internalised to some extent. A few hundred very ordinary Welsh people, made a settlement in the most adverse circumstances, administered it successfully with universal male sufrage (in 1865!).. Women had the vote in the 1902 referendum. Reasonable relations with the native Indians were preserved. They built irrigation canals still in use today, a railway and a telephone company. The main business was a co-operative and their wheat won international prizes. In short they showed themselves basically decent and extremely capable. Why shouldn’t we be proud of that?

  13. i fear that Jasmine Donahaye’s justified guilt and revulsion at the brutal expropriation of Palestinian land by Israeli colonisers, which goes on to this day, makes her want to spread the shame around. Nothing doing. The Welsh in Patagonia carried out no ethnic cleansing (though the Argentinian army certainly did a bit later) and are not stealing anyone’s land today. Don’t draw parallels where none exist.

  14. Perhaps we could best summarise J Jones’ position as being “The unexamined life is worth living.” Dismissing critical examinations of our history with “shit happens; live with it” does nothing to engage with the debate so what can you say? You’re either interested in our history or you’re not. In J Jones’ world, it’s the equivalent of a trip to the ty bach.

    There’s no doubting, Tredwyn, that the Welsh settlers in Patagonia did have some achievements. If you want to be proud of that, then fine. But there are two points here, firstly the uncritical adulation of Patagonia that keeps resurfacing on our media is way short of the mark in terms of understanding what happened there at that time. The BBC still has the brief to inform, educate and entertain. BBC Wales has done away with all three and replaced with idolise, sanctify and sanitise where Patagonia and the Cymreictod culture that drove it are in view. I am not proud of Patagonia nor am I ashamed of it. I have no personal connection with Patagonia whatsoever so it has no personal significance for me, in much the same way that my grandmother’s upbringing in Bryncrug has no significance for anyone else outside of my family. And why should it? So there is an academic discussion to be had about why Patagonia is marketed as something that belongs to the whole nation when it clearly does not. What cultural agenda is being promoted here?

    The second point is the means by which the Patagonian project is evaluated. You can always find facts to fit preconceived positions and theories, something the more zealous-minded Marxists used to be fond of doing. But that is bad history. We examine all the evidence and come to our judgments based on that. Let me offer just two perspectives that illustrate the point. In history, we often examine why people made the choices they did and why they did not make other choices. So my question would be why did the leaders of this movement believe that sailing 7,000 miles away would help to preserve their language and culture? Why did they not make a stand in their own country and seek to rectify the problems they faced? Could it be that there was something in their culture that prevented them from doing that? We hear often about the accounts of those who stayed to make a life for themselves. But what about those for whom this life choice was an unmitigated disaster, so much so that they decided to return to the land from which they fled? I can’t answer these questions without doing the necessary research but my point is that these are the kind of questions we need to ask in order to properly evaluate the success or otherwise of the Patagonian colony. As with most things in history, the picture is usually mixed and ambiguous. It is this more rounded view that needs to be seen and discussed on our screens, not cultural hagiographies constructed through misrepresentation to serve a purpose in the present.

    Should anyone think that I am picking on Patagonia in particular, I would take the same approach to the Tredegar Workmen’s Medical Aid Society. In retrospect, it was a development of huge significance. But that would not prevent me from critically assessing its achievements and failures, its strengths and weaknesses.

    It used to be that Welsh history was told through a romantic lens that usually obscured more than it illuminated. With thanks to a succession of high quality of Welsh historians, we now have a much clearer and more truthful understanding of our history than used to be the case. So if we’re going to celebrate, let’s celebrate our ability to deal with the truth about our past and our ability to ask the difficult questions and discuss them. And let’s use that understanding to challenge the myth-makers who only seek to hide the realities of our past from their fellow citizens.

  15. @R.Tredwyn
    The details of the Welsh emigration to Patagonia are unique but there are many examples of groups settling in the New World for motives that were not primarily exploitative each with their own histories, unique to them. Some better some worse, some with more impressive achievements some with less impressive ones. No doubt many of those involved were basically decent and extremely capable.

    I can understand that pride is involved whether it’s of Methodists in Patagonia, Mennonites in the Chaco of Paraguay or Mormons in Utah.The thing they all have in common is that they form part of the colonization of the Americas by Europeans.

  16. But for the fact that a few people in Patagonia still speak Welsh I suspect this emigration and settlement would be just as forgotten as all the other emigration and settlement in the Anglosphere seems to have been.

    If there’s a celebration here it’s probably the usual Welsh language elitism that’s driving it. No surprises there then!

  17. CapM and RBJ,
    Whatever the background and whatever others were doing, the Welsh settlers in Patagonia did what they did and it was largely admirable. What agenda is being served? Try this one: the Welsh historically have been losers. They were conquered and defeated and their culture and language disparaged and reviled ( just read this blog – it continues). They internalized these attitudes are often defeatist and spend a lot of time feeling sorry for themselves. However,in Argentina they are venerated as extraordinarily hardy and indefatigable pioneers. And this was not a select bunch but a random collection of small tradesmen, artisans and tenant farmers. Not even a doctor among them. It is therefore a rock in the stream of history showing ordinary Welsh people not as losers but as brave, capable and as successful as they could be before being overwhelmed and marginalized again by mass immigration, building on their success. And they didn’t have to pillage anyone else to do it. Repeating the story, without sentimentality, is telling the nation it can achieve great things if it gets off its collective arse and believes in itself. What’s wrong with that message?

  18. PS people’s determination to be skeptical about a good news story is fine up to a point but beyond that point it becomes rather, well..Welsh. The attitude is: they were Welsh weren’t they…so it couldn’t really have been any good. But the whole point of the story is : yes,they were Welsh and it was good. Indeed,the more you examine it,the better it looks. The Welsh didn’t put up all those monuments to the pioneers. The Argentinian state did, giving credit where due.

  19. “…we are certainly in need of celebration at the moment…”

    I know it’s simple, and some label it ‘antagonistic’ but a bilingual nation with a monolingual anthem is a nation forever stuck in the past, no matter what historians such as Jasmine et al write about to engender debate. A cause worth celebrating would be a leader prepared to tackle this incongruity by addressing this oddity that other nations have wrestled with and conquered – NZ, RSA etc. Empowered Wales will one day appreciate, yes appreciate its heritage by singing it loudly from the hilltops. They will sing in English and Welsh, as we that sing English and Welsh daily.

    Land of My Fathers is an impassioned song, it is time we stopped feeling like victims and embrace ourselves

  20. @ Whistleblow3r
    “I know it’s simple, and some label it ‘antagonistic’ ”
    Let’s just call it simply antagonistic.

  21. @R.Tredwyn
    “Repeating the story, without sentimentality, is telling the nation it can achieve great things if it gets off its collective arse and believes in itself. What’s wrong with that message?”

    I think that there are a number of possible messages we should be aware of and consider in order to view Y Wladfa story without sentimentality. In addition to your message another is that in order to be winners those historical “losers” the Welsh decided to travel to the other end of the world in order to colonize a land inhabited by those even bigger “losers”, the Native Americans.
    Another message is that when faced with the erosion of the Welsh language and culture in Wales MD Jones (who’s idea Y Wladfa was) believed the answer was not to dig in and resist but to encourage the Cymry Cymraeg to bugger off to a piece of land thousands of miles away claimed by Argentina.

    “The Welsh didn’t put up all those monuments to the pioneers. The Argentinian state did, giving credit where due.”
    I’m sure the Argentinian state is grateful that Trelew isn’t in Chile.
    You might think I’m being overly negative about this 150 year anniversary. It’s just that I get very irritated by the perpetuation of the pioneer centric interpretation of colonization wherever it occurs. I can marvel at the efforts and courage of those involved but would feel hypocritical celebrating a colonization because in this case it was carried out by Cymry Cymraeg.

  22. John Walker, you may well be right that it is the survival of the Welsh language that makes people in Wales take an interest in Patagonia. But that isn’t why the Argentines celebrate the settlers. Indeed the Argentinian state abolished Welsh language education in favour of Spanish but they still acknowledge the tenacity of the pioneers and put up monuments to them.

  23. @Cap M and there it is.
    Lack of inclusion.
    Bilingual nation monolingual anthem. Hypocrisy. Dichotomy. Lack of acceptance. Nothing worth celebrating in Wales today.

  24. CapM If the term colonization covers very different processes and experiences, it is silly to let some of the deplorable things that word denotes to colour attitudes to very different events. As an attempt to preserve Welsh linguistic culture, perhaps the enterprise was misguided. Certainly it was an abject failure – Welsh is even more marginal in Patagonia than it is in Wales. By I don’t celebrate it for preserving Welsh but for showing what a very ordinary bunch of lower-class Welsh people were able to achieve against all odds. Viewed in that way it is inspirational. And they didn’t dispossess anyone. No-one was using the Chubut valley for agriculture. A few thousand Welsh people in a valley 600 miles long did not cramp the style of the few indigenous people who were nomadic hunter gathers or pastoralists and who probably benefited from trading with the settlers. There was a subsequent genocidal campaign against the Indians by the Argentinian state, a prelude to the mass immigration that finished off Welsh independence as well eliminating the Tehuelche tribes.

  25. PS And don’t get hung up on Cymry Cymraeg. We’re talking about 1865. Nearly all Welsh people were Welsh-speaking at that time. While the settlers came from all over Wales the biggest single group came from the Aberdare valley, mainly Mountain Ash. The area is now 90 per cent English speaking. They weren’t cracach and they weren’t a linguistic elite or minority within Wales.

  26. @ R.Tredwyn
    It looks like you’d set on cheering the guys in the covered wagons while I’m rooting for the Indians.

  27. @CapM
    That’s ok, the Welsh were cheering for the Indians too. They sent a delegation to oppose the “war in the desert” and asked the Argentinian army to leave the Tuhuelche alone. In vain. The slaughter that followed also marked the end of Welsh autonomy as Spanish-speaking settlers flooded in.
    The Indians were nomadic herders and hunters. The Welsh introduced settled agriculture. Both groups benefitted from trading with the other. The Welsh never numbered more than a few thousand and the Indians were not much more numerous. Chubut province covers a quarter of a million square kilometres. But then if the Welsh had colonized Antartica some one would have complained they were cramping the poor penguins.

  28. @ R.Tredwyn
    Given that settlers including the Welsh were part of the Argentinan plan for securing Patagonia east of the Andes from the start your observation that “Spanish-speaking settlers flooded in.” is somewhat ironic.
    The “benign” effect of the Welsh on the natives being you say, at least in part, a result of the low number of Welsh there. This ignores the contribution of the Welsh as part of the much larger population of settlers overall. It also suggests that if more Welsh people had gone there the more damaging (to the locals) their effect would have been.

    Cultures can be destroyed by apparently “benign” actions just like they can be by violent ones.

    I think that those promoting y Wladfa a hundred and fifty years ago proceeded in a state of denial or gross naivety in thinking that a Welsh colony would be autonomous.

    “But then if the Welsh had colonized Antartica some one would have complained they were cramping the poor penguins. “

  29. Seems to me that it was a colony because Welsh people went and settled down to raise families, and not an occupation because Wales didn’t send troops to impose its rule.

    Sometimes a place sends both troops and colonists (as in the English colonization of Kenya).

    Sometimes a place sends troops but not colonists (as in the U.S. occupation of Iraq – seriously, how many stayed to settle down and raise children in Iraq?)

    …and sometimes a place sends colonists but not troops (as in any migrant enclave where a whole bunch of people don’t assimilate, maybe even don’t integrate).

    How much is the Welsh-Argentine community like one or more of the Chinatowns?

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