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.