Patagonia: No Welsh Shangri-La

Ian Johnson says Patagonia is poorly understood.

One hundred and fifty years after the arrival of the Mimosa on the shores of the Golfo Nuevo, Jasmine Donahaye is quite right to problematise the Welsh vision of their relationship with Patagonia and, by extension, the role of Wales as colonised nation and colonisers, and our own history and self-image.

However, she achieves this in such a curmudgeonly manner that it is almost impossible to resist further discussion and debate

The Welsh gaze on Patagonia is indeed highly one-dimensional, concentrating on the linguistic and cultural links with Wales. Media presentation here in Wales focuses almost exclusively on these images and the supposed exoticism of the gaucho, moving without irony from stereotypes of the Welsh with chapels, choirs and cake to stereotypes of tough, weather-beaten men on the paith.

In the context of Welsh linguistic and cultural survival here in Wales, the lack of neutrality is unsurprising, and it takes the hardest of Welsh hearts not to crack a smile at seeing Welsh imagery and hearing the language spoken so many thousands of miles from ‘home’.

But such a presentation is seen through our own eyes, our political, cultural and linguistic struggles, and so, for a subject which occupies so much of the Welsh imagination, Patagonia is remarkably poorly understood.

In our mind’s eye in Wales, we view Patagonia as a little Wales, linguistically and culturally decontextualized from its own political and cultural background.

The modern day Patagonia is no Welsh Shangri-La.

Of the million or so emigrants from Wales in the late nineteenth century, just a few thousand made their way to Y Wladfa, founding a series of small towns where a previous colonial attempt had been unsuccessful, supported by the Argentine state, and eventually enveloped by it.

Patagonia is a multicultural society whose residents identify with an Argentinian civic identity, holding multiple individual and family ethnic identities, reflecting immigration to the region. Spanish, the fourth most spoken language worldwide, and the language of the state, is the dominant language in all domains.

Around a quarter of a million people now live in the cities, towns and villages along the River Chubut, at Puerto Madryn on the Golfo Nuevo, or high up in the Andes. Near the Atlantic, the regional centre, Trelew, with a population a little over 100,000 people, is the largest city, while nearby Gaiman is the most visibly Welsh, populated by tea-houses and Welsh-named hotels and shops. In the Andes to the west, Esquel and Trevelin perform similar roles, with the lush and green landscape of Cwm Hyfryd, where Trevelin sits, evoking images of Wales.

Perhaps twenty thousand people have some claim to Welsh ancestry, although only a few thousand, at the very most, have any level of fluency in Welsh. Most of those who have followed Welsh classes in school achieve a level comparable with modern foreign language status in Wales, although more intensive classes produce greater fluency.

Small in number, the Welsh maintain a strong status and position within Chubut society. In part this is through the continuation of the settler myth, strongly promoted through Argentine devolution and the hundredth anniversary of the Mimosa arrival in 1965, and the high culture provided by the Eisteddfod.

The 1965 centenary undoubtedly regenerated links between Wales and Patagonia. The continuation of those links to the present day provides a way out for those from Patagonia from a society which has faced many difficult economic and political challenges in recent decades (whether dictatorship or bankruptcy), a source of external income and political prestige. Just as our media love trips to Patagonia, tourism delegations from Patagonia to Wales last year included separate visits and entourages from the Chubut provincial governor and Mayor of Trelew searching for kudos from the celebrations, ahead of this October’s elections.

In a devolved Argentina, the need for a separate Chubut provincial identity has driven the promotion of Welshness – a unique tourist offer of Welsh tea and protestant church architecture. Immigrants from Europe, but not the immigrants that you’ve heard of, and a compulsory history taught to children in schools across the province.

The Eisteddfod provides an alternative high culture focus for the area – celebrating local authors in both Spanish and Welsh, as well as music and choirs, anchoring Welsh culture within the cultured middle classes, and a constant flow of resources from Wales, in one form or another, help support the language and culture.

The choice to speak Welsh or not, or to promote Welsh identifying cultural practices, remains one for individuals and the community locally – whatever support we wish to provide from Wales.  Welsh culture, embedded within local communities and formalized, would survive in Patagonia on its own terms, but, for better or worse, Welsh language use may fall without continued support from Wales.

Of course, with an annual provincial bank holiday celebrating the arrival of the Mimosa, the arrival celebrations – and the cultural importance of Welsh tea – are already strongly embedded across the Chubut Province.

The indigenous population play their own role in the anniversary, with historically inaccurate celebrations in Puerto Madryn showing how they extended the hand of friendship to the newly arrived Welsh colonists, playing their own power games within local society.

Separated not by our common language but our failure to contextualize New and Old Worlds, the Patagonia 150 celebrations mean different things in different places.

The celebration in Wales is largely of the unique survival of the Welsh language and culture in an exotic outpost far from home.

In Patagonia, the celebration is of the successful settlement of the territory and how the Welsh made the otherwise barren area fertile and possible to inhabit through the irrigation of the fields surrounding the River Chubut.

We should, of course, problematise both of these myths, but let’s also enjoy them appropriately. Patagonia might not be a Welsh Shangri-La, but, for the Welsh gaze, it is unique.

Dr Ian Johnson wrote his PhD thesis on ‘Subjective Ethnolinguistic Vitality: Attitudes towards Welsh language, culture and identity in the Chubut Province, Argentina’

20 thoughts on “Patagonia: No Welsh Shangri-La

  1. This is one of the most thoughtful, insightful and factually accurate pieces I have read on the subject.
    The “million or so emigrants from Wales in the late nineteenth century” seems a tad excessive, however.
    The USA records around 100,000 Welsh-born in 1890 and although this is a massive underestimate, it was to the USA that the vast majority went.

  2. I was in the Chubut earlier this year on holiday. The Welsh Argentinians are certainly a minority in the Chubut but an extremely visible one and the language too was far more visible than I had expected with nursery provision to ethnically diverse pupils even in Trelaw and Trevelin in the Andes. I believe Welshness will continue to play a cultural and political role well into the future no doubt with lots channeled help coming from the UK. and local politicians playing a Welsh card with Buenos Aires.
    I was surprised at the number people born in Wales living there often having married and Argentinian.
    I hope eventually the Welsh government might help in providing some balm to help heal the rift over the Falklands. In Trelew a met a young woman who was trying hard so retrieve the Welsh language she as her birthright. Her father had been accused of being British and not a real Argentinian at the time of the Falklands war and stopped speaking Welsh altogether as a result. Not only would this help the Welsh there but I am extremely worried that Putin is making overtures to Mrs Kirchner the Peronist president
    On the bus to Gaiman from Trelaw I saw that a lady in the seat opposite was reading a Terry Prachett novel. I bumped into her several times and she told me lots of things that threw again threw light on the Malvinas affair. ( every village in Argentina has a massive sign which reads that The Malvinas are for ever Argentinian followed by three exclamation marks.) We both agreed that had there not been a war an accommodation to both sides would have emerged satisfying everyone but the invasion destroyed that possibility for a generation at least.

    Gaiman is booming with many new big massive houses being built. I was told that many of the farmers were coming to live in the village to avoid the increase in violence caused by an influx of migrants from outside Argentina and I was surprised in Gaiman to see so many bars on windows whereas in the Andes security did not seem to be an issue at all.

    What surprised me most of all was the free flying of the Welsh flag in the Chubut and the singing of the Welsh national anthem at concerts I attended.

  3. I think that this kind of contextualisation of the debate over Welsh colonization is valuable and important – thank you. In conventional accounts it often it seems as if the Welsh were the only actors in the story of Chubut and Patagonia. In my view it is essential that we appreciate the global and local context in which this event is imagined. I wanted to add a couple of points, if I may.

    Firstly, there has been a lot of talk about colonization but very little attention paid to the indigenous people that the Welsh actually encountered. The indigenous leaders (Caciques) and their communities remain as silenced victims in this discussion, and there is a danger that they become rather passive caricatures in our minds. However, the Welsh arrived into a complex social world of indigenous culture, politics and economy. It was Cacique Francisco who deliberately made contact with the Welsh with the express purpose of initiating trade, a trade which was one foundation of the Welsh community’s later prosperity. So, at the same time as the indigenous were oppressed by the racialised injustices of global hierarchies, they were also full social agents who were able to shape their own destinies, albeit from a subordinated position. Rather than imagining this to be a binaried colonizer/colonized relationship, then, my reading of the diaries and memoires of this period suggest that they are two communities who live independently of one another but whose lives (and futures) are entangled. This is a hierarchal relationship, of course – the Welsh are ‘naturally’ convinced of the superiority of European ways of knowing and being as are all Europeans then (and possibly now) – but a functional and often agreeable one. Moreover, it is perfectly possible that Cacique Francisco and his community looked down on the Welsh – perhaps Francisco taught them how to hunt and ride because he felt sorry for them. There are two big differences, though. Firstly, the Welsh archive (and voice) survives, while Francisco’s thoughts do not. Secondly, the Argentine state supported the Welsh in their colonizing activities, while it violently oppressed the indigenous and attempted genocide.

    Secondly, and following on from this, I think that it is right that we should be outraged by the injustices of colonialism which is a profoundly violent political and cultural act. However, there is a danger that we end up caricaturing the people who settled in Chubut as evil colonizers rather than focusing on the ideology, logic and practice that shaped their lives. If we are to have a meaningful discussion about the place of Welsh Patagonia in Welsh identity today, we need to move away from confrontational either/or positions to understand that the Welsh were both the objects and the agents of colonial ideology at the same time. Theirs was an ambiguous and paradoxical position, so in order to analyse it properly – and think properly about the meaning of Welsh Patagonia for Wales today – we need to embrace ambiguity. We need to move from either/or to both/and, and be willing to accept that we might not reach a final, single answer.

    It is because the question of identity is so important to Welsh life, and yet so hard to pin down, that feelings run high about Welsh Patagonia; there’s a lot at stake. But perhaps this 150th commemoration offers us a vehicle to begin rethinking that identity by examining one of its often romanticised foundations. But our strategy is important. We should do so not by casting aside the traditional view of what Welsh Patagonia means because it is not a lie, but a story. Rather, we should pluralize the stories that we tell – by taking seriously the role of indigenous peoples, by thinking about the experiences of women, by contextualising the Wladfa within Argentine nation-building, by charting the global flows of nineteenth century imperialism. We need listening and conversation, not confrontation; this is the aim of my own research.

  4. This is a vacuous and rather pointless piece that adds nothing to the discussion following Jasmine Donahaye’s original article. I am an admirer of Ms Donahaye who has written movingly about the Jewish colonization of Palestine and the turmoil of emotions that it can cause in in liberal-minded Jewish people. I can understand why she with that background would want to warn the Welsh against romanticizing colonialism. However her attempted parallel with Patagonia is simply mistaken and the Welsh can take legitimate pride in the courage, tenacity, ingenuity and enterprise of the Welsh settlers who did not displace or expropriate anyone.

    Johnson says: In Patagonia, the celebration is of the successful settlement of the territory and how the Welsh made the otherwise barren area fertile and possible to inhabit through the irrigation of the fields surrounding the River Chubut. Then says: We should, of course, problematise both of these myths,

    For heaven’s sake. What is celebrated is a fact, not a myth, a hard historical fact. Anyone who uses a word like “problematise* and can’t distinguish myth from fact needs a course in clear thinking.

  5. @ R Tredwyn

    You’re clearly not listening to anyone’s opinion other than your own on this which is precisely the weakness of mythologising the Patagonian colony. It selects the facts that suit the ‘pride agenda’ and ignores those that cast doubt on the value of this particular enterprise. Ian Johnson’s piece is far from vacuous; it contains many useful facts that help to contextualise this particular episode. His point that “we need to embrace ambiguity” is particularly apt and an essential aspect of any serious attempt to understand our history or anyone else’s for that matter.

    I also note that you criticise Jasmine’s drawing parallels between Palestine and Patagonia but do not offer a single reason or argument as to why. We must just accept that it is wrong because you say so.

    That Patagonia has a particular resonance for some Welsh speakers is clear and we should certainly not seek to sweep it under the carpet; it happened therefore it has to be accounted for. If I can speculate however, I would venture to suggest that the historical position of the Welsh language has not been changed one iota by those who fled Wales in the Mimosa. The factors that are impacting on the current demise of the language and the various attempts to reverse the decline are to be found in Wales, not 7,000 miles away.

    Unfortunately, the view that somehow we have to choose between being ‘proud’ or ‘ashamed’ only reveals the paucity of intellectual discourse that lies at the heart of our public life, something that both Jasmine and Ian have successfully sought to correct.

  6. @Lucy Taylor
    You the authors of these two articles on Patagonia are right about there being a number of players contributing to the story of Y Wladfa and pointing out that it takes place within a wider context than is usually referred to.
    It would be beneficial to all if more holistic renderings of the story were served up to viewers and listeners in the future.

  7. RBJ You use the word “mythologise”, repeating the error of Ian Johnson. What is the “myth” you are contesting? Did people go to Patagonia? Did they succeed where predecessors had failed to turn barren semi-desert into an area of viable and profitable agriculture? Did they run a non-violent society with universal male franchise? Are they respected for those achievements in Argentina to this day? Do you contest any of that? Surely it is enough to merit respect.
    No-one is claiming the settlement succeeded in improving the” historical position of the Welsh language”. To the extent that it was meant to, it was and is a failure. Can we get off the language? The settlers spoke Welsh not out of fanaticism (or spite) but because that was the language of 90 per cent of Welsh people in 1865.
    I am astonished that I have to explain the difference between Palestine and Patagonia. Palestine had a settled population of several million people. About a million were driven from their land and have been refused re-enty. Palestinian land is being stolen to this day. There was no settled population in the lower Chubut in 1865. There was a sparse population of Tehuelche whose economy was based on nomadic herding and hunting. These activities were not constrained by a few thousand Welsh people in a valley 600 miles long and bounded by a vast steppe. In fact the Tehuelche helped and traded with the Welsh to their mutual benefit. or is that a “myth” too? The genocidal “war in the desert” conducted by the Argentinian state which decimated Indian tribes also paved the way for mass migration and the end of Welsh autonomy in Chubut. No-one disputes that it was opposed by the Welsh settlers who were not slaughtered like the Indians but who became marginalised.
    This whole discussion is vague in the extreme with abstract words like “contextualise” being bandied about. And becasue the word colonialism can be attached to the venture, thoughtless people damn it out of hand. Give a dog a bad name….It ain’t me who isn’t listening.

  8. The Welsh settlers are being blamed because Cortes slaughtered Aztecs, Pissaro massacred Incas the Cherokees were driven from the Applachians to misery in Oklahoma. These were all examples of colonization of the Americas. The Welsh did not dispossess or slaughter anyone but because their enterprise too was a colonialisation of the Americas it was shameful. If you folks can’t see the fault in that logic, I can’t help you.

  9. @R.Tredwyn
    ” Can we get off the language? The settlers spoke Welsh not out of fanaticism (or spite) but because that was the language of 90 per cent of Welsh people in 1865.”

    And there I was thinking that the Welsh language, and culture, was the reason for the whole Gwladfa project.
    Are you suggesting that it was primarily about religious freedom, if so what was wrong in emigrating to the USA. Do you think the settlers kept up the use of the English they had after they arrived?

    As to any mythologizing. For me the myths perpetuated have nothing to do with the efforts and attitude of the settlers you keep stating but are.
    1. It was a good idea. Even without hindsight and an allowance for the attitude of Europeans to any right of occupancy by aboriginal peoples at the time it wasn’t. To me the project, an autonomous culturally and linguistically Welsh colony, seems to based on a mixture of denial, naivety and unrealistic optimism by the organisers. Note I’m not referring to those actually digging the canals, building homes, growing wheat etc.
    2. That the Welsh colony was unique or near unique in the history of colonization in its “benign” nature. It wasn’t unique and as you alluded in another post was benign in part due to the low numbers of settlers involved. I think that if 100 000 Welsh had descended on Patagonia the resulting Welsh Tehuelche interactions would have been anything but benign.

    You appear to be differentiating colonization based on whether it was violent or non-violent. Of course if you limit it to those options the Welsh settlement of Patagonia will fall on the non-violent category.
    However you may like to consider alternative options for colonization based on it’s consequences. That is whether the colonisation maintained the native language and culture alongside it or eliminated/ near eliminated the native culture and language.
    Given those options the Welsh colonisation of Patagonia falls squarely into the elimination/ near elimination category. Very un-unique . It follows that the Welsh contribution to the elimination whether benign or violent is pretty immaterial.

  10. @ R Tredwyn

    A myth is very often based on a series of facts, but the facts are selected to suit the myth. Marxists very often used to do the same thing, select a theory and then search for the facts that suit the theory.

    I’m afraid we can’t get off the language because it is presented on the media as being all about the wonderful Welsh speakers and how brave they were in making the best of the worst of all worlds. Let’s follow this through a little. If it had no impact on the future of the language and it was not just a failure, but a huge distraction, why all the fuss?

    I think I’m beginning to see one of the reasons behind this manipulation of Patagonia’s history. The myth is that despite its failure as a colony, despite its failure to establish a stronghold for the Welsh language (why on earth bother trying to establish that 7,000 miles away from its country of origin?) despite the thousands who were betrayed by the project and had to return home, it doesn’t matter because they worked awfully hard you know and they were really very nice people. So the comparison is being invited that the same can be said of Wales’ current linguistic leadership.

    The most significant linguistic achievement to date remains the establishment of the Welsh language education system. This is in the main due to the dedication of the teachers whose commitment is on the whole to a high standard of education. Isn’t that enough to demonstrate the good intentions of the Welsh language cause. Apparently not. Education is too everyday to be worthy of mythic status and too easily checked out. Step up Patagonia. Sanitise the full picture, select the facts and bingo you have an image of an honest people with hearts filled with good intentions, enough to overcome any hardship. The difficulty is that the leadership of the language is far more ambiguous in its nature and is more than capable of practising the dark arts when required, not in furtherance of the language but in furtherance of the unaccountable culture by which they exercise power and influence within the education system and beyond. The insistence that only one culture may prevail within the Welsh language is strongly at odds with the real nature of our multi-cultural society. The division of the education system into first and second language speakers, regardless of ability, is at odds with modern concepts of equality of citizenship but accords with seeking to ensure a social advantage for the sons and daughters of Welsh speaking families and leave children who receive second language education not just with a second class education but second class opportunities within Wales as well. We only have to look at the reasonably recent debacle at S4C to see how power operates and is abused in a Welsh language public body. This was exposed and corrected. Yet the story of what happened has never been shown in a documentary, but rather left in a dark corner in the hope that no-one will remember in a few years time. But never mind, I’ve got a DVD of Patagonia where some visiting sheep from Wales and cattle from Patagonia sing “Come by yer, my Lord” in Welsh and Spanish! Who can resist that?

  11. Perhaps we need to make a distinction here between the logic of colonialism and the way that people chose (choose) to act within a colonial context. The logic of colonialism is profoundly violent (the domination of lands and peoples by others) and that fundamental violation does not go away, no matter how nice people are. But how people choose (and chose) to act within that overarching logic has to count for something, in my view. Is it preferable that the Welsh mostly dealt fairly and non-violently with indigenous communities, sometimes demonstrating respect and friendship? Yes it is. And does it matter? I think it mattered a lot then and it still matters now.

    But at the same time the Welsh never doubted their superiority as ‘civilised, European, Christians’ (I say this having read a good range of diaries, memoires etc). That is, they reproduced the racial hierarchies which were (are) common currency around the globe, adopting a ‘noble (childlike) savage’ approach. It is important to recognise that the Welsh weren’t immune to these racialised ideas and that they reproduced them. But we should not then leap in the other direction to condemn the Welsh settlers outright. We should never forget that the Tehuelche, Pampa – and yes, the Mapuche – were violently oppressed by a state that the Welsh joined, sooner or later, as immigrants into Argentina. But to imagine the role of the indigenous to be simply victims and the role of the Welsh to be simply oppressors does an injustice to the real people – Indigneous and Welsh – who met in Chubut and who built a relationship that was important to them both.

  12. There are some things on which we can agree. Indeed it may be we agree on most things. The organizers of the first Patagonian settlement intended it to establish a Welsh speaking colony for ever. Yes and that was a vain hope. Most of the people who went were just trying to get a better life. They succeeded heroically even if the hopes of the initial organizers were vain. The colony did not fail; its autonomy succumbed to its own success.The Welsh of the time undoubtedly shared the European attitudes of the time and believed their civilization was superior to that of the natives of Soith America. It would be astonishing if they had not. We share many attitudes now which may appear barbarous in a century or so. Who knows? The Welsh treated the Tehuelche as fellow human beings and relations were quite good. No doubt if there had been 100,000 Welshmen it would not have been so. Are we going to condemn people who behaved generally well for the possibility that they would have behaved badly in different circumstances? My point is quite limited: these ordinary people showed courage,enterprise,ingenuity and humanity. It is possible to be proud of them without underwriting colonialism as a movement, all the beliefs and ethics of the 19th century or any particular view about “Cymreictod”. We live in a country, after all, where people are said to lack enterprise and where the underemployed inhabitants of our post-industrial values are routinely written off as an underclass. Their forefathers showed it ain’t necessarily so.
    RBJ goes on about a host of things that I know nothing about and have no opinion about.but I can’t see they have much bearing on Patagonia.

  13. I’ll get in trouble for sexist language now. Should have said forebears, not forefathers. Indeed it was a woman from Mountain Ash credited with having the idea of irrigation canals. I celebrate this as a triumph of the Welsh working class of both sexes.

  14. @R.Tredwyn
    “My point is quite limited:…..”
    The problem is that the point the BBC’s, S4C’s and most other interpreters of Y Wladfa make to the Welsh public is similarly limited.and they seem content to continue to inform us in that manner.

  15. One of the most significant tests of any culture is the way in which power is handled and exercised. I’m surprised that you have not heard of the scandal that took place at S4C because it was all over the media at the time for several weeks. But I can understand the view that if the fact doesn’t fit the narrative, ignore the fact. It happens a lot in unthinking and uncritical political discourse but it helps us to understand nothing.

    But what is more interesting is that your response to the critical questions or points put to you is to ignore them and reach for your pride and hide behind that. Perhaps we should adopt your philosophy of abandoning critical thought and start thinking with the blood, pride being the central defining factor that seeks to narrow the debate and shut out rational thought.

  16. This has become a dialogue of the death I am afraid. I am not conscious of avoiding any points that Rhobat Bryn Jones has made. To the extent that I understand them I have tried to answer them. Meanwhile he has comprehensively ignored the points that I have made. He and CapM believe there is a conspiracy on the part of the broadcasters to use the story of Y Wladfa for contemporary propaganda purposes. They may be right for all I know, though I note their description of those purposes is vague. The narrative I thought we were discussing was the story of Patagonia not the story of S4C. Use of history for propaganda does not turn history into myth or detract from the struggle and achievements of the people who made history.

  17. What are the urgent messages that people need to hear in Wales now? That colonialism inflicted atrocities galore, that going 7000 miles to save the Welsh language was a quixotic idea, that 19thcentury notions of racial hierarchy were wrong and are passé? These are all truisms. Repeat them if you wish but they are not news and you won’t find many people disagreeing. That a random bunch of under-educated, ill-informed Welsh people dropped into the most unpromising circumstances survived and achieved great things – and by implication, so you could you. That’s a useful message and one that many people don’t know. It’s also one that seems to provoke a lot of disagreement from people with bees in their bonnet about the Welsh cracach and their cliquishness and their over-representation in broadcasting. All regrettable features of Welsh life, I grant you, but don’t tar a working-class success with that brush.

  18. @R.Tredwyn
    “He and CapM believe there is a conspiracy on the part of the broadcasters”
    There is a paradigm, there needs to be no conspiracy for it to exist or for it to continue.
    Everyone is familiar with the paradigm and you have repeated it many times here over the past couple of weeks.
    Presently those truisms you refer to are pretty much excluded from this paradigm. Including them but not replacing the existing narrative with them, please note would result in a paradigm shift.
    Which would be news to some.

Comments are closed.

Also within Culture