BY BEN BOX
Among the tales of early pioneers to Argentina, the story of Welsh emigration, in search of religious freedom, is one of the most impressive.
The first 165 settlers arrived in Patagonia in July 1865. Landing on the bay where Puerto Madryn now stands, they went south in search of drinking water to the valley of the Chubut River, where they found cultivatable land and settled.
The settlement was partly inspired by Michael D Jones, a non-conformist minister whose aim was to create a ‘little Wales beyond Wales’, far from the intruding influence of the English restrictions on Welsh religious beliefs. He provided much of the early finance and took particular care to gather people with useful skills, such as farmers and craftsmen, recruiting settlers through the Welsh language press and through the chapels. Between 1865 and 1915, the colony was reinforced by another 3000 settlers from Wales. The early years brought persistent drought, and the Welsh only survived through creating a network of irrigation channels. Early settlers were allocated 100 ha of land and when, by 1885, all irrigable land had been allocated, the settlement expanded westwards along the valley to the town of Trevelin in the foothills of the Andes.
The Welsh colony was tremendously successful, partly due to the creation of its own cooperative society, which sold their excellent produce and bought necessities in Buenos Aires. Early settlers were organized into chapel-based communities of 200 to 300 people, which were largely self-governing and organized social and cultural activities. The colony thrived after 1880, producing wheat from the arid Chubut Valley which won prizes all over the world. However, the depression of the 1930s drove wheat prices down, and poor management by the Argentine government resulted in the downfall of the Welsh wheat business. Many of the Welsh stayed, however; most of the owners of Gaiman’s extraordinary Welsh tea rooms are descendants of the original settlers. The Welsh language is kept alive in both Gaiman and Trevelin, and Gaiman’s festival of the arts – Eisteddfod – is held every October.