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Welsh community mark 140 years in Patagonia

Saturday, July 30th 2005 - 21:00 UTC
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Argentina's Welsh community marked the 140th anniversary of the first settlers landing in what is now Puerto Madryn, in the Patagonian province of Chubut, on July 28, 1865.

Mimosa, the three-masted British-flagged tea clipper, (44 metres long and 447 tons) had sailed from Liverpool with nearly 160 emigrants two months earlier and proceeded non-stop to New Bay, as the site was known then. It was manned by about 20 seamen whose captain was George Pepperell, with John Thomas Downes as mate.

The Mimosa, which usually travelled to Australia carrying mining tools, and ? on the return trip ? tea from China to Britain, was specially chartered for the trip to Patagonia. Waiting for the settlers were Lewis Jones, Edwyn Cynrig Roberts and about six "peons" brought from Carmen de Patagones who had helped with the raising of shacks and the building of a food depot on the site. Lewis Jones had already made two voyages to New Bay from Patagones carrying sheep, food, tools and many other items on board the small Danish schooner Juno which was chartered in Buenos Aires for that purpose. Lewis Jones and Edwyn C. Roberts were members of the Cambrian Emigration Committee, established years before in Liverpool, together with the Reverend Michael D. Jones and others. MD Jones, a renowned 19th century Welsh nationalist, was the promoter of this trip to Patagonia. Their initial idea was to establish a Welsh community in an isolated area of the world, where the home language, religion, culture and customs could be maintained and preserved.

Besides some cultural and religious persecution, most Welsh immigrated ? mainly to the US ? during the 19th century seeking better economic conditions. In the US, the Welsh immigrants soon intermingled with the local population and forgot all about their language and most of their cultural traits. However, those who came to Argentina attempted to avoid that integration.

Patagonia was chosen a couple of years before 1865, when talks were held with Argentine Consulate officials in Liverpool and eventually with Argentina's Interior Minister, Dr Guillermo Colesbury Rawson, based on accounts by Captain FitzRoy of the HMS Beagle, who was probably the first to discover the Chubut river in 1833 (Henry Libanus Jones is another contender for this event, decades before). It was decided to raise a colony there, in an area about 500 km south of Carmen de Patagones which then was a small town and port on the Río Negro river's north bank and the southernmost permanent outpost of the then Argentine Confederation.

Lewis Jones and Captain Love Jones-Parry of Madryn Castle travelled to Buenos Aires from Liverpool in December 1862 to inspect the site personally and after touring the Chubut river area on foot and with a sailboat in early 1863 returned to Carmen de Patagones and once back in Wales, both gave favourable reports of the area. Once all the emigrants had disembarked in New Bay in 1865, groups of 15 to 20 with a couple of pack horses regularly left New Bay and trekked the 55 kilometres to the Chubut river valley through a waterless steppe, a walk that lasted two days, and eventually they converged on an old abandoned fort (Caer Antur) which was built by Henry Libanus Jones and his team back in 1854 for the purpose of hunting wild cattle that purportedly roamed thereabouts in those years. That old fort was situated then inside the limits of the present-day city of Rawson, the capital of Chubut province. By the end of September 1865 all the Mimosa emigrants were settled there. Contacts with Indians were established in 1866. Firstly, in April, four of them approached the settlers to their great surprise and pitched a tent near the fort. Communication was achieved at first through sign language, then through an English-Spanish dictionary and eventually through a mixture of Spanish, Welsh and Tehuelche words.

At the end of July of that same year, while many of the settlers were attending a Sunday service in a farm about 20km west of the fort, about 80 Pampa Indians surrounded the farmhouse and abruptly put an end to the service conducted by Rev. Abraham Matthews. He returned immediately to the fort followed by the Indians who pitched their tents on the northern side of the river and near the fort. A few days later, about 80 to 90 Tehuelche Indians arrived also and settled on the southern side of the river and opposite the fort. The Pampas were nomads whose territory was north of the Chubut river and covered present-day Río Negro and La Pampa provinces also. The leader of the group that approached the Welsh was known as Juan Chiquichan.

The Tehuelches were nomad-hunter Indians also who roamed the Patagonian territory south of the Chubut river and whose leader was known as Galatts (or Galach). Both tribes had numerous horses and dogs with them and their aim was to trade with the Welsh settlers. They exchanged guanaco meat, hides, mats, ponchos, etc., for any item that was strange to them and offered by the settlers, and they took a tremendous liking to the bread and butter that were offered.

These Indians were fundamental to the survival of the Welsh settlers in Patagonia, especially during their first 10 years, since they taught them how to hunt and provided the settlers with horses and riding gear. They also learned how to manufacture lassos, reins, whips, etc., with hides, and made use of many other survival items and suggestions.

The Welsh colony in Chubut only "took off" around November 1867 when settler Aaron Jenkins, on the advice of his wife Rachel, proceeded to irrigate their land parcel by means of opening a small gap on the banks of the Chubut river and so in this way watered a field of wheat that was planted not far away. He repeated this procedure twice more in the ensuing months and by March had a splendid wheat harvest to show ? irrigation was discovered by the settlers who had mainly been miners or industrial workers back in Wales.

From then on the Welsh colony became less dependent on government subsidies, which eventually ceased. These subsidies in the form of grain, seeds, food items and money arrived to the settlers in a highly irregular manner due to the distances involved and the scarcity of sea transport available then. Some time later they became less dependent on hunting too. (Buenos Aires Herald).

Categories: Mercosur.

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