Chapter 32


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Patagonia

The Argentine government, anxious to control a vast unpopulated area in which it was in dispute with the government of Chile, was willing to grant 100 square miles for the establishment of a Welsh state (Y Wladfa) and to protect it by the military. A Welsh emigration committee, meeting in Liverpool (where there was a large Welsh population) the same year (1861), decided that here was a chance to fulfill a dream that could not be turned down. The committee decided to publish a handbook to advertise the undertaking, Llawlyfr y Wladfa (Colony handbook) and to distribute it throughout Wales and in areas of Welsh settlement in the United States.

In 1862 Lewis Jones went to Buenos Aires, followed by Captain Jones-Parry to confirm the agreement with the government of Argentina, represented by Dr. Rawson, the minister of the interior (after whom the capital of the province of Patagonia is now named). In the US the Welsh-American paper Y Drych warned its readers against the scheme to settle Patagonia, fearing troubles with the native Indian population. As it happened, once the scheme got under way, the natives were the least of the emigrants' troubles.

Though the majority of those wishing to emigrate (and able to afford the trip) came from North and mid-Wales (a fact that is still reflected in the dialect of the Welsh areas of today's Patagonia), a sizeable number came from the Merthyr Tydfil area (where the Rising of 1831 had taken place). After many delays and problems with the ship initially chosen, the Halton Castle, a group of nearly 200 Welshmen sailed away from Liverpool in late May, 1865 to the promised land on the Mimosa, a brig of 447 tons. The journey took two months.

Blessed by fair weather and with the death of only five children in those days of calamitous on-board sickness (two children were born at sea) the ship arrived safely at what is now Puerto Madryn on the 27th day of July, 1865, landing its passengers the next day. The area had been explored by Captain Fitzroy of the Royal Navy some 30 years before; he had called the landing place New Bay at the mouth of the river the Welsh were to call Camwy (swirling river) and had optimistically described the area as suitable for raising cattle and sheep, there being sufficient good land, fruit trees and water, and plenty of quality marble for mining. More important, however, the land was also offered free.

The territory known as Patagonia is as radically different from Wales, (and Pennsylvania) as is possible to imagine. Lewis Jones and his companion Edwin Roberts, in their zeal to seduce Welsh settlers away from their green, fertile homeland were not the only ones who took liberties describing the advantages of the new territory. To the west are the high, snow-capped Andes, between the mountains and the sea, the inhospitable treeless, windswept, rainless pampas that stretch flat and seemingly lifeless in every direction.

Captain Fitzroy's descriptions notwithstanding, much of eastern Patagonia is still a dusty, lonely land that, away from the coast, contains only small scattered settlements. Today, the Camwy Valley is known as Chubut; like the Nile Valley in Egypt, it offers a thin strip of green, fertile and welcome tree-dotted land surrounded on both sides by the hostile scrub-filled semi-desert. Unlike that of the Nile, however, the Chubut Valley is only 50 miles long, and its grey, sullen waters irrigate an area only 6 miles wide. Yet just as the Nile is known as the cradle of civilization in Egypt, so the Chubut Valley is the foundation of the Welsh settlement of Patagonia.

In 1853, Welshman Henry Libanus Jones had been in the Chubut area attempting to capture wild cattle. He built something of a fort, which had a few huts remaining when the Mimosa arrived offshore. Here, in a place they named Hen Amddiffynfa (the old Fort), the Welsh arrivals settled in, built new homes from river mud or sun-dried brick, or even occupied caves in the hills while they pondered how to cultivate the plots of land (124 acres each family or bachelor) granted by the Argentine government and allocated by the drawing of lots.

Chapter 32 Continued
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