Chapter 32


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Patagonia

In 1880, land donated by some of the settlers was used for the building of Moriah chapel in Trelew, which thus began as a separate township. Moriah was followed by Tabernacle, which was erected on land donated by the new Port Madryn Railway Company. This company had come into being to take agricultural products to Port Madryn for export. Funds for its construction had been raised in Liverpool, and the necessary materials arrived in 1886 to build the railroad under the direction of builder Thomas Davies of Aberystwyth, and engineer Edward Williams of Mostyn, Flintshire. By 1888 Port Madryn had been connected by rail to Trelew (Welsh for Lewistown, named after Lewis Jones.)

A disastrous flood in 1899 wiped out many farms and halted progress on the railroad. It almost destroyed the colony, for three years later a sizeable number of Welsh families left for Canada where not only would there be good land to farm, but where they would be able to learn English in schools rather than Spanish, as was now being required by the Argentine government, going back on its original agreement.

Despite the loss of 234 settlers (whose journey to Winnipeg, Saskatchwan was funded by both the British and Canadian governments), a new era in the prosperity of the colony began when the rail was extended to Gaiman in 1909, to Dolavon in 1917, and eventually to Las Plumas, the western end of the line that continued in operation until the 1960's. The rough period had come to an end, and the old dream of Wladfa Gymreig. was fast becoming a reality.

A new chapel was built in Rawson, and in 1914 Bethel Chapel was erected in Gaiman that continues its services today. The colony was extended westwards into the region of the Andes where Trevelyn and Esquel still show their Welsh heritage in their Sunday Chapel services. It was a Welsh pioneer in the region, Llwyd ap Iwan, a son of Michael D. Jones, who earned the dubious distinction as having been killed by famed outlaw Butch Cassidy in 1909.

It was not just Chapel building however, in which the Welsh excelled. The vast distance between the colony and the central government led to the settlers soon establishing their own administration. They set up a system of government with a president, twelve councilors, a justice of the peace, a secretary, a treasurer and a registrar. for the first few years they even used a system of currency brought with them from Wales. The idea of bringing the Eisteddfod to Chubut began at a gathering in 1876 at Beti Huws' farm; it became firmly established in Trelew in 1900.

Today, the Eisteddfod Mawr forms an important part in the life of the fast-growing town. A two-day event, it attracts competitors from all parts of Chubut and even farther afield. Like the Eisteddfodau in Wales, there is a competition for the chair and the crown, the first being given for the best prose entry in Welsh, the second for the best poem in Spanish. The standards are quite high, and competition in all categories is fierce, especially in choral singing, with choirs (singing in Welsh and Spanish) coming from miles around.

There are many books that tell the story of the noble experiment. One of the best is "Cymry Patagonia", by R. Bryn Williams (Gwasg Aberystwyth, 1945), though a brief account for modern-day travelers in the region has been put together by Patagonian native Ricardo Lagiard (Dick Jones). Another good account is "Cuadernos de Historia del Chubut" (Estudios Historicos del Chubut, Trelew, 1970).

Recent efforts to make sure the Welsh language stays alive have seen the borrowing of teachers from Wales. For her work in fostering such attempts to preserve the Welsh heritage of Chubut, in 1999, Patagonian native Tegai Roberts received the coveted white robe of membership in the Gorsedd of Bards of Britain. Evidence of Welsh culture is still very strong in Chubut, in far-off Patagonia.

Chapter 33: Down Under
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