18 June 2015
Celebrating Welsh Patagonia
Events are taking place in both Wales and Argentina this year to celebrate the establishment of a Welsh-speaking colony 150 years ago in the Chubut region of Patagonia, the southern part of Argentina. On May 28, 1865, 153 Welsh-speaking men and women from all over Wales set sail from Liverpool on the Mimosa, arriving two months later on July 28th at what was to become the city of Puerto Madryn.
The visionary behind the colony - Y Wladfa - was Michael D. Jones from Llanuwchllyn in North Wales, who was concerned that migration into Wales and the English language were eroding the Welsh language and culture. His dream was to establish a community, on land purchased from the Argentine government, in which every aspect of life, from chapel to government to commerce, could be conducted through the medium of Welsh.
Fast forward to 2015 and interest in the Welsh language in Patagonia is stronger than ever, not only among the 50,000 Patagonians of Welsh descent in the region but also among many others with no trace of Welsh ancestry. Wales' First Minister Carwyn Jones spoke in January, at a reception to launch the celebratory events to mark the 150th anniversary, of the immense pride and affection that Wales feels towards Patagonia and the Welsh-speaking communities there.
Despite high numbers of Welsh-speakers emigrating from Wales in the decades immediately following 1865, the language was in danger of dying out 20th century. Factors such as Welsh-speakers marrying non-Welsh speaking Patagonians and the Argentinian government not supporting the language meant that Welsh-speaking parents were not passing the language on to their children. When Dr. Robert Owen Jones from Cardiff University conducted seminal research in Patagonia in the 1970s, he could count in single figures the number of children who were being raised with Welsh as their first language. His research acted as a wake-up call and before long Welsh teachers were coming over from Wales to hold language classes, initially on a voluntary basis but from 1997 sponsored by the British Council and the Welsh Government. The Argentinian government also began to see the Welsh language and culture not as a threat but as beneficial to the region's economy.
The link with Patagonia will always be part of Wales' international relations, as will the Scottish Gaelic region of Cape Breton, Canada to Scotland - the only other occasion when a Celtic language has been successfully exported overseas. An announcement was made in March this year that a £1m lottery-funded tourist and heritage centre was to be built in Llanuwchllyn to tell the Patagonian story and this, along with other developments such a new educational resource aimed at Key Stages 2-5, will ensure that the Welsh language and culture in Patagonia will continue to be a part of Wales' identity and heritage.