It is a strange thing that the Welsh language sounds so utterly alien to an English listener, despite the fact that its country of origin is part of the same geographical landmass as our own. Spanish, however, though not quite comprehensible, retains that Latin resonance so near to familiarity that despite not knowing more than ten words of it I almost feel I would be able to get the gist if it were written down. This is what struck me most during the opening scene of Marc Evans’ 2010 film Patagonia, which opens with an extract from an Argentinian text written in Spanish, voiced-over in Welsh, subtitled in English. I felt a little at odds with myself and my assumptions of British identity: how is it possible to feel so linguistically disconnected to a place with which I ought to feel some sort of association, being so geographically, politically and culturally close; whilst I feel I can identify more with a language of a place about which I know so little, have never been to and with which I have no such cultural connection? The English word welsh actually derives from the Anglo-Saxon for ‘foreign language’. For a non-Welsh speaker/reader it’s easy to see why: at one point in the film an Argentinian character visiting Wales for the first time looks up from a local map to proclaim: This place has got six L’s in it! Must be a spelling mistake.
Of course the Welsh identity is much more definable than general British or specifically English, not least because of the language: in parts of Wales over seventy percent of the population speak Welsh as a first language after a dramatic rise in its usage during the latter part of the twentieth century. It was partly because of the importance of the retention of this language to maintaining a sense of a Welshness that the Welsh colony of Y Wladfa in Patagonia, the pivotal location of the film, came into existence.
The early nineteenth century saw a great increase in the numbers of emigrants from Wales, seeking a better quality of life either in other British cities or overseas. There was some concern about the loss of Welsh identity for these expatriates, whose descendants, after just two or three generations, tended to lose contact with their Welsh way of life. A possible solution was mooted: could a designated colony be set up with enough geographical isolation and political independence to allow Welsh emigrants to make a new home overseas that maintained the traditions, culture and language of their native Wales?
On 28th May 1865, 153 Welsh emigrants set sail from Liverpool, bound for Patagonia, Argentina. Their destination was a promised land in which they could escape the impoverished conditions of their homes in Wales. It was the Chubut Valley: reputedly unclaimed politically, far enough from both Spanish and British Argentine settlements, and, according to the propaganda, of a temperate climate similar to that of their Celtic home.
The film Patagonia tells the separate stories of two women in the present day. Cerys is old, a second-generation descendant of a Welsh emigrant, travelling from Patagonia to try and find the farm her mother came from in Wales. The younger Gwen, from Cardiff, hopes to find reprieve from a strained relationship by accompanying her partner on a pilgrimage to photograph the shed-like chapels that remain scattered across the Patagonian desert. In many ways it is her tale that echoes that of the Welsh settlers whose hopes to escape from poverty in their homeland were ultimately doomed to failure in the remoteness of a hostile landscape.
These first hopeful emigrants arrived at the Argentine coast after two months at sea, only to be dumped on the beach at Gulfo Nuevo as the Chubut estuary proved un-navigable. They had only natural caves and hand-dug pits for shelter and storage, and faced a forty mile trek overland to reach their intended home. A large proportion of the party were women and children, and the expedition began to look like a disaster. A party of eighteen men set out west for Chubut, across a vast and unfamiliar landscape of undeveloped plateaus covered with alternating stretches sticky muds and sandy soils that forced them to abandon their carts at an early stage. They set up an interim settlement within an abandoned fort in one of the river’s lower meanders, but the Argentinian government sent troops to surround them, claiming the territory as Argentine and dashing any hopes of the establishment of a politically independent Welsh provincial colony.
When the emigrants finally did reach the Chubut Valley, the climate turned against them. When Patagonia was first investigated as a possible location for the Welsh colony it was supposed the climate would be suitable because the mean temperature calculated for its latitude suggested it was similar to Wales. This proved to be fairly accurate, but the rainfall estimations were completely out; though it was not so much the amount of rain that was the problem so much as the disparity in temporal and areal distribution. Precipitation in the Chubut Valley turned out to be heavily seasonal: one year the total rainfall was only six inches, but its effects were devastating. The first Welsh crop in Patagonia was washed out. It was resown, equally unsuccessfully, in October, only for the colonists to discover that an arid summer followed the flooding. The Welsh were horribly unprepared for the climate and geography of their intended home, and had no skills to make use of what natural resources were available there. The ‘Celtic Eden’ of Patagonia had turned out a complete disaster.
Many left. The Argentine government provided support and supplies and some were encouraged to stay. In 1867 a Mrs Aaron Jenkins pioneered irrigation of crops using controlled amounts of floodwater, and eventually a series of channels were dug which allowed the whole Chubut Valley alluvial plain to be parcelled up into farmlands. By 1885 almost the whole valley had been successfully developed against the odds, prompting a party of twenty men set out westwards towards the mountains. After a 700km trek they reached the fertile, forested lands of the Andean foothills, which they named Cwn Hyfryd, the beautiful valley: what would later become the towns of Esquel and Trefelin.
The strong cultural ties maintained between this western phase of the Welsh Patagonian settlement and their neighbours in the Chubut Valley decided the outcome of the border disagreement between Chile and Argentina in this region: although the Welsh settlements fell in an area claimed by the Chileans, no offers of land and economic contacts from them could persuade the Welsh Patagonians to split off from the rest of the colony. However, by this time the colony had already failed in its endeavour to establish a politically and culturally independent Welsh settlement: interaction with their Argentine and Chilean neighbours meant that Welsh was no longer the sole official language of the province, and although many cultural traditions were upheld, education and day-to-day life became inevitably less Celtic and more international. By the beginning of the twentieth century migration to Patagonia had virtually ended. Improved economic conditions in Britain, flooding and lack of unclaimed land in the Chubut Valley, and political unrest across Europe meant that the last group of Welsh immigrants arrived in 1911. As happened with previous emigrations, the use of the Welsh language dwindled, and although it is still spoken in some parts of the province today, it is kept alive mostly as an effort to maintain a handle on their ancestors’ colonial links rather than as a communicative necessity.
In their eagerness to establish a Welsh colony, the project’s pioneers’ lack of planning and serious errors of judgement when cherry-picking geographical and political information presented to potential emigrants prior to their departure, meant that the first Welsh-Patagonians were too uninformed and ill-equipped to deal with the landscape to which they were sent. The project primarily failed at the outset when it became clear the region selected would never become a Welsh province with the independence that was originally hoped for as the so-called no-man’s-land in central Patagonia had theoretically been claimed already by Argentina. The Chubut Valley ended up being governed as a Spanish province rather than a Welsh one. Had the expedition been better planned, or had a different location been selected in the first place, then it is possible that the scheme may have worked, though in reality it would have been both ambitious and unrealistic to expect an autonomous colony to exist anywhere without interaction with its neighbouring cultures for trade purposes if nothing else. So far from their country of origin, with far fewer incoming Welshmen than was originally planned for, the colonial Welsh had no choice but to embrace the cultural diversion that was inevitable.
While this complex backstory is left unexplored in the film Patagonia the parallel stories presented to us explore some interesting aspects of the relationship between place and identity. While Cerys’ journey to her anscestors’ homeland with her initially disinterested young Argentine neighbour questions how the landscapes to which we feel connected affect our sense of identity, the relationship pressures Gwen hoped to escape are exacerbated by the isolation of being a stranger in a strange place. Alone with her partner, their interpersonal conflicts, and a Welsh-Patagonian guide, her journey comes to stand as a metaphor for the doomed colonial expeditions, whose combination of failures and limited successes itself calls into question the depth of connection between national and cultural identity and the importance of landscape association to our sense of place and belonging. Just as it is difficult to say whether either tale in the film ends happily or sadly, it is hard to know what to make of the Welsh-Patagonian colonial expedition. Evans’ film however, despite not a lot happening over two stories connected only by place, elicited an emotional response from its audience on a personal level, and prompted me to discover a conflicted chapter in the history of Celtic diaspora that has kept me thinking long since the credits rolled.
Patagonia (2010) dir. Marc Evans is available in DVD (trailer)
Patagonia: Crossing the Plain/Croesi’r Paith an account and photo-journal of actor Matthew Rhys’ journey following the trail of the original expedition by Welsh-Patagonians that discovered Cwn Hyfryd is published by Gomer Press ISBN 978-1848511972 (extract)