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On the 150th anniversary of the settlement of Welsh Patagonia in Argentina, a look back at the world’s “better land in the far South.”

July 28, 2015

Travel south in Argentina and the place names begin to change. The letters l, w, and y creep in alongside Spanish syllables: Puerto Madryn, Trelew, Trevelin, Gaiman. Vowels masquerade as consonants. This region of Patagonia, the Chubut province, is Welsh, settled 150 years ago by immigrants who wanted to escape England’s control of their small country. Today in the town of Gaiman, signs are written in Welsh and Spanish, and children can learn both languages in school.

I had taken a year of Welsh by the time I went to Patagonia in 2012. Those classes gave me only the barest grasp of a complicated language, in which sounds often mutate depending on the words that precede them. Even in Wales, especially in the southern part of the country, many people learn Welsh in school but don’t speak it otherwise, and my attempts at using Welsh in some parts of Wales had met with at least as much puzzlement as encouragement.

Patagonia, I thought, might be different: why would Welsh settlers have spent two months in 1865 sailing across the world in a former tea ship, sleeping on shelves nailed into the walls, if not to carve out a space for their language to flourish? They left a Wales in which children were forced to attend monolingual English schools even if they knew only Welsh. Before setting sail, the travelers sang about their hopes for their new home: Ni gawsom wlad sydd well/Yn y Deheudir pell,/Patagonia yw:/Cawn yno fyw mewn hedd,/Heb ofni brad na chledd,/A Chymro ar y sedd:/Boed mawl I Dduw. (“We have found a better land in the far South. It is Patagonia. We will live there in peace, without fear of treachery or war, and a Welshman on the throne. Praise be to God.”)

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A previous effort to create a Welsh colony in South America in 1850 had failed. This attempt did not, at first, go much more smoothly. The settlers arrived in the middle of the Patagonian winter and walked 40 miles before stopping in what they named the Camwy Valley to build mud cottages and storage huts. Eventually, they figured out a workable irrigation system and learned how to hunt. They published a handwritten Welsh-language newspaper once a month. The Argentine government formally granted them the land (minus the king the Welsh settlers had hoped to enthrone). Twenty years after their arrival, the community had a population of around 1,600. The area has only become more popular since Bruce Chatwin gave it a few pages in In Patagonia, his famous 1977 book about the region.

My guide drove me through the small brick houses of Gaiman and we stopped at a café where the proprietor, my guide’s friend Ana, spoke Welsh. My travel companions studied the menu while our guide and Ana chatted in Spanish and I pulled together some basic Welsh sentences from my classes. Bore da—“good morning.” Shwmae or Sut mae—“how are you?” Os gwelwch yn dda and diolch—“please” and “thank you.” I tried to picture the chart of mutations I memorized for Welsh class, the variations between northern and southern Welsh vocabulary, and decided that a basic attempt to hit the right words and stick to present tense would have to be enough.

I needn’t have worried. Ana was a Welsh student and teacher, excited to meet an American who had made any attempt to learn the language, so she answered my rusty attempts at conversation with patience. When I exhausted my remembered phrases, we talked about some of our favorite Welsh words. Mine included llyfrgell, the word for “library,” gwych, for “great” or “excellent,” a word I love because it sounds like the enthusiasm it means to convey, and hiraeth, an untranslatable word that refers to the longing Welsh people feel for a Wales they have never experienced.

In a sense, Welsh Patagonia was founded on a kind of hiraeth, a desire for a purer, more Welsh version of Wales. So perhaps it’s no surprise that Patagonia is where my fumbling attempts at the language—a few more Welsh words brought to the valley—found such a warm welcome.

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