Jul 282016


On this date in 1865 Welsh colonists arrived at what is now Puerto Madryn in Chubut in Patagonia to found Y Wladfa (The Colony) in Argentina. In the 19th and early 20th century the Argentine government encouraged emigration from Europe to populate the country outside the Buenos Aires region to buttress claims to Patagonia against Chile https://www.bookofdaystales.com/chile-argentina/. Between 1856 and 1875, 34 settlements of immigrants of various nationalities were established in Santa Fe and Entre Ríos. In addition to the main Welsh colony in Chubut, a smaller colony was set up in Santa Fe by 44 Welsh people who left Chubut, and another group settled at Coronel Suárez in southern Buenos Aires Province. In the early 21st century, according to the census, around 50,000 Patagonians claim some Welsh descent. The Welsh-Argentine community lives primarily in Gaiman, Trelew and Trevelin. Chubut estimates the current number of Patagonian Welsh speakers to be about 1,500, possibly more.


The idea of a Welsh colony in South America was put forward by Professor Michael D. Jones, a Welsh nationalist non-conformist preacher based in Bala who had called for a new “little Wales beyond Wales”. He spent some years in the United States, where he observed that Welsh immigrants assimilated very quickly compared with other peoples and often lost much of their Welsh identity including their language. He, therefore, proposed setting up a Welsh-speaking colony away from the influence of the English language. He recruited settlers and provided financing. Australia, New Zealand and even Palestine were considered, but Patagonia was chosen for its isolation and the Argentines’ offer of 100 square miles (260 km²) of land along the Chubut River in exchange for settling the still unsettled land of Patagonia for Argentina.


Towards the end of 1862, Captain Love Jones-Parry and Lewis Jones (after whom Trelew was named) left for Patagonia to decide whether it was a suitable area for Welsh emigrants. They first visited Buenos Aires where they held discussions with the Interior Minister Guillermo Rawson then, having come to an agreement, headed south. They reached Patagonia in a small ship named the Candelaria, and were driven by a storm into a bay which they named “Porth Madryn” after Jones-Parry’s estate in Wales. The town which grew near the spot where they landed is now named Puerto Madryn. On their return to Wales they declared the area to be very suitable for colonization.

The permanent European settlement of the Chubut Valley and surrounding areas began on 28 July 1865 when 153 Welsh settlers arrived from Liverpool aboard the converted tea-clipper Mimosa. The Mimosa had cost £2,500 to hire for the voyage and convert to passenger use, and the fare from Liverpool to Patagonia was £12 for adults and £6 for children, although anyone willing to travel was taken on the journey regardless of ability to pay. The Mimosa settlers, including tailors, cobblers, carpenters, brickmakers, and miners, comprised 56 married adults, 33 single or widowed men, 12 single women (primarily sisters or servants of married immigrants), and 52 children. The majority (92) were from the South Wales Coalfield and English urban centers. There were few farmers, which was rather unfortunate particularly when they discovered that the attractions of the area had been oversold and they had landed in an arid semi-desert with little food; they had been told that the area was like lowland Wales. At the coast there was little drinking water, and the group embarked on a walk across the parched plain with a single wheelbarrow to carry their belongings. Some died and a baby, Mary Humphries, was born on the march. John Williams was the only colonist with any form of rudimentary medical skill.

Once they reached the valley of the Chubut River, their first settlement was a small fortress on the site which later became the town of Rawson, now the capital of Chubut province. This was referred to as Yr Hen Amddiffynfa (The Old Fortress). The first houses, constructed from earth, were washed away by a flash flood in 1865, and new houses of superior quality were built to replace them. The floods also washed away crops of potatoes and maize. The rainfall in the area was much less than the colonists had been led to expect, leading to crop failures.


The settlers first made contact with the local Tehuelche people almost a year after their arrival. After some difficult early years of suspicion and some violence, the Tehuelche people established cordial relationships with the Welsh and helped the settlement survive the early food shortages. The settlers, led by Aaron Jenkins (whose wife Rachel was the first to bring up the idea of systematic use of irrigation canals), soon established Argentina’s first irrigation system based on the Chubut River (in Welsh, Afon Camwy, “winding river”), irrigating an area three or four miles (five or six km) to each side of the 50-mile (80 km)-long stretch of river and creating Argentina’s most fertile wheat lands. Initially the settlers were self-governing, with all men and women of 18 years of age or over having the right to vote. By 1885 wheat production had reached 6,000 tons, with wheat produced by the colony winning the gold medal at international expositions at Paris and Chicago.

The mouth of the River Chubut was difficult to navigate, being shallow and with shifting sandbanks, and it was decided that a railway was required to connect the Lower Chubut valley to Puerto Madryn (originally Porth Madryn) on the Golfo Nuevo on the southern side of the Valdes Peninsula. Lewis Jones was the driving force, and in 1884 the Argentine Congress authorized the construction of a railway, the Ferrocarril Central del Chubut, by Lewis Jones y Cia. Raising funds for the project locally proved difficult, so Lewis Jones went to the United Kingdom to seek funds, where he enlisted the assistance of Asahel P. Bell, an engineer. Work on the railway began in 1886, helped by the arrival of another 465 Welsh settlers on the steamer Vesta. The town which grew at the railhead was named Trelew (Town of Lew) in honor of Lewis Jones. The town grew rapidly and in 1888 became the headquarters of the “Compañía Mercantil del Chubut” (Chubut Trading Company).


By the mid-1880s most of the good agricultural land in the Lower Chubut valley had been claimed, and the colonists mounted a number of expeditions to explore other parts of Patagonia to seek more cultivable land. In 1885 the Welsh asked the governor of Chubut, Luis Jorge Fontana, for permission to arrange an expedition to explore the Andean part of Chubut. Fontana decided to accompany the expedition in person. By the end of November 1885 they had reached a fertile area which the Welsh named “Cwm Hyfryd” (Pleasant Valley). By 1888, this site at the foot of the Andes had become another Welsh settlement, named in Spanish “Colonia 16 de Octubre”. As the population grew here, the towns of Esquel and Trevelin were founded.

This area became part of the border dispute between Argentina and Chile. Argentina and Chile agreed that the United Kingdom should act as arbitrator, and the views of the Welsh settlers were canvassed. In 1902, despite an offer of a league of land per family from Chile, they voted to remain in Argentina.

Serious damage was caused by floods in the 1890s and 1900s, which devastated Rawson and to a lesser extent Gaiman, though Trelew was not affected. There was also disagreement between the settlers and the Argentine government, which introduced conscription and insisted on males of military age drilling on Sundays. This ran counter to the Sabbatarian principles of the settlers and caused much ill-feeling, though the matter was eventually resolved by the intervention of the Argentine president Julio Argentino Roca. These factors, and a lack of unclaimed farmable land, caused 234 people to leave for Liverpool aboard the Orissa on 14 May 1902, with 208 of them subsequently travelling to Canada, arriving at Saltcoats, Saskatchewan in late June, although some of these families later returned to Chubut. Some other settlers moved to Rio Negro Province in Argentina. Many of those who left Chubut were late arrivals who had failed to obtain land of their own, and they were replaced by more immigrants from Wales. By the end of the 19th century there were about 4,000 people of Welsh descent living in Chubut. The last substantial migration from Wales took place shortly before World War I, which put a halt to further immigration. Approximately 1,000 Welsh immigrants arrived in Patagonia between 1886 and 1911; on the basis of this and other statistics, Glyn Williams estimated that perhaps no more than 2,300 Welsh people ever migrated directly to Patagonia.


In time the colony proved remarkably successful, although as immigration to the area after 1914 was mainly from Italy and other southern European countries, the Welsh gradually became a minority. As well as the irrigation system, the creation of a Co-operative Society (Compañía Mercantil de Chubut) was crucial. The Society traded on the settlers’ behalf in Buenos Aires and acted as a bank with 14 branches. The strong chapel-based society was also important, with an emphasis on mutual help and support, social activities and insurance schemes. However, the Co-operative Society collapsed in the Great Depression of the 1930s, and many lost their savings.

The Welsh have left their mark on the landscape, with windmills and chapels across the province, including the distinctive wood and corrugated zinc Capel Salem and Trelew’s Salon San David, an attempt to reproduce St David’s Cathedral, Pembrokeshire. Many settlements along the valley bear Welsh names.


Over the years use of the Welsh language declined, and there was comparatively little contact between Wales and Chubut for many years after 1914. I don’t believe that there are many, if any, native Welsh speakers left in the region, but between 1500 and 5000 claim some fluency. Centenary celebrations in 1965 began increased contact with Wales and started a revival of language and culture. Since then a few teachers travel from Wales to assist in keeping the language alive, and some locals take an interest in learning the language in order to hold on to or learn about their Welsh roots.


The links between Chubut and Wales are slender, but enduring.  Perhaps mostly because of tourism, there are signs of “Welshness” in the region, including flags and street signs, weekly chapel, occasional displays of folk dance in costume, and “Welsh” tea shops. It’s all superficial, of course. The locals speak Patagonian Spanish in everyday life, and are indistinguishable from other Argentinos of European heritage, except that you will on occasion hear Welsh spoken. The dance and costume are no more “authentic” than their Welsh counterparts – invented in a supposed revival in the 1960s, during a wave of nationalist fervor. The tea shops are tourist traps but they maintain vestiges of Welsh tradition. The following is a good video about one such tea shop that highlights torta negra.

You’ll note that the owner is descended from Welsh immigrants and is proud of the fact. But her first language is Spanish. The torta negra she describes, though, as well as tea time, are certainly Welsh enough as you can see. She mentions that Argentinos are used to drinking yerba mate in the afternoon, so tea time is unusual for them, and a treat if they visit as tourists.


It’s often claimed that torta negra or torta galega is a version of Welsh bara brith (tea loaf), but it looks like a standard British fruit cake to me – except for the overnight marinating of the fruits in tea. Original settlers must have used whatever was locally available in the way of nuts and fruits, but now use conventional ingredients. Here’s a basic recipe.


Torta Negra


For the Cake

1 cup chopped mixed nuts (walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts)
½ cup raisins
½ cup sultanas (golden raisins)
½ cup chopped candied fruit peel
1 cup dark rum
1 cup butter, softened
1 ¼ cup dark brown sugar
5 eggs, separated
2 tbsp molasses
3 tbsp honey
1 tbsp cinnamon
1 tbsp mixed spice (cloves, nutmeg, allspice)
2 tsp baking powder
2 ½ cups flour

For the Icing

1 ½ cups icing sugar
4 tbsp fresh orange juice


Soak the nuts, raisins, and candied fruit in the rum overnight. Drain the nuts and fruit and reserve the rum.

Preheat the oven to 350° F.

Cream the butter with the brown sugar.

Gradually beat in the five egg yolks, molasses, honey, and reserved rum.

Sift the flour with the cinnamon, mixed spice, and baking powder and add to the batter. Mix well. Stir in the nuts, raisins, and fruit.

In a separate, clean bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form. Fold the egg whites gently into the batter.

Pour the batter into a 9 x 5 inch bread pan, or 10 inch diameter cake pan.

Bake for 45 minutes. A toothpick inserted in the center should come out clean.

To make the icing, place 1 ½ cups powdered sugar in a bowl. Whisk in the orange juice 1 tablespoon at a time, until the desired consistency is reached. The icing should be slightly runny.

Drizzle the icing over the top of the cake. Some cooks decorate the icing with extra fruit and nuts.