PERSPECTIVE: In the Footsteps of Welsh Pioneers; Marking the BBC's Family History Series, Robert Bullard Meets a Woman from Shropshire Inquisitive about Her Grandparents' Travels to South America

The Birmingham Post (England), December 4, 2004 | Go to article overview

PERSPECTIVE: In the Footsteps of Welsh Pioneers; Marking the BBC's Family History Series, Robert Bullard Meets a Woman from Shropshire Inquisitive about Her Grandparents' Travels to South America


Byline: Robert Bullard

She is setting off to spend three weeks in Chubut Province, Patagonia, in search of more details about her ancestors.

'I want to know more about what it was like for people from North Wales to go and live in Argentina', she says.

I have so many questions', Rhiannon continues. 'Why did my grandparents go out there in the 1920s?' she asks. 'And how did it influence my father, who spent his childhood there?'

Rhiannon has an inquisitive mind. She is inquisitive about her family's adventure and inquisitive about the ups and downs of Wales's 20th century pioneers, whose history we talk over together.

It was in 1861 that a group of men from Bala, at the house of a nonconformist minister, Michael D Jones, threw up the idea of establishing a new 'promised land'.

Their reasons for escaping Wales were many: tough treatment from English landlords, concern about the gradual decline in Welsh customs and traditions, and frustration that nobody such as the church or government was doing anything about it.

'I remember those times in Wales', says Rhiannon, reading to me from one of the early settlers' diaries. 'Day after day we would feel the pressure of foreign cultures penetrating our homes.

'Our Welsh souls needed independence; to gather and sing out at our chapels . . . it was then that the idea of emigrating started to become strong.'

Although Welsh families were escaping to America, they quickly lost their language and culture when diluted among a larger population.

What was needed, the pioneers decided, was a brand new, prosperous Welsh nation.

Vancouver Island, in Canada, was their first choice, but gradually their reconnaissance for a suitable place led them to Patagonia.

Here the Argentine government were keen to colonise a vast unpopulated area that was in dispute with Chile and were willing to offer the settlers free land in return for their commitment to hoist the Argentine flag.

It was an offer too good to refuse and in May 1865, four years after the idea had been conceived, approximately 150 men, women and children - mostly from Birkenhead, Liverpool and Mountain Ash - set sail on the ship Mimosa from Liverpool, at a cost of pounds 48 pounds each.

But, with all the initial enthusiasm, the harshness of what was really a windy, flat and treeless desert was overlooked - as the settlers would later discover.

What is striking about the story, Rhiannon and I agree, is the settlers' resilience to the challenges they faced.

On arrival for example, it was quickly apparent that there was little fresh water, not much food and no building materials, so their first houses were carved into the cliffs where they had landed.

Not that the settlers had helped themselves mind you - with only one farmer among them they were not best equipped for cultivation.

But things improved after 1867, after they dug channels from the river to irrigate their crops.

This led to better harvests and opportunities for trading bread in exchange for meat with the native Indians, the Teheulche, who the settlers had earlier been fearful of and ignored.

Tentatively at least, the dream of 'Wladfa Gymreig', a Welsh community in Patagonia, was becoming a reality.

They called the first town they built, Trelew - which is Welsh for Lewis Town - Rhiannon explains, who will be travelling to Patagonia with a group of women from Shropshire and the Welsh Marches. …

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PERSPECTIVE: In the Footsteps of Welsh Pioneers; Marking the BBC's Family History Series, Robert Bullard Meets a Woman from Shropshire Inquisitive about Her Grandparents' Travels to South America
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