A 'Little Five-Foot-Five' Nation's Impact on the World; WELSH HISTORY MONTH Chris Evans, Head of History Research Wales, Gives His Introduction to Welsh History Month Which Is in Association with the National Trust, CADW, the National Museum of Wales and the National Library of Wales

Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales), October 3, 2015 | Go to article overview

A 'Little Five-Foot-Five' Nation's Impact on the World; WELSH HISTORY MONTH Chris Evans, Head of History Research Wales, Gives His Introduction to Welsh History Month Which Is in Association with the National Trust, CADW, the National Museum of Wales and the National Library of Wales


WHAT difference has Wales made to the world? Not much, surely? Wales after all is a very small place with not many people. But being small, being one of what Lloyd George called "the little five-foot-five nations" of the world, need not mean insignificance.

After all, Portugal is a small nation on Europe's margins but in the 15th century Portuguese navigators played a world-changing role in opening up the Atlantic Ocean. It was Portuguese seafarers who edged down the coast of Africa in the 1400s and who were finally able to swing east into the Indian Ocean, inaugurating (from a European perspective) the modern global era.

Fifteenth-century Portugal, with little more than one million inhabitants, had a moment of "world-historical" importance. A similar claim can be made for Wales.

It had its own world-historical moment in the 19th century when the Welsh model of industrialisation - coal-burning, sulphurous and clanking - had a global impact. But that's not to say that things in Wales before 1750 hold no interest; or that events since 1914 aren't worth attending to.

On the contrary, Wales has always produced people who can captivate the imagination, ideas that can stir the passions, or social movements that demand our notice.

The contributors to Welsh History Month 2015 can testify to that. The oldest of their subjects is St Armel, a sixth-century monk who fled Wales to spend most of his life in Brittany. The newest subjects are flourishing today in the form of Welsh actors such as Ioan Gruffudd.

Our theme is the contribution that Wales has made to the wider world: Welsh people, Welsh things and Welsh ideas (or ideas that were cast into a distinctive form in Wales).

WELSH THINGS In the 19th century Wales was torn up in pursuit of mineral wealth. Materials that were wrenched from the ground or smelted in Wales became articles that circulated globally: coal, slate, iron, and copper.

There were few things that could match the global reach of Welsh coal in the Victorian Age. The famous steam coal of South Wales, which was prized for its exceptional heat-raising powers, was much sought-after by steam-ship operators.

When steam navigation took off in the middle decades of the 19th century the demand for Welsh coal rose in tandem. Supplying coal bunkers worldwide became a major business, one conducted by firms such as Cory Brothers of Cardiff. At the start of the 20th century Cory Brothers had seven depots in Brazil alone.

Alongside the civilian market was the naval. It was an age when the Royal Navy patrolled every ocean, but if the navy was to be effective it needed huge quantities of coal to be bunkered at strategic locations.

Some of the naval depots were on British colonial territory, like Vancouver; other depots were maintained on foreign soil, like the one at Valparaiso. Some, like Ascension Island, a volcanic speck in the South Atlantic, were dauntingly remote. Welsh steam coal went everywhere. It was the very stuff of what the great historian Gwyn A Williams called "Imperial Wales".

Welsh men and women travelled far beyond Wales: sometimes as pilgrims or preachers, sometimes as soldiers, sometimes as political exiles, but most times as economic migrants in search of wealth or at least prosperity. In the 19th century they went in considerable numbers.

We are apt to overplay Patagonia, the subject of a good deal of starry-eyed commemoration in recent months. In reality, the Patagonian adventure was the work of a few oddballs who are irrelevant to the history of emigration from Wales and even more irrelevant to the history of immigration into Argentina.

We give a lot of attention to a tiny number of people who decided to turn their backs on the modern world. We can admire their courage and tenacity but would we not be better off paying heed to the tens of thousands of Welsh men and women who helped create the modern world, often in circumstances that were just as taxing as those encountered in Patagonia? …

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A 'Little Five-Foot-Five' Nation's Impact on the World; WELSH HISTORY MONTH Chris Evans, Head of History Research Wales, Gives His Introduction to Welsh History Month Which Is in Association with the National Trust, CADW, the National Museum of Wales and the National Library of Wales
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