Welsh Emigrants Who Became Nation Builders; LEADER: Forced to Leave Their Homeland They Went to the New World in Search of Freedom and a Better Life but Often Found the Hardships Were Worse Than Those They Left Behind

Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales), February 23, 2002 | Go to article overview

Welsh Emigrants Who Became Nation Builders; LEADER: Forced to Leave Their Homeland They Went to the New World in Search of Freedom and a Better Life but Often Found the Hardships Were Worse Than Those They Left Behind


Byline: MARIO BASINI

FOR my family and thousands like it Wales was a haven, a place which offered them a chance of a fresh start and a better way of life. They came at the height of the great 19th Century industrial expansion which had turned Wales into an El Dorado for those in search of a new prosperity.

Some of the Italians who arrived here at the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th Century believed they would find the streets paved with gold.

They were quickly disillusioned.

Instead they found hard work, long hours and conditions that were frequently not much better than the harsh life of the farmers they had left behind in their native mountains.

Few made fortunes. But they did carve out a dignified life for themselves and the chance to make a valuable contribution to their new land.

The Italians were part of a river of immigration which contained Spaniards, Poles, Eastern European Jews and thousands more from across the border in England, who helped transform Welsh society, giving it a cosmopolitan breadth of experience.

However, it was by no means one-way traffic. For centuries, Wales had been sending many of its best and most enterprising citizens abroad to search out new opportunities and to add a fresh leavening of culture and imagination to the societies in which they found themselves.

These emigrants spread across the world seeking new lives in five continents.

They founded new communities, industries and townships. They contributed farmers, lawyers, priests, doctors, writers and explorers to their host societies. Some helped to found a nation which grew into the most powerful on the planet.

Many went to administer the British Empire, others to disseminate their religious beliefs to the inhabitants of that empire. In the process, they helped to create new cultures.

And some were taken abroad entirely against their will, as convicts and criminals to serve out their punishments and to help create new colonies.

Like my relatives, many left to escape poverty and to seek new and more prosperous ways of living. Others were prompted to leave their homeland to escape persecution, to throw off the yokes of regimes they found hostile and threatening.

They left in search of religious freedom, or in pursuit of a dream to found new homelands in which they could live their lives according to their beliefs.

The process of flight from danger and oppression began early. In the sixth Century AD, Britons speaking an early form of Welsh sought to escape the oppression of the invading Saxons by emigrating to the Western coast of what is now France.

There, in Brittany, they established a society which 1,500 years later still speaks a language close to Welsh and which continues to have strong ties with Wales.

Ever since the 16th Century, the new land of America had exercised a special fascination for the Welsh. The legend had grown that a Welsh prince, Madog ab Owain Gwynedd, had discovered the continent 300 years before Christopher Columbus.

Madog had, according to the legend, founded a tribe of Welsh-speaking Indians who still roamed the prairies. By the 17th Century an exodus of Welsh pioneers had begun to follow the path of the legendary prince in an attempt to discover his free-spirited descendants and to discover a little freedom of their own.

When the conformist English state began to fear the rise of dissent Protestant groups, they introduced harsh laws and penalties which punished those who belonged to those groups.

The Quakers, in particular, were perceived as representing a particular danger to the state. In 1662, a severe penal code was introduced to curb the activities of the sect.

The Quakers, who had put down deep roots in the Welsh-speaking communities of rural Wales, sought to live with the harshness of the new laws. …

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