In the mid-nineteenth century, the Welsh language was being discouraged by the English-speaking government. This perception together with religious non-conformity, led to a movement to establish a Welsh colony where language, customs and beliefs could be preserved. The Welsh wanted a new place to live where they could worship and keep their language and traditions alive without the influences of an English government.
In 1865, the first group of Welsh migrants departed Liverpool bound on a quest for a ‘utopian’ existence in southern Argentina – Patagonia.
The suggestion that Patagonia would be a suitable place to emigrate was formed by the Welsh Colonial Society (Cymdeithas Drefedigol Gymreig) in Camptonville, California in 1856. This society sent a circular letter to Welsh newspapers appealing for support towards the idea and as a result, similar societies were formed in Wales. One of the societies was formed in Bala by Reverend Michael Daniel Jones.
Michael Daniel Jones born in 1822 in Llanuwchllyn, Bala, Merionethshire, North Wales was a Congregational Minister and Principal of a College in Bala. He had lived in America in the 1840s and discovered that many migrants lost their language when living away from their homeland. He believed that the best way to keep language and culture intact was to emigrate as part of a large group and go to a country where English was not the dominant language. A strong-willed Welsh man with passionate beliefs in maintaining Welsh culture and language he became a strong ally for the emigration movement and was instrumental in providing financial support for the venture.
In 1861 at a meeting at Bodiwan, his family home in Bala, a group of men discussed the project, and a Welsh emigration committee was founded to advertise and publicise the Patagonian scheme. A Colony Handbook was produced which promised one hundred acres of land to each family complete with five horses, ten cows, twenty sheep and several fruit trees. Families were told only to take bedding and household items and that no additional clothing would be necessary as the climate in Patagonia was similar to Wales. Many felt it to be a golden opportunity for a better life.
On 28 May 1865, 153 Welsh migrants sailed from Liverpool to Nuevo Bay, Patagonia on a tea clipper called The Mimosa chartered for the journey and carrying a surgeon and a purser especially hired for the journey. Michael Daniel Jones and his wife Anne stood at the quayside and watched as the boat set sail. As The Mimosa pulled away from the English shore one of the leaders sang:
“Creator of the Earth, Ruler of the Universe and our Mighty Lord, Guard us always; be the protecting strength of the Welsh across the world, on land or sea. We have found a better land in a distant southern place, Patagonia. We shall live there, in peace and with no fear of betrayal or the sword, And there the Welshman shall be king. God be praised”.
The journey was not an easy one for the passengers with strong winds and waves before they left British coastal waters. More storms caught the boat near Brazil. There were two births, four deaths and a marriage on the voyage. On 28 July 1865 the ship finally docked at New Bay which was later renamed Puerto Madryn.
July is the South American winter. Icy winds from the Antarctic paralysed the migrants on the beach and the lack of promised provisions and shelter led to much disillusionment and threatened their ability to survive. Many migrants felt they had been sold a false prospectus of the colony and several sent petitions to the Governor of the Falkland Islands asking for assistance. The difficulties experienced by the migrants reached the British newspapers in 1866 which described the migration as a terrible calamity.
Despite a difficult beginning, by 1874 the colony had grown to a population of 274. In 1882 Michael Daniel Jones visited Patagonia for the first time and was universally hailed as the saviour of the Welsh nationhood. Both his sons Llwyd ap Iwan and Mihangel ap Iwan emigrated to Patagonia. Llwyd ap Iwan married and in 1901 he and his wife visited Wales and stayed at Bodiwan, Bala, with their three children. Two were born in Patagonia and the youngest in Buenos Aires. While Llwyd and his wife were bilingual in Welsh and English, their children only spoke Welsh. The descendants of Michael Daniel Jones were free from the English language as had been hoped.
The descendants of the first settlers continue to live in Patagonia today and although many continue to speak Welsh they are bilingual with Spanish as their second language. The quest of their ancestors to find a new home had succeeded.
Written by Kathryn Burtinshaw