More Utopians … New Wales in Patagonia

A FEATURE by Bob Glass

New Australia was only one fleeting example of what Richard Gott in Land Without Evil describes as

the polyglot collection of foreign visitors – Spanish conquistadores, Portugese slavers, French explorers, Swedish ethnologists, German engineers and anthropologists, … Italian traders … and a legion of scientists, botanists and naturalists …(who) have found themselves irresistibly drawn to this remote area of the globe. ( p 1).

Welsh of Patagonia.

Welsh of Patagonia at an eisteddfod

One such group of settlers, in which Tinteán readers may be interested because of their Gaelic, and eventually Australian connection, were the approximately one hundred and fifty men, women and children from Wales who set out from Liverpool on the 140 foot long, 447 tons sea clipper the Mimosa on 28 May 1865, 150 years ago this year, for the coast of northern Patagonia, arriving in New Bay (Golfo Nuevo)   on 28 July. This Welsh venture lasted much longer than New Australia, nearly 45 years, and this essay deals with some similarities and differences between New Wales and New Australia, and tells the story of how a large number of the Welsh eventually came to Australia. Indeed it is ironic that, in terms of sheer numbers, Australia gained more from the Welsh and other migration from Patagonia in the early twentieth century than it lost from the Laneites going to Paraguay.

  1. The Welsh Story

R Bryn Williams, in his encomium celebrating the centenary of the sailing of the Mimosa, commented that

It is doubtful that there has ever been anything like it in the history of any country. Here we have a number of ordinary people venturing to an unexplored part of the world, without certain means of livelihood , and into the midst of primitive Indians, with only their dreams to lead them on and their faith to sustain them (Gwladfa Patagonia: The Welsh Colony in Patagonia, 1865-1965, 1965, p 19)

In fact, emigration from Wales had increased significantly from the 1840s, partly for economic reasons (see below) but also because of the challenge to Welsh traditional culture represented by the spread of English institutions, particularly the Anglican church, into Wales at that time. Economic and cultural factors came together when the new British landlords raised the rents of Welsh farmers if they went to their own non-conformist chapels rather than to the Anglican church.

The organisers of the Welsh venture were a nonconformist minister Michael D Jones and Edwyn Cyrnig Roberts, a Welsh-born resident of the American State of Wisconsin. Jones had been active in efforts to establish several Welsh colonies in the United States, none of which was particularly successful, leading to his becoming disillusioned, an attitude Roberts shared. Jones in the 1850s tried to interest Welsh settlers in America in migrating to Patagonia, but his efforts were terminated by the outbreak of the American civil war. By 1861, however, Jones had managed to establish a Welsh Colonising Society in Liverpool England. After reading favourable reports on Patagonia, and especially the Chubut Valley, particularly from the explorer Admiral Robert Fitzroy (Moss, p.126), members of the Society travelled to Argentina, and attempted to negotiate an agreement with the Argentine government to allow a Welsh settlement in Patagonia, committing to sending some two to three thousand families to Patagonia during the following decade.   Undeterred by their failure to reach agreement – the Argentine Congress rejected the draft agreement by 21 votes to 5 (Moss, p 128), the men returned to Wales to recruit for the venture, ‘describing the Chubut area as a paradise’ (Michele Langfield and Peter Robert, p 5) and succeeded in recruiting 140 volunteers for the journey. A second petition to the Argentine government was more successful, though the government remained cautious, fearing an ‘English-led plot to colonise the country’


Patagonia. Credit Princess Bride Travel

A key motivator for Welsh migration was the preservation of Welsh culture, religion and language. Part of the original agreement negotiated by the Welsh settlers with the Argentine government provided that the Welsh could govern themselves, and teach their children Welsh language and culture in Welsh schools (Moss, p 127),  traditions which survive to this day among remaining descendants who will this year celebrate a sesqui-centenary. In the early years, this agreement was largely honoured, but, by the 1890s, the Argentine government was becoming concerned that the predominance of a single foreign community in a specific area could undermine national unity (Moss, p 133).

Before the Welsh party arrived in Patagonia, Edwyn Roberts and Lewis Jones went out to Argentina, to prepare for the arrival of the Mimosa, aiming to prepare a store of food, a supply of animals and build some form of shelter for the immigrants. When the Welsh party arrived in Chubut, however, they encountered a harsh reality: the venture had been very poorly planned. To quote Chris Moss,

No one had considered that the Welsh were arriving in the middle of winter, and that there would therefore be no prospect of a harvest for a whole year. The land was dry, cold and hard, and there was literally nothing to be done. .. There were no houses or people, no roads or tracks, and hardly any landmarks … (Moreover) There was no clear plan for travelling overland to the river valley – a journey of about forty miles. (Moss, p 130)

Moss quotes from a letter written by William Jones on 7 November 1865,

I have never been so disappointed by anything. The region is nothing like we read and heard about it before, and I must say that (name omitted) has told tremendous lies about the region.

The Welsh therefore moved further down the valley and established on 15 September 1865 the town of Rawson, named after the Argentine minister who had negotiated the earliest deals with them. Eventually, aided by British business people in Buenos Aires, the Argentine government began to provide assistance to the settlers, though some people left the colony, one reportedly saying that ‘ If God made the earth, the devil made Patagonia’ (Moss, p 133).

Gradually however, despite the major problem of a shortage of water in some years and floods in others, and the difficulties of moving produce, the Welsh community, helped by the local Tehuelche people who taught them how to hunt wild animals and to survive on the Patagonian pampas, began to succeed in growing crops, achieving self-sufficiency in the production of cheese, barley, wool and alfalfa. The Welsh became especially successful at growing wheat. This ‘economic triumph’ encouraged new Welsh migrants to Chubut (Langfield & Roberts, p 12),  with over 500 newcomers from Wales and 27 from New York arriving between 1874 and 1876.  After that according to Moss, there ‘was almost a continuous trickle of immigrants.’ To encourage the growth of the wheat industry, the Argentine government embarked on the construction of a railway between Trelew and Puerto Martyn for which project were recruited some 300 skilled Welsh tradesmen,  part of the largest shipload of Welsh to Chubut – 465 people – who arrived in July 1886 (Thomas, p 71). The Welsh settlers also began to explore other parts of Argentina. Welsh settlements were established in the Andes foothills, Cwm Hyfryd (Pleasant Valley) and “16 du Octubre’ (Langfield & Roberts, p xv). This momentum of settlement was broken, however, as the century turned. A succession of floods in 1899, 1900 and 1901 resulted in the loss of 800 houses, 8 chapels, 5 schools and 3 post offices in the Welsh communities.(Thomas, p 71). By the turn of the century, the Welsh in Patagonia numbered about 300 (Moss, p 137).

Patagonian Mountains. Credit Wilderness Travel

Patagonian Mountains. Credit Wilderness Travel

Despite their economic survival and success, Welsh nationalists were dismayed to find their culture once again threatened by a government that had once been so tolerant of their separatism. The Argentinian government began taking over the Welsh schools, making it increasingly difficult for the Welsh to maintain their separate identity, the raison d’être of their existence. Moreover, Argentina in the 1890s was going through an economic boom, which saw its GDP per capita increase from 51% of that of the US in 1870, to 63.6% in 1890 and 80.7 % in 1912, leading to considerable migration of European labour into the country, reducing the significance of the Welsh diaspora, and making the preservation of their culture more difficult. Welsh migration to Patagonia ceased by 1920 (Moss, p 137). The Welsh began to look to settle elsewhere.

  1. Comparing New Wales and New Australia

‘New Wales’ and ‘New Australia’ were the consequences of what might be described as ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors, some of which were common to both ventures. The common push factors were the difficult economic circumstances applying in Wales in the 1860s, and Australia in the 1890s. As Langfield and Roberts write of the Welsh situation

The Welsh Patagonians grew up in the economically depressed Wales of the 1840s and 1850s, facing population pressure, unemployment and lack of security. Taxation was high, the cost of living was escalating, wages were low and farmers were facing significant losses. The way of life of the independent peasants had been replaced in 1801 with landlord-tenant relationships, leading to animosity by the Welsh to their alien English landlords. Tolls were introduced, increasing the cost of transporting their goods to market’ (p 2).

Driving this situation were not only perceived assaults on language and culture but also the major changes occurring in the economic structure of Wales as a result of industrialisation:   ‘The nineteenth century booms in metal, slate and coal mining had a devastating effect on agricultural communities. Peasants were forced to abandon their homes to work in industrialised areas (see David Howell, pp 78-9, 96 and 165-75).  The growth of the mining industry led to increasing conflicts between mine owners and even the large land owners (see Ronald Rees, King Copper: South Walers and the the Copper Trade, 1584-1895, 2000), the latter increasingly out of touch with the Welsh language and traditions of the Welsh farmers (Gareth Elwyn Jones, Modern Wales, A History, c1485-1979, 1984, pp 153, 154,158).

Australia in the early 1890s, after a long period of economic prosperity originating in the gold rushes of the 1850s, experienced:

  • A severe downturn in public and private investment, largely because of the onset of recession in Britain in 1890, then the source of most investment funds for Australia, coupled with the fact that British investors were becoming less willing to invest overseas, ironically in the case of the Lane venture, because of losses sustained in South American countries ‘which had borrowed in Britain on a large and excessive scale’;
  • A major decline in the prices received for Australian exports (especially of wool) (p 320).
  • The collapse of the speculative boom in mining shares and land which had developed in Australia in the late 1880s, the latter the work of ‘unprincipled adventurers’. (see Earnest Boehm, Prosperity and Depression in Australia, 1887-1897, 1971, Ch 9).
William Lane, strike leader.

William Lane, strike leader.

The deteriorating economic conditions led to intensified conflict between employers and the nascent trade union movement, especially over the issue of the employment of non-union labour. As T A Coghlan puts it, whereas in the 1870s and most of the 1880s, relations between capital and labour were ‘fairly amicable’, from 1890, ‘there commenced a series of struggles, carried on with great bitterness, which extended over several years (see T A Coghlan, Labour and Industry in Australia, republished in 1969, vol III, p 1591). The first of these was the maritime strike from August to November 1890, followed by the Great Shearer’s strike in 1891, in which William Lane played a major role. In the context of ‘New Australia’, as Coghlan puts it:


Not even Lane’s magnetic personality could have obtained recruits so easily, had it not been for the great calamities which befell Australia in 1892-93. (p 1465)

New Australia and New Wales also experienced a common pull factor. In the case of the Australians, the Government of Paraguay passed a law in 1881 which authorised the government ‘to form agricultural colonies of its own and to cede public lands for colonization by private companies’ (Gavin Souter, p 42). In part the aim was to attract men to Paraguay to overcome the imbalance in sexual distribution of the local population arising from the fact that Paraguay had lost almost ninety percent of its male population in the Triple Alliance War in the 1860s, leaving, according to Ben Stubbs, ‘only 28,746 men to manage 106,254 unsatisfied women’ ( p 2). It was this law which formed the basis of the offer of 463,000 acres of land to the New Australians (Souter, p 45).

In the case of the Welsh, what Langfield and Roberts themselves describe as ‘powerful pull factors indeed’ are described in the following paragraph:

Interest in Patagonia in Wales and the United States as a suitable place for a Welsh colony coincided with efforts by the Argentine government to promote immigration, particularly British and German. The goal was to colonise land with European farmers and graziers, in order to civilise and develop the continent and consolidate claims to land also coveted by Chile. Argentine propaganda emphasised the great potential of the country for those with initiative. By 1890, free passages to Buenos Aires were being offered to settlers. Europeans were able to settle congruously and retain their own cultural heritage with restriction on residence, association, education, language or religion. (p 3)

  1. Welsh Patagonians: The Australian Connection

The Argentinian Government’s change in their education and language policy late in the late 1890s, which led the Welsh to look beyond Patagonia , coincided with major efforts by governments in Australia to attract people, especially those of British stock, to settle in rural areas. The Governments of Western Australia, New South Wales and Victoria and the newly formed Commonwealth, acting in its role as administrator of the Northern Territory, all embarked on  programs to attract disillusioned Welsh from Patagonia, often competing vigorously with each other to induce potential settlers to choose their area in preference to the others. Three such groups arrived in Australia between 1910 and 1912:

  • Four extended families went to Western Australia in 1910 and 1911 and settled at Moora, 175 kilometres   north of Perth;
  • Sixty seven people settled in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area near Leeton in 1912, on land ‘reserved for the Welsh of Chubut’;
  • Two hundred and twenty people, half of them of Spanish origin, but 28 Welsh, arrived in Darwin in 1912.

As with the Australians in Paraguay, and indeed the Welsh in Patagonia, these migrant groups all experienced tough times in their original place of settlement. Some of this was circumstantial: those settling in Western Australia arrived in the middle of ‘the most severe drought in the history of Western Australia’ (Langfield & Roberts, p.40). But the governments had also oversold the program: the land allocated to the Welsh in and around Leeton, for example, was of poor quality, leading many of the newcomers to protest vigorously that they had been misled: two Royal Commissions into the program agreed with them (for the details see Langfield and Roberts, pp 126-130). The Darwin arrivals found the tropical heat intolerable, and most ‘did not stay long’ (Langfield & Roberts p 229). All this despite several Welsh from Patagonia being sent from Patagonia to Australia in 1911 to ’spy out the land’(Langfield & Roberts p  37-39 and p 118). A further factor was the fact that many of the Welsh, and especially the Spanish in Darwin, did not speak English.

For many years, the Welsh communities in Western Australia and around Leeton succeeded in preserving their language and significant elements of their home culture (e.g., eisteddfoddau). Gradually, however, in the face of their economic challenges individual Welsh families and small groups moved to different parts of Australia.

In the long run, as with many of the Australians who stayed on in Paraguay (whose story is told by Anne Whitehead 1997), the Welsh, and indeed the Spanish, migrants from Patagonia, adapted to Australia and forged their own independent lives all over the country: indeed the major thrust of Langfield and Roberts’ book is to record the history of how the Welsh Patagonians adapted to their new circumstances, and largely became integrated within the general Australian community. But with this adaptation faded their utopian dreams of a strong Welsh language-speaking culture, just as the New Australians were forced to surrender their dream of a socialist democracy.

Key References:

Victor Bulmer-Thomas, The Economic History of Latin America Since Independence, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 3rd ed. 2014.

Richard Gott: Land Without Evil, Utopian Journeys Across the South American Watershed, London” Verso, 1993.

David Howell: Land and People in Nineteenth-Century Wales, London: Rutledge and Kegan Paul, 1977.

Michele Langfield and Peter Roberts: Welsh Patagonians: the Australian Connection, Darlinghurst: Crossing Press, 2005.

Chris Moss: Patagonia, A Cultural History, Oxford: OUP, 2008.

Gavin Souter: A Peculiar People, The Australians in Paraguay, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1968.

Ben Stubbs:  Ticket to Paradise, Sydney: Harper Collins (ABC Books), 2012.

Anne Whitehead: Paradise Mislaid: In Search of the Australian Tribe of Paraguay, St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1997.

R. Bryn Williams: Gwladfa Patagonia: The Welsh Colony in Patagonia, 1865-1965,Caerdydel : Gwasg Prifysgel Cymru, 1965.


Bob Glass is an economist and historian, who in September 2014 travelled to Nueva Australia with the Association for the Study of Australian Literature Veterans. This is part of a paper he gave to that group on Utopian communities in South America.


One thought on “More Utopians … New Wales in Patagonia

  1. It was interesting to read the deep study of Bob Glass of the Welsh colony in Patagonia. The well-organised mass of detail that has been collected and so well presented makes a fascinating story and this, coupled with our Australian experiment, makes the whole subject particularly relevant to Tintean readers. And my thanks to Tintean for making it quite clear who in fact wrote the article which is an improvement.. Peter Kiernan.

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