Visit theallusionist.org/survival1 to listen to and read more about this episode.
This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, smash a bottle of champagne on language’s bow.
Today’s episode is a tale of epic voyages, of scrabbling for survival, and fruit loaf. Before that, I just want to remind you to make your own less epic journey to theallusionist.org/events to get tickets for Radiotopia’s Eastern USA tour in May, plus my live Allusionists in Australia in June, and also three live Bugle shows that my brother Andy and I are doing in May in San Francisco, Portland and Seattle. Because while it’s plenty fun to listen to podcasts alone in a room - and make them alone in a room - it can be even more fun to leave the room, go to a bigger room with other podfans in it, and everyone have a jolly nice time communally for a bit. All the gig dates and links to tickets are at theallusionist.org/events.
On with the show.
It’s Friday night. I’m in a church hall in the small town of Gaiman in Argentina, about 1200km south of Buenos Aires, watching a concert in which locals are singing songs in Welsh. Three thoughts are rotating in my mind:
1. These people are REALLY good singers;
2. If I die here, people are going to think, “What on earth was she was doing in a church hall in a tiny town in rural Argentina?”
3. We are 12,000 km from Wales. The Welsh language is not widespread. Why are there people speaking Welsh in Argentina?
In late May 1865, the Mimosa, a converted tea clipper, set sail from Liverpool carrying around 155 Welsh passengers bound for Patagonia, the southerly region of South America. Most knew they would never see Wales again. Not all of them survived the voyage, although a couple of babies were born during it.
CLARE VAUGHAN: And 155ish people arrived at Madryn after two months at sea with the idea of forming a community where they would be able to practice their own language, their own religion, and they would actually be able to live in freedom,
HZ: This is Clare Vaughan, who is the teaching coordinator for the Welsh language project in Chubut province, the region of Patagonia in which the Welsh settled. The province stretches the width of Argentina. In 2005, Clare went out there to teach Welsh for a year - and she’s still there 13 years later. But her big move to Argentina was rather easier than the journey undertaken by the passengers on the Mimosa, who landed at what is now the town of Puerto Madryn on 28 July 1865.
CLARE VAUGHAN: Which is midwinter here, with a freezing wind coming off the sea, and I just think, why did they stay in the first place?
HZ: Puerto Madryn has a big sandy beach and whale-watching tours and a lot of chocolate shops. Now. But not back in 1865. Forget chocolate shops, there weren’t even any permanent settlements in the province at the time. It was hard living there - it took the Welsh settlers a while to find fresh water; their sheep ran away; and their crops didn’t thrive in the dry climate until several years later, they irrigated the Chubut River Valley. Did they wait around for the Mimosa to pick them up and take them back?
CLARE VAUGHAN: But of course, for many of them, that would have been their life savings that they'd invested in this in this trip; and I think how bad conditions must have been in Wales for them to actually give it all up in the first place and consider a two month voyage to the unknown.
HZ: And by many accounts, conditions in Wales were pretty bad in the mid-19th century.
CLARE VAUGHAN: In Wales, the situation was very very complicated, and a lot of people were living tied to the other people's land; they didn't have their own land. And if you didn't go to the Anglican Church, you went to the chapels, you were second class; and so on. So there were lots of things - and also these attitudes towards the language.
HZ: The Welsh language, which is one of the oldest languages in Europe, had been struggling against the encroachment of English for hundreds of years. In the 13th century, Wales had been annexed by the English king Edward I, and Welsh power was further depleted in 1530s, when King Henry VIII passed various acts decreeing that Wales would be ruled by the English parliament, anyone using the Welsh language could not serve in public office, and the only language that could be used in the courts of Wales was to be English. One thing that contributes to the decline of a language is when another language is the language of power, so if you want to get ahead, or at least not be disadvantaged, you tend to ditch the minority language. Add to that the demographic shifts in the 19th century as lot of English people had moved in following the industrial revolution; and although in the middle of the 19th century at least 75% of the population of Wales still spoke Welsh, there were measures to repress the language in schools.
CLARE VAUGHAN: Wales during the 19th century had a terrible thing that happened with schools, which was Blad y Llyfrau Gleision - the Blue Books.
HZ: The Treason of the Blue Books, as it is known, was a parliamentary report from 1847 into the state of education and morals in Wales. It was scathing about the Welsh language, calling it “a vast drawback to Wales, and a manifold barrier to the moral progress and commercial prosperity of the people. It is not easy to overestimate its evil effects.” Note that the commissioners who had visited Welsh schools to assess them for the report couldn’t speak Welsh.
CLARE VAUGHAN: The English inspectors went into schools and found that the children couldn't answer their questions, and so learning Welsh made you an idiot, so you had to learn English. And that was just typical of the time. But there was a horrible thing called the Welsh Not, where you were punished for speaking Welsh.
HZ: The Welsh Not was a plaque or stick that you had to carry around at school if you were caught speaking Welsh. When another child spoke Welsh, you would hand on the Welsh Not to them; and whoever was still holding the Welsh Not at the end of lessons received a punishment. This wasn’t official government policy, but it was quite widespread in schools in Wales in the second half of the 19th century, and possibly even into the 20th. The Welsh language was under attack.
CLARE VAUGHAN: And so there was a movement led by Michael D. Jones and other people who invested their own money to see this get off the ground.
HZ: Michael D. Jones was a nonconformist preacher and staunch nationalist, and he was one of the people spearheading the idea that Welsh people should form a colony somewhere that the language and culture would be left alone. Welsh people had migrated and tried to form communities in countries including Canada and the USA, but when Michael D. Jones spent a couple of years preaching in Cincinnati, Ohio, he was displeased to find that these Welsh migrants were speaking English to try to assimilate into their new environs and to get jobs.
CLARE VAUGHAN: So instead of being able to keep the language, the language very soon disappears and English became a common language. So they felt that by coming here to Patagonia they would be on their own, and that was absolutely what happened.
HZ: No one's going to bother them there.
CLARE VAUGHAN: Well, absolutely. It was far enough away geographically for them not to be bothered; and they knew that there weren't other communities there like in North America. There was a pamphlet written by a person called Hugh Hughes, and he described the climate, the agreeable climate in Patagonia - well it was obvious that he'd never been here.
HZ: Hugh Hughes’s 1862 pamphlet makes an impassioned case for the Welsh escaping English dominance by migrating to Patagonia, but a lot of the references he quoted about the glorious lands that awaited them there - well, he made them up.
One selling point for going to Patagonia was that the Argentine government had come to an agreement with Michael D. Jones to let the Welsh have some land.
CLARE VAUGHAN: Because of the deals with the government and the fact that they they kind of offered them the land with very few ties, because the Argentine government, let's be honest, they wanted to populate Patagonia because at that time everything south of Buenos Aires, south of the Rio Colorado, was Patagonia, and it hadn't been defined who it belonged to. And so actually getting people in who were going to call themselves Argentine citizens, raising the Argentinian flag, they were going to put their claim on the land. So the Welsh in a way were a kind of an unwitting pawn in that. I don't think they realized the extent of the government's intentions.
HZ: The government’s intentions being to tell Chile to SUCK IT. It’s Argentina’s land now, get back on your side of the Andes!
At the time, there wasn’t much interest from other parties in Patagonia. The Spanish and English who had settled elsewhere in Argentina weren’t as keen on the remote and arid Chubut province. The indigenous Tehuelche had been living nomadically on that land for 15,000 years, but apparently they were very welcoming and helpful to the new Welsh arrivals, teaching them how to hunt and live in that climate - possibly the friendship was sweetened by the Argentine government paying the indigenous peoples not to attack settlers. For 50 years after the Mimosa first landed, there were a few more influxes of Welsh immigrants, and as well as their cluster of communities in the Lower Chubut Valley near the Atlantic coast, they formed another handful of towns 700km away in the Andes. In between - prairie. In total, around 2,300 made the journey from Wales. And even after they reproduced, Chubut wasn’t exactly overcrowded.
CLARE VAUGHAN: And so the isolation carried on until well into the 20th century. And so Welsh was the language. And you hear stories about some of the indigenous people who worked on the Welsh farms: they would learn Welsh because that was the language that they heard. People who are now in their 80s were quite possibly born and bred speaking Welsh, and so their communities were Welsh; they would marry people who spoke Welsh. And so it's incredible that during all that time the language has been kept in South America.
HZ: And Welsh culture too. Walking around the town of Gaiman, Welsh music ringing from the church hall, you’ll see plenty of Welsh dragons on signs and flags. Pop into a tea house for a glorious spread of bara brith and Welsh cakes, and the walls might be covered with Welsh love spoons, dolls in traditional Welsh costume, and tea towels depicting Welsh castles. (Oh my god, that’s the exact same tea towel I’ve got from Harlech Castle!) And in the street names that commemorate some of the settlers, you see a singular combination of Welsh and Spanish.
FABIO GONZALEZ: In Gaiman, we have a street that is Miguel Jones, after Michael D. Jones. It’s an important street. And this other, the street that crosses the river, the street of the bridge is 'Juan C. Evans' - in English that would be 'John C. Evans’. And the library, the popular library here in Gaiman, is 'Ricardo Jota Berwin'. ‘Ricardo’ is ‘Richard’, he was Richard Jones Berwin - ‘jota’ is J. ‘Ricardo Jota Berwin’.
HZ: This is Fabio Gonzalez, who runs the museum full of Welsh Patagonian artefacts in Gaiman’s former station house. He pointed out old charts of the Lower Chubut Valley that showed how the land was divided up between people with names like Guillermo Lloyd, Juan Enrique Jones, Roberto Roberts. Spanish in the front, Welsh in the back.
FABIO GONZALEZ: The surnames in Argentina: they kept the surnames but they translated the first names. Argentina at some point, I don't know when exactly, passed a law that would make it compulsory to use first names in a way that was readable in Spanish. So you can use the name David - David in English - because it's the same, you pronounce it ‘Davide’. Richard would be ‘Ricardo’ in Spanish. Here in Chubut, they were still using their first name but like officially - for example, there is a man that is well known, Lewis Jones; in many Buenos Aires government records it would appear ‘Luis Jones’.
HZ: Lewis Jones was one of the instigators of the Welsh settlement in Patagonia. L E W I S in Welsh; L U I S in Spanish.
HZ: Given the distance between Wales and Patagonia, and the different cultures influences in each place, how much have their versions of Welsh diverged?
CLARE VAUGHAN: The teacher we have in the Andes now has been here three weeks and he said sometimes he forgets he's in South America because he's surrounded by people who speak Welsh. It's only when he realizes that their accent is more Spanish, it has a little Spanish tinge to it. In English and in Welsh we have very hard consonants, and here maybe with the Spanish influence then not quite so clear, they're a little bit more fuzzy. But yes,people like to think that the Welsh here is kind of preserved in aspic from the 1860s. I wouldn't say that that is the case. But what is interesting is that certain words that they use here are in English and some of the older ladies, you will have an argument with them about the word for peaches, which in Welsh now we say ‘eirinen wlanog’, but they will say 'peaches'; and of course that's what their parents brought with them from Wales, because at that time the influence of English and the education in English was so great that there were lots of words that they wouldn't realise are English. Also things like the sentence structure sometimes comes out a little bit like the Spanish in the order of things, and they translate like we do in Welsh - we're terrible for translating literally from English. So here, instead of saying ‘dewch i mewn’ which means ‘come in’, they will say ‘pasiwch’, and pasiwch is from the Spanish 'pasar' which is to come in, to pass through the door, which we would never say in Wales. So there are those kind of things which are absolutely unique and very quirky and very picturesque.
HZ: And there are some phonetic challenges.
FABIO GONZALEZ: The problem is with the <Welsh ll sound>.
HZ: That’s the pronunciation of the double L you see in Welsh words.
FABIO GONZALEZ: Like in ‘Lllanelli’. This is not pronounced ‘Llanelli’, they just say ‘lan-ell-ee’ or whatever. They cannot pronounce it.
HZ: In the first half of the 20th century, the Welsh language was on the decline in both Wales and Chubut. In the 1911 census, less than half of the population of Wales reported being able to speak it, and that proportion shrank further over the next few decades. Welsh wasn’t being taught in schools and English had asserted itself as the language of business and authority - and the hundreds of years of stigmatisation of Welsh had left deep scars.
Meanwhile, in Patagonia, the Welsh communities weren’t thriving either. Around the turn of the 20th century, devastating floods in the Lower Chubut Valley sent hundreds back to Britain, or to try their luck in Canada or Australia. In 1911 the last shipload of Welsh immigrants arrived in Chubut; after that, the Welsh connection weakened, particularly as other people, mostly immigrants from mainland European countries, were now moving to the region that the Welsh settlers and their descendents had had almost to themselves for fifty years. HAving left them alone for that time, the Argentinian government now asserted direct rule over Chubut, and decreed that Spanish should be the official language; so Welsh could no longer be taught in schools. And as an ever smaller proportion of the population of Patagonia was of Welsh descent, Welsh was being used less in the home; the language began to dwindle.
LUNED GONZALEZ: It is very sad, very sad; because sometimes people stopped speaking Welsh to their children because of the pressure of the school, that said, "No, you have to speak Spanish." I know even of cases where children were not promoted from one class to the other because of their Welsh accent - intelligent children I am saying now, I tell you, it was exceptional, but things like that happened.
HZ: I’m in the pub in Gaiman with Luned Gonzalez, who is the great-granddaughter of Michael D. Jones, the settlement’s orchestrator - and she also happens to be the mother of Fabio from the museum. And she’s part of a scheme to revive Welsh in Chubut.
LUNED GONZALEZ: My name is Luned Gonzalez; I'm a retired teacher. I was headmistress of a small secondary school in Gaiman, Chubut; and in the 1990s a project to help the survival of the Welsh language was launched by the Welsh government, so they asked me to be a sort of coordinator, and I've been helping the project since 1997.
HZ: What did the project involve?
LUNED GONZALEZ: The project involved sending three teachers, sometimes four, every year to teach Welsh in the community here in the lower Chubut valley.
HZ: So what kind of state was Welsh in 20 years ago? Why were they so worried about it?
LUNED GONZALEZ: Well, all the teaching in the schools was through Spanish of course, and there were more people who were, shall we call them native speakers, those who had learned Welsh at home. But the young generation wasn't speaking much Welsh. And we all wanted the survival of the language; because if you think back to 1865, when the Welsh settled here, in the lower Chubut valley, the language of the community wasn't Spanish: it was Welsh. Even Indians learnt Welsh to communicate, because sometimes families, Indian families, left a child with a Welsh family so they could go to school. So he naturally spoke Welsh. So Welsh, for quite a number of years, was the language of the community. Slowly of course, once the valley was developed, people from other parts - from Argentina, from Spain, from everywhere - came, and the Welsh descendants became a minority. But one is surprised thinking how long the language has survived.
HZ: The survival of Welsh took a concerted effort. In Wales in the 20th century, there was a diligent movement to keep the language alive. The Welsh Language Act of 1967 enshrined the right to use Welsh in law and governance, and as the 20th century drew on, there were bilingual road signs, a dedicated Welsh language TV station and radio station started up, and Welsh language classes became compulsory in schools. And at long last, in 2012, an act was passed into law to confirm Welsh as an official language in Wales. Still only around 20% of the population of Wales speaks Welsh, but the decline has been halted and numbers are slowly increasing. In Patagonia, there are around 50,000 descendants of Welsh settlers now, and an estimated 7,000 of them speak Welsh. Around 1,200 are currently taking Welsh classes. But to prevent a language from becoming extinct, it needs not to be preserved like a historic artefact, but to be useful for modern-day speakers. And if you’re a modern-day speaker in Argentina, how can Welsh be useful?
CLARE VAUGHAN: Well that's that's a very good question, because what we've seen is a great interest in learning Welsh and by the time the children finish primary school they can have a conversation with somebody who comes from Wales about everyday life and their hopes and dreams. But what do you do after that? How do you move to make that language a language of communication? That is the big question. We've seen the project bring fruit forth in the speakers, in the people who've learnt and are passing the language on; but how do you ever make it a community language again?
HZ: So the case of Patagonia, why bother learning Welsh if you can communicate in Spanish?
LUNED GONZALEZ: Well, because we're stubborn! But it's fantastic to be able to communicate in different languages; you enrich your life when you speak another language, and Welsh has such a richness of poetry and songs with beautiful lyrics.
HZ: Why is it important to you that Welsh is preserved here?
FABIO GONZALEZ: Well, because it's part of our history, our heritage. For me it's natural now, and I have learned more so it's more part of me. And I can understand some of the songs in Welsh now, the rock songs, and I like that.
CLARE VAUGHAN: The two things are keeping the cultural heritage not because it's got some instrumental value to anybody, but because of the emotional value, the social value.
HZ: How did you learn Welsh?
LUNED GONZALEZ: I just - when I learned to speak! My parents spoke Welsh, so everybody spoke Welsh at home, and we spoke Spanish with our friends. And then in my teens I studied English. But I feel very happy that my parents spoke Welsh to me. It's a privilege really; I made no effort to learn Welsh. I just learned it. I was so lucky! Imagine these young - especially when you start in your teens or twenties learning the language - you have to struggle a lot.
HZ: Do you think different thoughts in the three different languages?
LUNED GONZALEZ: You are asking difficult questions now! Well... in different contexts you prefer one language to the other. Spanish, I did all my schooling through Spanish of course, and Spanish is a very rich language, and I spoke Spanish at home because my husband was Argentine of no Welsh descent, you see. If it is hymn singing, I prefer to sing in Welsh, when it is hymn singing. When I want to read a thriller, I prefer English. I tell you, I'm quite a fan, I confess!
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The Allusionist is a proud member of Radiotopia from PRX, a collective of the best podcasts around. We also have a special channel called Radiotopia Showcase, which is shorter series from amazing audiomakers. You’ll know Al Letson on the investigative journalism podcast Reveal or State of the Re:Union; but in Errthang, he’s cutting loose with his friend Willie Evans Jr to bring you stories, interviews, and a whole lot of music. Today I was listening to the episode No Ordinary Love, where they share stories about fatherhood, and it was so personal and beautiful. To hear Errthang, subscribe to Showcase from Radiotopia on your podgatherer of choice, and to hear all the other radiotopia shows, visit radiotopia.fm. And come to see us on your - we just added an extra date in Brooklyn, but you’ll find all the venue listings and VIP ticket upgrades at radiotopia.fm/live.
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This episode of the Allusionist was produced by Martin Austwick and me, Helen Zaltzman. You heard from Luned and Fabio Gonzalez in Gaiman, and Clare Vaughn from the Welsh language project, speaking to me from up in the Andes. Thanks to Lyndsey Halliday, Sion James and Walter Brooks from the British Council in Cardiff. Benjamin Partridge provided editorial help; listen to the Beef and Dairy Network podcast, which is one of my favourites, it’s very funny, and he has also just released the new comedy show, Ray Moss: No Stone Unturned, which you can find on the BBC’s podcast feed called Kench.
I really loved our trip to Patagonia. As well as visiting the Welsh towns in the Lower Chubut Valley, I travelled further south to see some spectacular mountains and glaciers - if you want Patagonia travel tips, I’m good for them. I’ll post pictures of Gaiman and Puerto Madryn on the Allusionist website as well - where you can also find every episode, plus a lot of additional information about each one and transcripts, there are links to follow me on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, there are event listings including my upcoming shows in Australia. All this is at theallusionist.org.