Oct 26, 2012 - National Geographic Explorer
Puerto Madryn, Patagonia
Early this morning with the distinctive coastline of Patagonia to starboard we rounded the great hammer-shaped bulge of the Valdes Peninsula to enter Golfo Nuevo and begin our approach to Puerto Madryn. This great bay was one of several hopeful inlets along this coast that Magellan’s expedition had explored at the beginning of the 1520s in the search for a sea passage to the South Sea that had been sighted by Balboa on the western side of the Darien peninsula in 1513. Darwin passed this way in the 1830s, amazed at the fossil record he quickly discovered ashore. Whole cliffs made of sea shells: what was the meaning of that? Reading Lyell’s Principles of Geology that had been posted to him in Montevideo, he came to see the significance of deep time with extraordinary intellectual consequences for us all.
For both Magellan and Darwin this was an empty land. Small numbers of native Telchueche roamed the land but European settlement had to await the arrival of a converted tea-clipper, Mimosa, which brought some 150 hopeful immigrants from Wales into the bay in 1865. They were woefully ill-prepared. They had no farmers or medical expertise in their number and spent a miserable winter sheltering in caves along the bay’s southern shore. In a “great trek” over the desert scrub they found a home in the Chubut valley which, within a generation, they had irrigated with a system of canals to produce a veritable oasis of rich agricultural land that has, for over a century, supplied wheat, fruits, and vegetables to Argentina and beyond.
The Welsh had been induced to settle in Patagonia by an Argentine land grant. They judged the isolation of the place an advantage for their chief goal, keeping their language and culture alive in the face of growing Anglicization of their native land, particularly following the introduction of compulsory schooling in English. Today the Welsh language is still alive in Patagonia, as indeed it is back at home in Wales. As well as visiting the splendid Paleontological Museum in Trelew, we had an opportunity to visit the Welsh township of Gaiman, with its Welsh schools and traditional Welsh tea rooms. The survival of Welsh in such a place may seem eccentric or even perverse to some in a globalizing world but many more are learning to appreciate that linguistic diversity is as important to our life on this planet as is biodiversity. Hearing Welsh spoken by the young children coming out of the Welsh-medium nursery school in Gaiman this afternoon was, for this Welshman, a very moving experience.