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The Language of Heaven by Nigel Roth

In 1982, a month after Queen Elizabeth put her teeth back in long enough to open the Barbican Centre in London, her primary residence, the United Kingdom, went off to fight a war with Argentina.

It couldn’t really have been a less important war, the prize being a tiny group of islands due east from Isla Grand del Tierra Fuego in Patagonia, called Islas Malvinas, though was certainly not the shortest, because that medal goes to the Anglo-Zanzibar War.

That war, unlike the Guerra de las Malvinas, lasted just thirty-eight minutes.

It began on August 25, 1896, when the Sultan Hamad bin Thuwaini died, and his twenty-nine year old nephew, Khalid bin Barghash, tried to stem the impending chaos by declaring himself Sultan. Unfortunately for Zanzibar, Khalid, and anyone eating breakfast in the palace cafeteria that morning, Britain, who had decided they owned that piece of humanity in 1890, as bloodthirsty abusive bigots tend to do, didn’t agree.

So they asked him to leave, which he refused to do because it was, after all, his country. And so, at 9.02am on August 27, just as the eggs were coming out sunny-side-up, the Royal Navy began bombarding the palace from the harbor, setting it on fire, and generally ruining the sausages.

Proudly reporting that they dispatched five-hundred innocent Zanzibaris while incurring one single injury to one single soldier, they watched Khalid escape with his life, and quickly installed Sultan Hamud as the head of their government.

By 9:40am, the war had finished, and breakfast resumed, with the toast slightly burnt.

Well done, Britain, for ruining the most important meal of the day, forever.

The Guerra de las Malvinas, by contrast, took a much longer seventy-four days to conclude, and ended the lives of over nine-hundred people, after which the islands remained as they were, under British control, and everyone left alive shouted hip-hip hooray and waved their little flags in the freezing wind.

At the end of that war, though, a very strange thing happened.

As the Argentine soldiers and sailors still living were being shipped back to their homes and families, and the British were preparing to leave the barren, useless rocks to the Falklanders who desperately wanted to live there, a Welsh Guardsmen, longing to once more experience Myfanwy and Cwm Rhondda, and drink tea with a slice of bara brith and a stack of crempogs, met face-to-face with one of the men he’d been trying to kill earlier that week.

The Welsh Guard greeted the Argentine soldier with a passing ‘Bore da’, or good morning, to which the Argentine replied with ‘Bore da, sut wyt ti’, good morning, and how are you.

To the Welshman’s surprise the Argentine also spoke Welsh, and, after a further exchange, they found a kinship in not only language, but in ancestry too. Because this man was descended from the Welsh people who first arrived in Patagonia in 1865, running as fast as they could away from a Wales that was being subsumed into Britain, and where they feared the loss of their culture and language, along with their livelihood which was anchored in the rural heartland of the old country, was imminent.

And so they looked abroad, to America first, and the established Welsh cities like Utica and Scranton, and to Canada, and Vancouver, but as that required jettisoning their Welshness, many rejected them in favor of founding a place where the Welsh could be the Welsh, without the encroaching industrializing English and the fanatically-American America.

And Patagonia seemed just the place.

Several members of a Welsh emigration committee had been eagerly talking with the Argentinean government about their plans, and there had been an agreement made that the Welsh party could come and settle in a place called Bahia Blanca, and be allowed to keep their language, culture, and traditions. So, with that guarantee, the first one-hundred-and-fifty settlers set off aboard the tea-clipper Mimosa, in May 1865, at a cost of £12 per adult and £6 per child.

And, on the 27th of July, they arrived on the Argentinian shores.

No new home is without its share of challenges, as the English Jamestown colonists found in 1607, when they reached the American landmass, thirteen years before any of the weird Pilgrims arrived from the Netherlands.

But they persevered, first coming to terms with a landscape that was more barren plains and inhospitable scrub than green valleys and rolling hills, by digging out homes in the cliffs of the bay, before heading inland to the Chubut Valley, where a river promised greater survival prospects, and which the settlers named Rawson.

From then, with help from the local Tehuelche Indians, the colony slowly, gradually, falteringly, steadied and grew, and by 1875 had two-hundred-and-seventy inhabitants, with new arrivals directly from Wales, or via Pennsylvania, all living along the vital river, the River Camwy, as it had begun to be called.

They cut irrigation channels from the Camwy to water fields, which secured their future, under the direction of their agricultural leader, Rachel Jenkins, and a smattering of farms began to emerge along the river’s course. They were granted ownership and full rights to their land soon after, which encouraged more Welsh to move west to the new world, swelling the population to almost eight-hundred by 1877, and naming all the places they homesteaded in in their native Welsh.

As the immigrants integrated with the Spanish-speaking Argentines, their language evolved into what became known as Cymraeg y Wladfa, or Patagonia Welsh. It has a very distinct dialect, separate from those used in Wales, and often includes bits of Spanish and bobs of English, although it’s completely understandable by people of both countries, hence the conversation between the Welsh guard and the Argentine soldier.

When more settlers arrived during the depressions of 1880-1887 and 1904-1912, they found one of the most fertile and productive agricultural areas in the country, with Welsh territory now stretching from Rawson to Cwm Hyfryd, a new town at the foot of the great Andes, with Welsh speaking schools, chapels, and local government, and by 1915 the Chubut Valley supported a population of over ten-thousand Welsh immigrants.

And so, with the community thriving, and being singularly more productive than most of the country, and living in peace and harmony in a perceived utopia, the Argentine government did what every government do when they see people doing a better job at governing than they could, they put a stop to it.

That same year, 1915, the Argentine government imposed direct rule over the Welsh community, and banned the speaking of Welsh in local government and schools.

Well done, Argentina, for silencing iaith y nefoedd, the language of heaven.

From then on, two things happened. Immigrants drifted away, as the fabric of the community unravelled. And, with the Spanish-only education imposed, the Welsh mixed more easily with the Argentines and the strength of Welsh culture became diluted. While Welsh remained the home and church language for many, the dream of a utopian Welsh settlement faded with the population, and their hopes of retaining their Welshness in the face of growing globalization and modern misinterpretations of traditional values.

However, there have been some brighter moments for the Patagonia Welsh people and language.

In the mid-1940s, the BBC broadcast programs in Patagonia Welsh, highlighting the communities existence and amplifying its uniqueness, and in 1965 it celebrated its centenary, which drew visitors and film crews and renewed interest in both visiting and settling in the Chubut Valley.

Later, in 1997, the British Council created the Welsh Language Project in order to promote and further develop the Welsh language in the Chubut region, and in 2004 Patagonia Welsh speakers requested that the government provide Welsh TV programmes, to put a spotlight on Welsh in Patagonia, and encourage its use, and, more importantly, survival.

The first place the Welsh ever arrived in Patagonia in 1865, heavily-laden with their possessions on their backs, was on the bright morning at a place called Puerto Madryn.

And, one-hundred-and-seventeen years later, that meeting between guard and soldier, heavily-laden with survival packs, which brought this lost community to the attention of us and the world, took place on a bright morning in the town of Puerto Madryn.

Well done, history, for not saying tan tro nesaf to hope.

photo by André Ulysses De Salis

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