PETER FROST took a narrow gauge steam train to Blaenau Ffestiniog and met some amazing South American visitors to Wales
LAST month I took a trip to Wales to celebrate a 150th anniversary. Back in 1865 the Ffestiniog Railway became the first steam narrow gauge railway in the world to carry passengers. The service saved quarrymen a 13-mile steep uphill walk to their jobs in the region’s slate workings.
During my trip, the news reports were full of stories of the bunch of incompetent amateurs failing to run a railway properly. But I wasn’t very interested in overpaid, inadequate directors, or indeed their huge bonuses.
Indeed it occurred to me that perhaps our whole national rail network might be better in the hands of the bunch of talented enthusiasts who run the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railways.
Despite hugely difficult terrain, and rolling stock and locomotives over a century old, they still manage to run clean, comfortable and on-time trains all year round. Add to that the fact that they are building new stations and adding more and more track and creating more jobs. The line now runs 40 miles from Caernarvon to Blaenau Ffestiniog.
I also discovered that Wales is marking another important event that happened in 1865. In July of that year, 153 Welsh settlers left Liverpool aboard the converted tea clipper Mimosa to set up a Welsh-speaking colony in South America.
Now stories like this put me in a moral and political dilemma. I know the British empire was a barbaric, cruel and terrible thing. Imperialism was and still is savage. The false philosophy of racial superiority on which it was based still runs deep in our society today.
The empire was, quite simply, the rape and exploitation of much of the globe by a rapacious and pompous queen, supported by warmonger politicians, greedy industrialists grown mega-rich on building ever-more deadly war weapons and an established church keen to convert the heathen wherever she or he might be found.
However, buried in this huge malodorous cesspit of imperialism’s worst excesses that was the British empire, there are some remarkable tales of ordinary working people acting with real heroism and humanity. Not all British people travelled abroad to exploit the natives.
Indeed the Welsh colonists on the Mimosa were themselves victims of British capitalism’s greed and cruelty. In Wales in the early 1800s, industry developed and rural communities began to disappear.
Welsh coal, slate, iron and steel helped to build the industrial revolution. British capitalism, afraid of growing Welsh industrial militancy, wanted Wales absorbed into England. As a result, many disillusioned Welsh people were desperate for a new start in a new world.
In 1861 Michael D Jones, a radical, staunch Welsh nationalist and non-conformist preacher, called for a new little Wales beyond Wales.
Jones and his group discussed founding a new Welsh promised land. The US and Canada were both considered, but a less obvious location was also discussed which seemed to have everything the emigrants might need. It was 8,000 miles away in Patagonia, Argentina.
Jones had spent some time in the US, where he observed that Welsh immigrants often lost much of their national identity. He proposed setting up a Welsh-speaking colony away from the influence of the English language.
He had been corresponding with the Argentinian government about settling a remote area where Welsh immigrants would be allowed to retain and preserve their language, culture and traditions.
The Argentinian government had another agenda: establishing this Welsh community would put Argentina in control of a large tract of land disputed by Chile. It offered 100 square miles of land along the Chubut River in exchange for the Welsh settling Patagonia for Argentina.
The main Welsh community was in Chubut, with a smaller colony in Santa Fe. Today an amazing 50,000 Patagonians are of Welsh descent.
The colonisation began when the settlers arrived aboard the Mimosa. The ancient tea-clipper had cost £2,500 to hire and convert. The fare from Liverpool to Patagonia was £12 and £6 for children, but anyone wanting to join the grand scheme was taken on the journey whether they could pay or not.
The settlers found Patagonia less friendly and inviting than they had been promised. They expected a green and fertile new Wales. The reality was barren, windswept pampas with no water, very little food and no timber for building. The first uncomfortable homes were caves scraped from the soft rock of the cliffs.
The colony suffered badly in the early years with floods and poor harvests.
One settler, Rachel Jenkins, proposed a simple but labour-intensive irrigation system. Her bold plan saved the settlement.
The native tribal Teheulche people tried to teach the settlers how to survive on the scant resources of the prairie.
Tehuelche nomads hunted the guanaco, a llama-like animal, and the large, flightless rhea with a weapon called a bolas.
This consisted of three balls tied with leather cords. When thrown, the bolus would wind around the animal’s legs.
The Welsh weren’t hunters, but the Tehuelche, with great generosity, trained them both to ride wild horses and to hunt. They would also trade skins and exotic feathers in exchange for bread, flour, sugar, tobacco and yerba tea.
Jones had preached that the native people should be treated fairly and recognised as the rightful owners of the land, but that wasn’t to last.
Things weren’t always peaceful and slowly the local tribes were forced to assimilate into the culture of the settlers. Only a very few Tehuelche now survive in Patagonia.
Today the Welsh population here see themselves not as British imperialists, not as British at all, but as loyal Argentinians who happen to speak Welsh and enjoy many aspects of Welsh culture.
To celebrate the 150th anniversary, Welsh-language choirs and bards from Patagonia are appearing at many eisteddfodau all over Wales.
Nigel Farage once complained that he had been in a railway carriage where he didn’t hear anyone speaking English.
Sorry Nigel, but last month as I chuffed along on the steep and beautiful climb to Blaenau I shared my ancient steam railway carriage with some Welsh-speaking Argentinians who were there to celebrate the twinning of Blaenau with Rawson, capital of Patagonia’s curious “Little Wales.”
In this part of north Wales it is far more common to hear Welsh spoken than English. What isn’t so common is to hear it spoken with a strong South American accent. So up yours Nigel. Those excited trilingual conversations really warmed my heart.
Two Ffestiniog Town Council representatives accompanied Rawson Councillor Eduardo Gaudiano and Nadine Laporte on the Ffestiniog Railway as they explored the area during their official visit as part of twinning Blaenau Ffestiniog with Rawson, capital of Chubut province in Argentina.
This article appeared in the Morning Star 10 July 2015.