They had been promised fertile land and wholesome communities – "not unlike South Wales itself". Instead they found some of the harshest conditions on earth. The first year and the second sickness and starvation nearly overwhelmed the experiment, but gradually they made their way west and founded Cwm Hyfryd, "the beautiful valley". More boats arrived, more towns were settled and by the middle of the 20th century there was a network of thriving Welsh communities.
This is the background to own voyage of discovery in March 2011 when three of us boarded a train at High Street station, Swansea, bound for South America – armed not with farming tools but with a copy of Dylan Thomas and a play by Noel Coward.
Two years previously, Tour de Force Theatre premiered an adaptation of Noel Coward's Still Life, the play that became the film Brief Encounter. Following a successful run in The Grand Theatre and a tour of Wales we were invited to South America by Jonathan Lamb of Actors to Uruguay. Lamb is the sort of enthusiastic visionary that theatre needs in the present climate of cuts and closures. Driven by a desire to supply English language theatre to South American audiences, he has encouraged and inspired organisations to fund British companies to go out for the last three years, not least the British Embassy in Montevideo, the Birchman Group, the Anglo Institute in Uruguay and the British Arts Centre in Argentina.
The itinerary: flight to Buenos Aires, boat to Montevideo, three performances, a workshop and performance with locals of Under Milk Wood, return to Buenos Aires, three more performances, another workshop, then a flight to Patagonia, a Noson Lawen (party with music) in Esquel, and then return. The visit to Patagonia was arranged because of our Welsh roots, and getting there alone was difficult enough; it brought to mind what the settlers on the Mimosa had to go through almost 150 years ago.
In Buenos Aires, over forty people came in order to learn about Dylan Thomas, listen to the rhythm and music of his words, and finally to perform an hour-long version of Under Milk Wood. The energy and commitment of these people (not all of whom were performers) was impressive, and listening to the piece being spoken in an equally musical but unfamiliar accent proved yet again what a masterpiece the work is. We discovered that Thomas didn’t just belong to Wales or to Swansea and that longing, nostalgia and the love of community are without time or place.
it took John Daniel Evans and his Rifleros (Riflemen) almost five months to make it across the 700 kms from East to West PatagoniaWe then flew to Bariloche and drove 250 miles to visit two towns in Welsh Patagonia, Esquel and Trevelin. Landing in the dust of Bariloche, it is surreal how far you feel from the humidity and urban chaos of Buenos Aires. Everything in Patagonia is on a grand scale: the Andes, the lakes, the distances, the deserts and the skies. We learned that it took John Daniel Evans and his Rifleros (Riflemen) almost five months to make it across the 700 kms from East to West Patagonia, but even so, the amazing fertility and beauty of the place inspires the same response as it must have done all those years ago. Abundant fields lie below the crystal lakes, glaciers, rainforest and the richest biosphere known to man. And what’s more they did it without bloodshed – negotiating and trading with the indigenous population.
Trevelin has a Welsh museum, the most Welsh tea room outside the principality (Nain Maggie), a love-spoon manufacturer called Jones, and the inspirational Ysgol Gymraeg Yr Andes. This wonderful early 20th Century schoolhouse, still houses an active Welsh language medium school.
A poetry and music evening had been arranged for us to meet the local community. We were treated to Welsh poetry, an 82 year old melodion player called Vicente Evans, Arturo Lowndes an accordion player, and a Welsh Gaucho, Alejandro Jones, who sang two Spanish love songs and then Yfory in a beautiful Welsh tenor. In return we sang Welsh folk songs and performed extracts from Dylan Thomas in both Spanish and Welsh. We met many characters, including a Native American Indian called Pablo who began learning Welsh some years ago after joining the choir in Esquel in order to make friends. In this friendly Babel, the fields of Wales seemed light years away – but here we were cheerfully singing the national anthem and talking rugby. In many ways the community is engaged in a battle against time to keep the language and tradition alive (the province of Chabut is estimated to have just 5000 first language welsh speakers left).
2015 sees the 150th anniversary of the sailing of the Mimosa with the first 153 intrepid settlers, and has thus seen a flurry of media interest in the community. The race is on to ensure that there is still a thriving language there by that date – hopefully our joyful interaction will have played its tiny part in these efforts.