Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Welsh Colonisation of Patagonia: a Volcanic Connection.

What caused the Welsh emigrate to Patagonia? When I was researching my last novel, I found it satisfying to be able to trace back the origins of this aspiration to something physical rather than political - 'an act of God' as the settlers no doubt would have it. I was reminded of this particular natural catastrophe when I read David Bressan's article in the Scientific American just now. The event is the eruption of the volcano Tambora in 1815.

This was the most powerful volcanic explosion in recorded history, and the ash was carried so far into the atmosphere that it screened the earth from the warmth of the sun. The next year, 1816, was so cold that it was known as the year without a summer. For several years crops failed and food became expensive. The poor became poorer, a situation exacerbated by the potato blight a few decades later. Everyone suffered, but the Welsh soon had special grievances in the form of English taxes imposed by English land lords and English clergy. There were numerous waves of protests, and Karl Marx noted that the Welsh were ripe for rebellion.

The final trigger, though, came from a school inspection and the conclusion that the Welsh language was not fit for modern life. It caused the disquiet to grow, and from north Wales came the first murmurings of a radical proposal: why not go somewhere so remote the English would not have a chance to interfere?

The land they were about to inhabit would owe its existence to volcanoes too. The soils of the Chubut valley have been made fertile (in part) by the pale tuffs of old volcanic explosions swept to the valley by the prevailing wind from the Andes. And their final settlement, Esquel, is still periodically threatened by volcanic ashes. The last time was just last year when the Puehue-Cordon Caulle volcanic complex erupted in Chile.

So one volcanic explosion indirectly caused the Welsh to flee into the path of another. The events are separated by many years, but it interests me how geology and the fate of this population of people are connected.


Anonymous marly youmans said...

It's an interesting circle, certainly. After spending an evening shivering in a very early Welsh house, I don't wonder that they were hardy enough to venture to Patagonia. Just listened to an audio of "Far Away and Long Ago," which I adored as a child and read several times.

Clare, forgive me but I have tagged you in a meme. I succumbed and have included you in meme-doom. Up tomorrow. Mea culpa!

Wed Apr 11, 09:41:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Heh, heh 'Meme-doom' - I like it! I shall do it as soon as I can Marly, probably next week. I am submerged and only infrequently coming up for air at the moment. That's what it feels like, anyway.

Wed Apr 11, 10:12:00 pm  
Blogger Paul Halpern said...

Fascinating chronicle of events. It is certainly ironic about the volcanic explosion causing flight into the path of another.

Sun Apr 15, 01:20:00 am  

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