Cultural heritage in Patagonia

By Carolyn Fry

Geographical magazine editor Carolyn Fry and photographer Alex Benwell travelled to Argentina to visit a museum that is telling the story of Patagonia's multicultural people

A few treasured possessions were all they could take. 153 Welsh men, women and children packed up clothes, furniture, books and letters and boarded the tea clipper Mimosa in Liverpool docks. The families sought a new life in a place with enough land for everyone and where their children could grow up learning Welsh culture and language, not English. Exactly two months later, after a gruelling Atlantic journey, they arrived on the eastern coast of Argentina. When they disembarked, in the harsh winter chill of 1865, one woman gave birth to a daughter on the beach.

The land at which the settlers arrived was a wild, empty place, where rugged mountain ranges encircled wide, wind-swept plains. Today, the region is still sparsely populated; just under two million people live in 673,000 square kilometres, but there is a sense of order to the place. The solid-looking homesteads that dot the plains are bordered by neat rows of upright Lombardy poplar trees, planted to keep out the wind. Distances between settlements are long, but the major roads are well tarmacked. Although the first settlers faced hunger, hardship and loneliness, their legacy is a society that has learned to live comfortably with the harsh terrain.

While some modern Patagonians choose to live in remote villages, many have clustered together in towns on its east coast. A few settlements, such as Trelew and Gaiman, have retained their Welsh characteristics. Red dragons look out from the top of public buildings and the red, white and green Welsh flag is displayed prominently. In early May and mid-September, Gaiman still hosts traditional Welsh Eisteddfodd festivals. 'These days the descendants are spread out rather than living together in communities,' explains Marcelo Gavirati, who lives in the town where the Welsh first arrived and speaks Spanish with more than a hint of a Welsh accent. 'But many have become interested in tracing their family histories.'

Museo Leleque

Stories of the lives of the early settlers in Patagonia have now been carefully pieced together with memorabilia to create a museum, Museo Leleque. The collection is housed in two low, white buildings on a wide, windy plain 1,350km southwest of Buenos Aires. The museum's isolated location reflects the solitariness of the lives of the communities depicted inside. In five themed rooms and a reconstructed boliche, or general store, visitors are taken on a journey through Patagonia's past. It begins over 12,500 years ago with the earliest natives, takes in successive waves of immigrants and moves on to present-day life on Argentina's vast ranches or estancias. 'Children in Argentina learn very little about Patagonian history,' says Rodolpho Casamiquela, Scientific Director of the museum and President of the Ameghino Foundation. 'But it is important that people learn about the different cultures that came. The mix of natives and pioneers is what has made Patagonia what it is today.'

Cultural melting pot

The names of the people that peer out from faded black and white photographs around the museum give away a multitude of backgrounds. There are the Middle Eastern Jalil family, the Ap Iwans from Wales, native Francisco Mahuelquir and, of course, the proud-looking woman in the high-necked dress, Maria Elizabeth Humphries, the baby born on the beach all those years ago. As news spread that Patagonia offered a life free from economic hardship and war, Lebanese, Spanish and Italian families arrived. The Welsh farmed the land, while the Arabs set up boliches to trade the goods they produced. Later, English and Spanish settlers built up and managed the estancias. In the smaller of the museum's two buildings, Leleque's original general store has been recreated as a café for visitors. On wooden shelves behind a long bar stand bottles of Russian vodka and Dutch advocaat, while a poster on the wall of two men wrestling declares Guinness to be fortalece - strength giving. The original boliche would have sold everything from alcohol to blankets, timber to bread, and would have supplied all the 20 or so local families.

Among the artefacts housed in the museum are records from the general store's ledger showing that two particularly notorious customers bought provisions there. Their names are listed as Henry Place and Santiago Ryan but historians now know that these were pseudonyms used by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The pair went on the run after robbing a bank in Nevada in 1900 and chose to lie low in Patagonia. Like many in southern Argentina in the early 20th century, Butch and Sundance invested their money in a sheep ranch. Sheep had only recently been introduced from the Falkland Islands and wool was viewed as the new 'white gold'. Many entrepreneurs set up ranches at this time, fencing in great swathes of land with barbed wire and populating the fields with Australian Merino and Corredale sheep.

Estancia life

Museo Leleque stands within Estancia Leleque, one of five ranches managed by the Compañía de Tierras Sud Argentino SA (Argentine Southern Land Company) and owned by clothing company Benetton. Displays in the museum depict how daily life for the ranch managers and their families revolved around the farming year. At a table in the boliche, a copy of the Pastoral Review and Graziers Record lies open beside a ledger with neat copperplate notes on the lambs born that season. One record, dated October 1938, reads "plain body, rather leggie, dense fair fleece", while another declares a lamb to be "well trousered". Today, Benetton derives wool for its clothing from the 58,000 sheep which graze its vast 220,000-hectare estate.

The issue of who owns land in Argentina has long been a contentious one. Those that have fared the worst in the struggle for land rights are the indigenous people who lived in the country before any settlers arrived. In the main museum, one display is given over to showing the major conflicts between the native people and settlers. Before 1880, much of the land southwest of Buenos Aires was considered to be territory of the native Tehuelche. Although Spanish, Dutch, French and English explorers came in search of gold between 1520 and 1789, no-one succeeded in forming settlements in Patagonia until the Welsh arrived.

The Welsh settlers generally had a good relationship with the Tehuelche, who taught the Welsh survival and hunting skills, but the government was keen to get sovereignty over the land in the south to prevent Chile from claiming it. As a result, between 1878 and 1885 the government fought the bloody War of the Desert against the indigenous people and took from them the land that today makes up Patagonia. As the ranches sprang up in the early 1900s, the barbed wire fences that kept the sheep in also kept the Tehuelche out. With no land and with their relatives killed in the war, many became depressed and turned to drink. Today, the indigenous people are still fighting for land to be returned to them and for their language and culture to be recognised.

Recent decades, however, have not been kind to estancia owners either. The past years have seen the boom in sheep and cattle farming collapse. Hundreds of farms, struggling to cope with a less and less viable market for wool or meat, closed in the 1990s. The eruption of Volcano Hudson in Chile in 1991, which deposited ash over a wide area of Santa Cruz province and killed over one million head of cattle, was the final blow for many and great tracts of land became deserted.

Tourism lifeline

Today there are signs that the area is getting back on its feet once more. Tourism is helping to reinvigorate the area, providing income for both ranch owners and indigenous communities. Provincial authorities have recognised that the area's history, wild countryside and indigenous people can offer visitors a vacation experience unmatched by any other part of the world. The fact that Museo Leleque is already welcoming nearly 1,000 visitors a month, despite its isolated location, is testament to this. The museum is now trying to work with other tourism ventures in the area to keep the momentum going. One such project is at Nahuel Pan, a blustery settlement not far from Leleque. Here, several sturdy wooden huts have been built from railwaysleepers to house a cultural visitor center. Inside, indigenous families weave handicrafts, sing folk songs and drink maté, the strong Argentinian tea.

Rosalie Napaim'an is one of the people supplying goods to be sold at Nahuel Pan. It takes her one whole day to weave a 25cm-wide wall hanging on her loom made from tree branches, and up to ten days to make a rug. Mapuche and Tehuelche hangings are on sale at Museo Leleque's boliche, providing a sustainable income for local craftspeople - and an incentive to maintain these ancient skills.

Most visitors arrive at Nahuel Pan by another tourist attraction, La Trochita, the Old Patagonian Express. Built between 1910 and 1945 to transport people and goods across the Patagonian steppe, the train now mainly carries tourists as it rhythmically lurches and judders along a single, narrow-guage track from Esquel.

Another plan is to build a station so the train can bring visitors to the museum. This will offer modern-day passengers a chance to travel in historic style across the estancia on which Museo Leleque stands and from which many of its artefacts have been taken. While not quite as authentic as arriving by boat on Argentinia's east coast, the slow ride across the vast, unchanging plains will highlight the mammoth achievements made by the first settlers who arrived with so little, but managed to make Patagonia their home.
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