The history and survival of the Welsh colony in Patagonia, which celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2015, has been the subject of whole shelves of books and many TV documentaries, not to mention two recent movies, Patagonia and Separado! It’s certainly the most famous overseas adventure by the Welsh, with the status, almost, of national myth.

Yet the idea of establishing a specifically ‘Welsh’ community in another part of the world emerged long before the mid-nineteenth century, and the famous journey across the south Atlantic on a clipper ship, the Mimosa, out of Liverpool. As early as the 1610s, Sir William Vaughan sought to establish a Welsh community called ‘Cambriol’ in Newfoundland, almost two and a half centuries before the settlement in Chubut.

Vaughan was a polymath and peregrinator, a man of many talents: an Oxford educated lawyer, scholar and poet. After a Grand Tour of France and Italy he studied for a further degree at the University of Vienna and on his return to Wales he became High Sheriff of Carmarthenshire. His early adult life was blighted by a freak accident and family tragedy when his wife Elizabeth died as a result of lightning striking their home.

The ensuing, deep grief had a profound effect on Vaughan, who at the same time became utterly sickened by the poverty all around him in Carmarthenshire. He saw an answer, if not the complete answer, in overseas colonisation. His often oddball writings comment on the sad state of Wales at the time, and castigate his fellow countrymen for a lack of energy and enthusiasm, while his vision of an overseas colony was perhaps too confident and overambitious right from the start. Wales though was over-populated, and Vaughan railed against a certain fecklessness that was responsible for the desertification of the mountains and the poor crops of the wheat fields. He wrote about a country stricken by poverty:

Although many strange sicknesses haue diuers times of late yeares afflicted us, yet notwithstanding, the multitudes of people are here so great, that thousands yearly doe perish for want of reliefe. Yea, I haue known in these last deare yeares, that 100 persons haue yearly died in a parish, where the Tithes amounted not to fourscore pounds a yeare, the most part for lacke of food, fire and raiment, the which the poorer sort of that Country stand in greater need of, then the Inhabitants… by reason of their Mountaines and hills, which cause the winter there to be most bitter with stormy winds, raine, or snow, and that for the space of eight moneths…

There is no evidence that Vaughan ever visited Newfoundland to assess it in advance of sending settlers, or to fully consider any mercantile possibilities, unlike, say, Lewis Jones who visited Patagonia three years before the settlers from Wales travelled there in 1865. But the existence of an earlier and established fishery in the area gave Vaughan hope that the settlement would be sustainable, in terms of fish, at least. For, as he put it: ‘I saw that God had reserved the Newfoundland for us Britaines.’

The newly-found land had already been claimed for Henry Tudor by the Venetian John Cabot, who had sailed out of Bristol in May 1497. Two months later, this maritime adventurer, was steadfastly bound for the far shore of the north Atlantic, in search of the then legendary North West Passage through northern Canada to Japan and China. Like Christopher Columbus, who discovered America five years earlier, Cabot was searching for a sea-route to connect with the Far East and the fabled treasure houses and chests of India and China.

The North West Passage! This was a veritable grail for navigators and could not be found, or even looked for, without facing real and terrible dangers. As if proof was needed, even as late as 1845 the perilous acres of ice at King William Island trapped Sir John Franklin and the crews of his venturing ships the Erebus and the Terror. Not a frozen soul survived.

What Cabot had found was a three sided island, with a land mass slightly larger than that of Ireland.  He also found plentiful fish. Cabot would be followed by many like-minded adventurers and questers, such as Martin Frobisher, not to mention two intrepid Welshmen, Sir Thomas Button from Cardiff and Captain Thomas James of Monmouthshire. They all faced winters of paralyzing cold, complete with the dangers and oppressions of endless ice or enshrouding fog and mist.

But the fabled North-West passage wasn’t the only reason for such risks: it also allowed countries to claim new lands and territories, through force of arms or simple subterfuge, leading to the bitter and bloody disputes between England and France over land in eastern Canada.

This period was one of the high water marks of global exploration. Spain had already been busy in colonising through the various voyages of Columbus, followed some seventy five years later by English settlements in Virginia. Famously, and contemporaneously with William Vaughan’s ultimately doomed adventure in Newfoundland, was the voyage of the Mayflower in 1620, bringing the Pilgrim Fathers to a new home, and religious freedom, in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

What Cabot had found was a three sided island, with a land mass slightly larger than that of Ireland.

From Cabot’s time onwards it was known that there were plentiful stocks of fish to be had in the churning cold seas off the island’s coast, promising both food and, ultimately, wealth. Commentators averred that ‘the sea there is full of fish that can be taken not only with nets but with fishing-baskets.’ Little wonder then that the seemingly illimitable cod of the Grand Banks attracted tough fishermen from Devon, France, Spain – and especially the skilled sailors of the Basque country ­­– and Portugal to cast their nets.

Vaughan knew all this and in 1578 a very favourable report appeared. It was written by Anthony Parkhurst and, perhaps a little too enthusiastically, described the quality and fecundity of the land, hinted at the value of the forests and by way of clincher, suggested that the natives were benign. Later documents would suggest that these Indians could be ‘ruled wisely’ and thus ensure their obedience and furthermore that ‘only by establishing a settlement on the island could the poor pagans of the Country be led from their Barbarism to a knowledge of God and thus ensure their salvation.’

In August 1583 the island was officially claimed by Sir Humphrey Gilbert on behalf of Queen Elizabeth I with the aim of encouraging the fishermen to settle the land, but many of these only visited in the summer, and there was also the matter of French boats harrying and harassing the fishing fleets to dissuade those thinking of putting down new found roots.

James I then authorised merchant adventurers to settle Newfoundland, with a Bristolian, John Guy, taking advantage of this Royal Assent to create a settlement but an ultra hard winter in 1613, not to mention unruly settlers, sent him sailing home, tail coat between his legs. By 1660 only 150 families from England had crossed the Atlantic, so pioneers, and the basic skills needed to pioneer, were in short supply.

Vaughan wasn’t among those who took up King James’ early offer of land but in 1616 he bought himself a substantial tract. Indeed, he purchased the entire Avalon peninsula south of a line from Caplin Bay (now called Calvert) stretching across to Placentia Bay, which he then christened Cambriol, thus creating a little Wales in the New World. The Avalon peninsula itself was so named ‘in imitation of Old Avalon in Somerset wherein Glassenbury stands, the first fruits of Christianity in Britain.’

Vaughan had thus nursed his desire to establish a foreign colony for a long time, and there are hints of that desire in a book called The Golden Grove which appeared in 1600, purporting to help ‘all such as would know how to gouerne themselves, their houses and their country.’ The fact that he had at one time entertained the idea of settling far off, and entirely remote, St Helena island suggested a certain impracticality if not downright fantasy in his way of thinking.

But Newfoundland, if nothing else, was nearer Britain, and Vaughan was probably seduced by the persuasive flow of propaganda, expressly designed to lure settlers and a flow of investment to its rugged shores and wooded slopes, coincidentally and strategically thwarting the French desire to also own the place. Vaughan’s ambitions must also have been bolstered, too, by the achievements of his talented Scottish friend, Sir William Alexander, the Earl of Stirling, who had managed to conjure Nova Scotia into being.

In 1617 Vaughan sent some men and women – there is no accurate figure of how many exactly – at his own cost to the patch of earth he had baptized as Cambriol. It was a land he would later describe as being ‘entirely bountiful,’ although the reality would prove a little more austere and harsh:

The commodities of the Land are Furres of Beuer, Sables, Blacke Foxes, Marternes, Musk-rats, Otters, and such like skinnes, as also of greater beasts; as Deere, and other wild creatures. To this I adioyne the benefit, which may be made by woods, being pine, birch, spruce, Furre, &c. fit for boords, Masts, barke for tanning, and dying, Charcoales for making of Iron. Out of these woods we may haue pitch, Tarre, Rosen, Turpentine, Frankinscence, and honey out of the hollow trees, as in Muscouy, and heretofore in our owne woods before they were converted to the Iron Mills. There is great store of Mettals, if they be lookt after.

The cost of each passage was probably of the order of ten shillings a head, at a time when the trip to Virginia would have cost five pounds. The settlers were taken to the area near Trepassey. Vaughan soon ‘realized that the burden was too great for my weak shoulders.’

On the Grand Banks and other banks offshore it was reasonably simple to seek out the fish stocks at any time during the season, but inshore, where most of the English ships fished, a knowledge of the fishing grounds took years to acquire, and was added to in each generation. The inshore fishery was dependent on the cod migrating from their offshore feeding and breeding grounds, each year in early summer, and each harbour and inlet had certain peculiarities.

The Spanish, Portuguese and French, concentrated on fishing on the Banks off Newfoundland where fish could always be found; the catch was salted on board the ships and brought back to Europe to be dried and sold. Even when they fished near shore these fishermen usually used abundant supplies of salt. The English fishermen did not have access to the supplies of salt that were available to the others and could not salt their fish to the same extent. They were, however, able to develop a system which combined light salting for a short period, followed by thorough washing, and then drying in the open air. The result was the light-salted product for which Newfoundland eventually became famous.

The settlers from Wales certainly had their work cut out. Importantly, the Welsh migrants might not even have been fishermen in the first place: we simply do not know if they had actually left agricultural lives in the Tywi valley. Nets, salt, tides and swell might well have been entirely mysterious to them.

So, ill equipped, especially for the severe weather, the Cambriol venture quickly foundered, with the colonists seeking refuge in the harbour of Aquaforte, where they spent the bleak winter months huddled in temporary cabins built by migratory fishermen for summer use.

To compound their problems the other fishermen who had been lured here were in no mood to share the fishy spoils and did their best to interfere with the newcomers’ catch. The French, in particular, had designs on claiming land, and they attacked the Welsh pioneers, scaring them with the intention of driving them away. In the face of these extra challenges in 1618 Vaughan hired the experienced fishing master Richard Whitborne to bring further colonists and provisions to bolster the precarious settlement, and appointed him governor.

Whitborne, a man with brine running in his veins in lieu of blood, had been pretty much born to the sea. He had been a sailor even as a young boy and had first visited Newfoundland in 1579. He was to become a renowned captain and navigator, winning plaudits for his bravery during the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Whitborne did his best to reorganise the colony, beginning by moving it to better quarters in Renews, but, even as he did so, he had to deal with the consequences of one of his own ships being attacked by piratical deserters from Sir Walter Raleigh’s Guyana fleet. On another occasion, despite is nautical skills and experience, he was attacked by a French pirate ship and relieved of £860, which, in those days, would have been a king’s ransom.

In the end only half a dozen colonists spent the winter of 1619 at Renews and they were forced to abandon the settlement completely the following year. Vaughan’s own health wasn’t sufficiently robust to visit the island during this period, and thus offer encouragement to his own pioneers.

A splendid map of the area was drawn up in 1625 by ‘Captaine John Mason, an industrious gent: who spent seven yeares in the Countrey,’ who was also the second governor of the island.’ Cambriola is clearly marked, showing the extent of Vaughan’s holdings, and Avalonia is also clearly marked, being the area transferred early on to Calvert and Falkland. The map also shows six Welsh place names, arranged in a semi-circle, namely Brechonia, Cardigan, Pembrok, Cardiffe and Glamorgan.

Vaughan retained his property south of Renfrews, after selling off the Ferryland area to Sir George Calvert and a plot in Fermeuse to Lord Falkland. Calvert built a house on the island, but persistent harrying by the French led to its eventual abandonment, too. There is no real evidence that Vaughan made any further attempts at colonisation, though some sources claim he set up a short-lived settlement near Trepassey. A trifle late in the day Vaughan may have visited the island for two extended stays, between 1622 and 1625 and 1628 and 1630, although not everyone agrees that he did actually visit the islands in person.

Even in 1630 he still had vestigial hope for settling the new found land, and suggested that grants of land might be forthcoming saying that ‘Our noble brother-in-law, Sir Henry Salisbury, with some gentlemen of north Wales, will next Spring proceed to do something in that country which with open arms awaits their coming.’

Vaughan, if nothing else, managed to make some marks in the island’s history. A splendid map of the area was drawn up in 1625 by ‘Captaine John Mason, an industrious gent: who spent seven yeares in the Countrey,’ who was also the second governor of the island.’ Cambriola is clearly marked, showing the extent of Vaughan’s holdings, and Avalonia is also clearly marked, being the area transferred early on to Calvert and Falkland. The map also shows six Welsh place names, arranged in a semi-circle, namely Brechonia, Cardigan, Pembrok, Cardiffe and Glamorgan. Vaughan’s old home, Golden Grove, has its Newfoundland counterpart, too on the map, as well as ‘Colchos’ and the eponymous ‘Vaughan’s Cove’ nearby.

Just as the establishment of the Welsh colony in Patagonia would later be touted in scores of books and many documentary series as a tale of stubbornness, grit and, ultimately, success, Vaughan equally promoted Newfoundland in an unusual book The Golden Fleece which appeared in 1626.

The Golden Fleece, transported from Cambriol Colchis, by Orpheus Junior, is a long and fantastic prose allegory, dealing with the ‘Errours of Religion, the Vices and Decayes of the Kingdome, and lastly the Wayes to get wealth, and to restore Trading’ through the colonisation of Newfoundland. Colchis was a reference to the mythical land on the Eastern edge of the Black Sea, the departure point for Jason and the Argonauts in the Greek tale. Vaughan was giving the adventure the apparatus of myth, and its loftiness.

Vaughan divided this eccentric literary outpouring into three parts, namely an attack on the Church in Rome; an account of the parlous state of the Empire and a section which purported to show ‘how to win money and to renew trade that’s the subject of so much complaining.’ This latter part was Vaughan’s own sales pitch for this northern island:

Towards the North, the land is more hilly and woody; but the South part, from Renoos, to Trepassa, plaine and champaine euen for 30. miles in extent. It abounds with Deere, as well fallow Deere, as Ellans, which are as bigge as our Oxen. And of all other sorts of wilde Beasts, as here in Europe, Beuers, Hares, &c. The like I may /say: (23)/ say for Fowle and Fish. I knew one Fowler in a winter, which killed aboue 700. Partridges himselfe at Renoos. But for the Fish, specially the Cod, which drawes all the chiefe Port townes in Christendome to send thither some ships euery yeare, either to fish, or to buy the same; it is most wonderfull, and almost incredible, vnlesse a man were there present to behold it. Of these, three men at Sea in a Boat, with some on shoare to dresse and dry them, in thirty dayes will kill commonly betwixt fiue and twenty and thirty thousand, worth with the Traine oyle arising from them, one hundred or sixe score pounds. I haue heard of some Countries, commended for their twofold haruest, which here we haue, although in a different kinde: yet both as profitable, I dare say, as theirs so much extolld. There is no such place againe in the world for a poore man to raise his fortunes, comparable to this Plantation, for in one moneths space, with reasonable paines, he may get as much as will pay both Land-lords Rent, Seruants wages, and all Houshold charges, for the whole yeare, and so the rest of his gaine to increase.

Vaughan’s Golden Fleece was the latest addition to a small but growing shelf of persuasive volumes, such as Whitbourne’s book about Newfoundland, published six years earlier – and already reprinted three times: His governor, Whitbourne’s useful and detailed Discourse and Discovery of Newfoundland, came complete ‘with many reasons to prove how worthy and beneficiall a Plantation may there be made, after a far better manner than it now is. Together with the laying open of certaine enormities and abuses committed by some that trade to that Country, and the meanes laid downe for reformation thereof.’ Other books traversed the same terrain, such as John Mason’s comprehensive A briefe discourse of the New-found-land, which also appeared in 1620. These books sought not only to attract people to settle but more importantly encourage people to invest in the overseas venturing.

The allusion to the Golden Fleece says a lot about Vaughan’s aim in penning his allegory, evoking, as it does, Jason and the Argonauts’ courage in the face of a myriad dangers, from harpies to sirens. Vaughan’s attempt to settle a far-off and treacherous place, and the literary account of the endeavours that followed, foreshadows accounts of the later Patagonian adventure, which would similarly be redacted employing the language of myth.

In the case of Y Wladfa in Patagonia it would generate nothing short of a small library of such accounts and texts, while Vaughan’s claimed land would be swallowed up in the fog of history’s forgetfulness.

Banner illustration by Dean Lewis