Have you ever come across some titbit of history so fascinating or unusual, that when you learn of it you wonder how you came to be so far in life without ever having come across it before? Well today's history blog (the very first) is about just such a topic: the Boers of Patagonia.
Not many South Africans are aware that there is a sizeable number of Afrikaners (often referred to as Boers) living in Argentina in the region of Patagonia. The Van der Merwes, the Venters, the Krugers, the De Langers, the Bothas and the Vissers - these are some of the names of Argentine Boer familes living in the semi-desert region of Patagonia, which is not that unlike the South African Karoo.
Between 1902 and 1907 many Afrikaner families left South Africa and sailed to Argentina as self-imposed exiles. The Anglo-Boer War had just ended. Those Afrikaners who left had, like their kinsmen, lost friends and family to the war effort or to the British concentration camps and were moving because they refused to live under English rule.
The first group of exiles sailed from Table Bay aboard the old Highland Fling, travelling to Patagonia where Camillo Ricchiardi (the Italian husband of President Paul Kruger's granddaughter) had organised 2,000 hectares for them from the Argentine government. Patagonia is inhospitable territory, and as such had largely been left unpopulated, save for gauchos (cowboys) and bandits. But the Afrikaners were known to be tough and good at farming and it was hoped they would help develop the area.
When the first settlers arrived at Comodoro Rivadavia on the coast of Argentina (about 1,500 km north of Tierra del Feugo), there was nothing for them: no houses, no water supply, no jobs to be had, and no facilities other than one tiny lean-to store. They lived in tents until they could build huts. They insisted the government dig wells for them. In so doing, huge, profitable oil fields were discoverd in 1907.
Some of the 800 or so original families remained near the coast, and the men figured out how to be mechanics, horse-men and builders. Many ventured into the hinterland, which is windswept and barren, and which was still, essentially, pioneer land. Australian Merino sheep were bought from the Welsh communities to the north by those wanting to start farms. Today the area is famous for its Merino wool. The Boers gradually became prosperous: not wealthy, but self-sufficient and comfortable.
The Afrikaner community was tightly knit (as all settler communities tend to be when starting out) and kept to itself by and large. The famous travel writer, Bruce Chatwin, wrote in 1975: "They lived in fear of the Lord, celebrated Dingaan's Day, and took oaths on the Dutch Reformed Bible. They did not marry outsiders and their daughters had to go to the kitchen if a Latino entered the house."* (The Boers' isolation also meant that they did not develop the racist tendencies of South African Boers, being so far from the events and influence of apartheid South Africa.)
The Boers began their own schools so as to educate their children in Afrikaans. They built an NG Kerk (Dutch Reformed Church), sang Afrikaans songs and made their customary foods, such as biltong, milk tart and koeksisters. They would gather together once a year in February to play Boer sports, braai traditional meals and have a Saturday night sokkie (an Afrikaner dance).
But as so often happens, the distinctive nature of the settlers' culture is being eroded with time. Over the decades there has been mingling and intermarriage with other ethnicities. Children have been sent off to foreign schools. Towns have grown and become more cosmopolitan.
In its heyday the Boer community numbered in the thousands, but today that number has been reduced into the hundreds. A big dip in numbers came in 1938 when many repatriated to South Africa.
Afrikaans as a language is fading with each generation as the Boers are increasingly assimilated into Argentine culture. A Spanish cleric took over preaching at the Comodoro Rivadavia NG Kerk in 1953 and thus Afrikaans was no longer needed to understand the sermons. Today, many of the younger Boers speak Spanish as their first language and some know only a few words of Afrikaans.
Many Patagonian Boers have visited South Africa, or plan to visit, and naturally have relatives here. It is generally the first and second generation Argentine Boers who feel a strong connection with South Africa, having listened to the stories of parents or grandparents and developed a keen sense of their Afrikaner identity (something that has historically been felt very strongly by Afrikaners). Feelings of patriotism towards South Africa appear to be dying out with the older generations. Tellingly, Martin de Blackie, a first generation Boer descendant, relates:
"Ons skreeu vir die Springbokke," he says. "Ook wanneer hulle teen die Pumas speel. Die kleintjies kan dit nie verstaan nie. Hulle sê, 'Man, julle is Argentinos. Julle moet vir Argentina skreeu.'" (We shout for the Springboks. Also when they're playing against the Pumas. The little ones don't understand it. They say, "Man, you're Argentine. You must shout for Argentina.")^
* In Patagonia
^ Article found at http://www.timeslive.co.za/sundaytimes/article117837.ece on 17.02.2010