Los descendientes del Dresden: The Irish Colony of Napostá Google+

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

The Irish Colony of Napostá

Napostá is a faraway spot where you will find an abandoned train station and also an abandoned school, in the middle of large extensions of cultivated fields. It is less than 30 km from Bahía Blanca. Heading south five kilometers there’s another abandoned spot with a train station and a “puesto”, it is called “La Vitícola”. They both have something in common: They are the only silent witnesses of the Irish Colony that existed in this location and which subsequently failed disastrously.

On February 15th 1889, the SS Dresden arrived in Argentina with the largest batch of Irish immigrants: one thousand and eight hundred passengers. A few days before it’s arrival, a commission was formed with the most influential persons within the anglo Irish community, just to take care of them, as it was felt that the National Government (Argentine) was not prepared for such a big contingent of immigrants. They understood that the immigrants might be sent to form a colony near Bahía Blanca, a proposal made by Peter Gartland.

So, in the last days of February 1889, just eight hundred of those Irish immigrants arrived at Napostá railway station from Buenos Aires. Father Gaughren, a catholic priest who accompanied them from the very beginning, describes the place: The country is really beautiful. It consists of a series of undulations in the land, not high enough to be called hills, but which in England would have the name of downs... In the far distance rise up the peaks of the mountains of Curumalan… Of the quality of the land I am not a competent judge, but if I might form an opinion from the result obtained from the La Vitícola Company after five months working, I would say that much of it is very fertile.”

They pass the night there and early next day, they walk their way to where the directors of the society La Vitícola had chosen to establish the colony. From the outset the immigrants were established in a camp, that is to say, all eight hundred immigrants had to live under tents for, at least, two months. It seems that up till April 1889, the immigrants themselves were the ones who built the houses, and because of a lack of construction experience, the company then took the decision and hired two important firms to do the work. Their new homes consisted of wood houses with only one room and were much better than the tents. After the houses were built in June 1889 each family was put in legal possession of a small farm.

Initially, the immigrants encountered great difficulties because they did not have the right tools, seeds for seeding or animals for working the land. The colony lasted only three years. In 1891 the La Vitícola company went bankrupt and the immigrants had to make their own way to survive. Some immigrants remained in the area, others re-emigrated and numerous colonist’s died. It is said that, during the first months, there was a large mortality rate among the children chiefly because of diarrhoea. Father Gaughren, spoke about these deaths in many different articles published in various newspapers. On March 5th 1889 he said “Many of the poor people have not yet recovered from the effects of the hardships which they have gone through, and illness, especially diarrhoea, prevails to a great extent among the children. Three deaths have already resulted from it, and some more are sure to follow.”

Then, on March 29th, less than a month later, he said: “The sickness among the children still continues. Already twelve little graves have been filled, and there are three more to be buried, and some others who are sure to die within a week.” If we take this information, we can calculate that in just twenty four days the mortality rose from 3 to 12. During the first days of April he again wrote a letter to his Father Provincial in Ireland in which he said that “I had a good many graves to bless for there was a large mortality among the infants, chiefly from diarrhoea, the result of the change of climate and of food.”

There is another comment about death registers in the letters of Father Gaughren published in The Standard in November 1st 1889, where he mentions that “we have had two deaths in the colony during the past week. In one case a good old woman, who had accompanied her son out to this country, but who has been ill since her landing, was called away. The other case is that of a boy who has been ailing for a considerable time. Otherwise the health of the colony is remarkably good.” But one week later, the same newspaper published “Our esteemed colleague the “Standard” fell into an error in stating that only two deaths occurred in the Naposta colony since it was started. In Father Gaughren’s letter which appeared in last week’s “Southern Cross” and which the “Standard” quotes, it was stated that only two died during his recent visit to the colony, Father Gaughren informs us that he counted 46 graves in the new cemetery which, supposing there was only one corpse buried in each grave, implies no small bill of mortality. And while on this subject we may as well correct another statement made by Mr. Rodan in his letter which we publish today. He says he read in a newspaper of “250 dead!” If any such statement was made in regard to the colony it was certainly an exaggeration. Nothing approaching that number of deaths has taken place.”

These are the only clues that we have up till now about the death records. We know that many people died in the Irish colony, particularly infants, however because of a paucity of contemporary documentary evidence it is very difficult to establish all the facts. Consequently, there is much work and research to be done now and in the future.

If you take a look at the area where La Vitícola was located using Google Earth, you can see there is nothing in this vicinity. No town, no reminder in any way showing what this camp would have been like. Indeed there is no physical indication of the existence of the Irish Colony anywhere, not even a cemetery. Some questions spring to mind. Who were these immigrants that died in La Vitícola ? What was their names ? Where did they come from ? They might have had family and may have surviving descendants who would be unaware as to where they are and the appalling conditions they endured ? Where are the remains of the deceased immigrants located, so that they can be remembered with honour by their families ? Who knows, may be a memorial could be erected for them ?

One hundred and twenty years have now passed since the arrival of these immigrants to the “páramo” of Napostá. It seems the dust and historical amnesia of past generations has now buried them once again.

This is article is dedicated to recover their memory.