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The Church and Dutch Reformed Colonization in Argentina: A Worst Case Scenario

Robert P. Swierenga
Research Professor, A.C. Van Raalte Institute, Hope College, Holland, Michigan, USA

When the Dutch Calvinists emigrated to the North American Midwest in the 1840s, their dominies led the way and churches were the first cultural institution to be established. How different it was fifty years later in Argentina! There the Reformed immigrants had no clerical leadership and nearly twenty years passed before the mother church after many entreaties sent out a missionary pastor to gather in the scattered remnant and establish the first Reformed congregation. The Dutch settlers in Argentina experienced the painful reality, in the words of one, that "each one is left here to his own destiny."


Dutch colonization in Argentina had its inception in late 1880s when the Argentine government decided to recruit northern European farmers to settle the fertile pampas frontier. The government at that time hoped to speed the development of its vast interior plain, which was suited to beef cattle and wheat production.

Until this time Dutch emigrants had shown little interest in Argentina. In 1871 the Argentine government opened its first immigrant bureau in western Europe in Antwerp, and began recruiting in Belgium, Holland, and northern France. But mainly business and professional persons responded. The Argentine government also hired Dutch engineers and architects for various public works projects. To promote the nascent Dutch-Argentine trade and commerce, the Netherlands government in 1875 opened a consulate in Buenos Aires, which helped merchants import Dutch gin, tobacco, cheese, and dairy cattle prized by big ranchers. In the 1890s Dutch entrepreneurs in Buenos Aires established the Dutch Bank of South America to finance and supervise their enterprises. But Argentina had far less success attracting Dutch farmers than businessmen, because of its Catholic culture, Spanish language, and political instability.

In 1888 the government of president M. Juárez Celman (1886-1891) decided to step up immigrant recruitment efforts. "Gobernar es poblar" (to govern is to populate) was the famous slogan of the day. This policy initiative sparked the first substantial foreign immigration. The government subsidized at 100 percent the ocean fare for Dutch and other northern European farmers up to 60 years of age (Law of 3 November 1887). The normal full fare from Amsterdam was f84 ($34). Subsidies for children mirrored the reduced rates of the shipping companies; one-half fare for 3 to 12 years, and one-quarter fare for 1 to 3 years. Children under 1 year went free. Bureaus of the Oficinas de Información y Propaganda administered the pasajes subsidarios. The government also promised cheap virgin lands and constructed eleven immigrant hotels around the country to house the newcomers.

The timing was auspicious. Just as the Argentine pampas was opening to wheat cultivation in the 1880s, the grain-growing regions of northern Europe suffered an acute depression and many farm laborers were desperate to leave. Religious and political leaders, such as Abraham Kuyper, leader of the Christian Anti-Revolutionary Party, urged the poor to emigrate. "What other explanation can there be but human foolishness that in some small places of this terrestrial globe we live so heaped, suffocating in cellars and buildings intended for demolition, while other regions in other parts of the world hundreds of times larger than our country, await the plough and the sickle."

With such pronouncements in the face of overwhelming poverty, Dutch farm workers took flight and the cash grain regions of Friesland, Groningen, Zeeland, and southern Zuid Holland became "demographic expulsion zones," to use Wildeboer's phrase. Friesland especially became a hive ready for swarming.

Celman hoped to direct this outflow away from the United States, which had previously attracted 90 percent of all overseas emigrants, and lure up to 10,000 Dutch to Argentina. In 1888 the Dutch Consulate in Buenos Aires received its first letter from Friesland inquiring about conditions for immigrants. Many more letters followed, indicating that the Argentine promotion efforts were getting results in the crisis-ridden northern region. In the three years, 1888-1890, the recruiters snared 4,500 Netherlanders, 85 percent of whom the Argentine government subsidized. These Netherlanders joined a record 261,000 immigrants in Argentina in 1889.

But Argentine government recruitment ultimately failed. Compared to the 175,000 Dutch who made the United States their home between 1845 and 1945, only 10,000 settled in Argentina. Half came before 1925. In the postwar years, another 3,600 Hollanders settled in Argentina, compared to 100,000 Dutch who entered the United States. Brazil and Chile attracted more Dutch settlers than did Argentina.

In the period 1882-1926, according to immigration records in Buenos Aires, 58 percent of the Dutch immigrants were Protestant, 32 percent Catholic, and 2 percent Jewish. This closely approximated the religious census in the Netherlands, but stood in sharp contrast to an Argentina that was 99 percent Catholic. It also differed from the Dutch exodus to North American, which was 80 percent Protestant. Argentina as a Catholic land obviously was more congenial for Catholic Hollanders. Nevertheless, the Dutch in Argentina held on to their ethnic identity for a time. The 1895 national census reported only 38 men and 15 women had married persons of other nationalities.

Ocean passage

The Dutch embarked for Buenos Aires mainly aboard vessels of the Nederlandsch-Amerikaansche Stoomvaart Maatschappij or NASM, a precursor of the Holland-Amerika Lijn. Anticipating a massive influx, NASM redirected three steamships--Schiedam, Zaandam, and Edam from the New York City service to the Argentine traffic. The Zaandam set sail from Amsterdam in December 1888 to inaugurate the NASM South American Line, but the big wave began with the arrival of the Schiedam from Amsterdam in March 1889 with 378 Hollanders, which was followed in May by the Zaandam from Rotterdam with another 303 Dutch. Departures alternated between the Amsterdam and Rotterdam terminals.

Eventually, the P. Caland and Leerdam were added to the South American route. Each carried from 300 to 700 passengers in steerage and completed the voyage in five to six weeks, depending on the number of stops in England, Spain, Portugal, and the Canary Islands to take on more passengers. By contrast, NASM ships bound for New York went direct or with one stop (usually at Southampton, England), and they completed the voyage in only 7-10 days. This was one-fourth the time on the Argentine route.

Argentine immigrant policy

Upon arrival, the newcomers were given free food and lodging at disreputable immigrants hotels for five days. The stay was extended to ten days if they signed a labor contract to go to one of the agricultural colonies. In the peak year of 1889 more than one-half of all Dutch immigrants spent some time in one of the government-run hotels, which doubled as hospitals for the many who suffered from gastrointestinal infections and other maladies. One in twenty Dutch in 1889 arrived sick, despite free medical care by the doctor on board all NASM ships. Sickness was greatest on passages departing in the dead of winter, when passengers experienced the temperature extremes of crossing the equator.

Argentine officials "helped" the newcomers by signing them to labor contracts with large ranchers in the provinces of Buenos Aires, Santa Fé, Entre Ríos, Córdoba, Chaco, and Corrientes. The labor bureau, the Oficina de Trabajo, gave free railroad tickets. Landowners provided food and other necessities on credit, and settled accounts when the crops came in. Hollanders signed such labor contracts without being able to read the fine print in Spanish, and many ended up being victimized, especially when landowners failed to keep their part.

Dutch farm laborers in the interior worked the virgin lands "like slaves" from dawn to dusk under harsh foremen and with unwholesome food. Provisions were ample in beef, corn, and sugar but low in milk, cheese, vegetables, and fruits. The huge hunks of meat and hardtack were not part of the normal Dutch diet and this led to intestinal illnesses, especially among the children.

The people were housed in flimsy mud huts until they could build their own homes. A leader in the Gereformeerde Kerk [Reformed Church] of Buenos Aires later told of the consequences: "Because of disease, hunger and poverty a third of the colonists died." In one congregation some 100 persons, mostly the young, died within a few months after arrival. This same cleric charged that some families survived only by prostituting their daughters to the ranch foremen.

Immigrants who were greater risk takers signed farm contracts, either as cash tenants or more often on shares, in which case landowners provided tools, seed, and oxen in exchange for a 50/50 split of the crops. But few Dutch in the early years climbed the agricultural ladder from tenancy to land ownership. On the pampas in 1895, half of the farmers were tenants and the proportion increased over time to 70 percent by 1914. Only a fortunate few had the means to buy the virgin land. According to the Second Argentine National Census of 1895, only 121 of 2,880 Dutch, or one in twenty-five, owned farms. In Santa Fe Province, a mere 7 of 405 Dutch (less than one in fifty) owned farms. This was fewer than the ten Dutch prostitutes that worked the streets of Buenos Aires at the time.

Dutch agricultural colonies

The main Dutch rural colonies took shape in the agricultural projects of Micaela Cascallares, La Hibernia, and La Colina near Tres Arroyos, La Fortuna near Bahia Blanca, and Felix Lynch near Chacabuco. Tres Arroyos, a regional market center and railhead, had 4,000 inhabitants in 1889. The fortunate Dutch with some capital ended up on this fertile pampas and the surrounding areas of San Cayetano and Claromecó.

At Tres Arroyos the largest Dutch colony in Argentina developed with about 80 families. Virgin land was available in 50-hectares (125 acre) parcels for $5,000 ($100 per hectare or $40 per acre). This price for viable farmland was considered fair for such productive lands, according to Alsina, the government official. But it was expensive compared to the free land policy the United States government had followed since 1862, and where $40 in the 1880s would buy improved farms near railroads throughout the plains states.

The agricultural colony of Micaela Cascallares was the most important settlement in the Tres Arroyos district. The impresario Don Benjamin del Castillo opened this 21,000-hectare (52,500-acre) project in 1889, just at the time the first contingent of sixty Frisian and Groninger families arrived. Castillo parceled the fertile lands into 381 plots of 25 to 50 hectares (62 to 125 acres), and offered them for 1-3 pesos per hectare to work his land. Many of the initial families did not remain on the harsh frontier but left for larger towns, or moved to distant parts of the country; some returned to the Netherlands. Nine families are known to have remained in Tres Arroyos. They survived by finding work on the newly-opened railway as station employees and porters, and by doing carpentry, electrical work, butchering, and even digging graves.

Three other colonies--La Hibernia, La Colina, and La Fortuna--were short-lived. La Hibernia covered only 5-6,000 hectares (12-15,000 acres) and attracted mainly Flemish Belgians and Netherlanders, but it was poorly planned and did not thrive. In 1891 most of the people moved to Tres Arroyos and Micaela Cascallares. La Colina, some 200 km distant, failed even sooner. The La Fortuna project of 8,000 hectares (20,000 acres) began in 1889 with 128 families, 79 (two-thirds) Dutch with 442 souls. One-third of the Dutch were Frisians; Catholic French, Germans, and Italians made up the remaining workers. The developers had financial difficulties from the outset and did not provide the necessary provisions to their workers, who were forced to leave.

Félix Lynch in the district of Chacabuco had 25 Dutch families (134 souls) in 1890, 7 of whom were Frisian. The Protestant Dutch lived in one neighborhood and an equal number of Catholic French, Belgians, Germans, and Swiss congregated in another. All raised wheat, corn, and linseed on parcels ranging form 60 to 92 hectares (150-230 acres). This small settlement fared better than those near Tres Arroyos in the south. Comodoro Rivadavia had a unique origin as a colony of South African Boers, consisting of 33 families, all members of the arch-conservative Nederduitsch Gereformeerde Kerk, who after the debilitating Boer War emigrated to Chubut in the far south Patagonia between 1902-1905 under the leadership of the Reverend Louis P. Vorster. Vorster organized a Nederduitsch congregation in Comodoro Rivadavia in 1903 and served it until 1906, when the Reverend A.J. Jacobs took his place until 1910. In 1912 the Reverend A.C. Sonneveldt founded a Gereformeerde Kerk, which eventually merged with the Nederduitsch congregation. The colonists primarily raised sheep.

Many poor Dutch found themselves in factory districts in Buenos Aires and Rosario, where they lived in tenements and worked in menial factory jobs until they could pick up enough Spanish to get by. Seven-day work weeks were the norm in the factories.

First wave collapses

The timing of the first Dutch immigrant contingent in Argentina could not have been worse. Just as they began arriving, the stock market crashed in June 1888 and this triggered a severe depression, made worse by endemic political corruption. Standard rents on share-cropped farms rose to 70 percent by 1890. Tenant farmers, including the Dutch who had just arrived, abandoned the land and fled to the cities, but hyper inflation, unemployment, and labor strikes made times hard there as well. The Argentine government did not yet offer a social "safety net" of unemployment insurance and workmen's compensation programs.

More than 300 desperate families from the failed agricultural colonies, as well as the city Dutch, massed in Buenos Aires at the door of the Dutch consul, Leonard van Riet, to complain bitterly about the bad treatment and ask for funds to return to the Netherlands. The consulate assisted some families, mainly widows with small children, but it was left to an association of wealthy Dutch in Buenos Aires, who formed the Wilhelmina Society, to provide charity.

Alsina sharply criticized the government's policies for creating an "artificial immigration." These people took passage "lightly," declared Alsina. Thus, they "have only themselves to blame if their situation has not turned out to be prosperous." Consul Van Riet concurred with Alsina. In an 1889 article in De Standaard, Van Riet had advised prospective immigrants to emulate the successful North American transplanting of the 1840s. Immigrants must save at least 200 guilders ($80) and form "associations of small farmers whose goal should be the group purchase of land in Argentina so as to then, with the necessary knowledge, exploit it." Large families with no money should stay home. Alsina and Van Riet put their fingers on a weak point in the promotion effort, but their remarks must also be seen as an attempt to exculpate their respective governments for shortcomings in implementing the assistance programs. The officials could also blame the unforeseen collapse of the Argentine economy.

By July 1891 the Argentine people took to the streets and rebels tried to topple the government by force. Soldiers restored public order after two days of bombardment in the capital, but the Celman government fell a week later. A decade of political instability followed until the Centennial year, 1910, when the old oligarchy collapsed and a new reform government came to power.

Three months before the June riots, the Celman administration discontinued its subsidized fares and this virtually ended Dutch immigration after only two years. The word in the Netherlands was to avoid Argentina, because the government had failed to meet its obligations to the new agricultural recruits. In one instance the Schiedam arrived at Buenos Aires in December 1890 with only one Dutch passenger. The Holland-America Line had no choice but to stop its Argentine passenger service. Thereafter, in the 1890s more Dutch re-migrated to the Netherlands than arrived from there. It was 1907 before another vessel from Rotterdam or Amsterdam arrived in Buenos Aires with Dutch passengers, although the Koninklijke Hollandsche Lloyd company had in 1900 begun regular freight service between Amsterdam and Buenos Aires.

The end of the fare subsidy program was a blessing in disguise; it spared more people from disappointment. The Reverend Gerardo Oberman, currently a pastor in the Dutch Reformed Church in Argentina and a student of its history, is very harsh in his evaluation of national policies in the 1880s. The Dutch came to a "convulsed and unstable" land, Oberman states, and they "suffered in their own flesh the consequences of a disastrously planned immigration and of a policy condemned to failure." Oberman paints too dark a picture; the United States economy also collapsed in 1893 and for several years immigration ceased and the Dutch there suffered greatly. New immigrants caught in the undertow of an economic tsunami always bear the brunt of the wave. Nevertheless, Argentina for the Dutch Reformed, was in Oberman's words "a paradise that never was."

Dutch Reformed churches

Only immigrants of the Reformed faith managed to create Dutch ethnic congregations in Argentina, and these were limited to four churches--Rosario (1893), Buenos Aires (1900), Comodoro Rivadavia (1903), and Tres Arroyos (1908). The first two were urban churches, and the latter two were rural churches.

The Dutch colonies were widely dispersed and lacked clerical leadership for years. Families assembled in private homes and elders led worship. In 1889 a few families organized an "Immanuel Evangelization Association" in two places, Tres Arroyos and Rosario. The congregation in the city of Rosario (province of Santa Fe) was the first to be formed in 1893, five years after the Dutch immigration began; Rosario was also the first to disband in 1923. The Buenos Aires congregation dates from 1894.

Four hundred Hollanders lived in Rosario, a city of more than 100,000 inhabitants, according to the 1895 national census. In 1893, after three years of effort, at least two house churches there, numbering some 50 souls, organized the Hollandsche Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerk. The body immediately made official contact with the GKN and requested Bibles, hymnals, and catechism books. At least 250 other Reformed souls, of an independent pietist bent, continued to meet in conventicles. Bickering soon rent the church, as "dissenters" withdrew in protest of the lax exercise of discipline and the administering of the sacraments by a Methodist pastor.

The fledgling church needed a seminary-trained pastor, but the mother church, the Gereformeerde Kerk Nederland (GKN), at its synod of 1896 refused their request to send one. They recognized the urgent need in Rosario, but declared that "since its members chose America as their second homeland, they themselves should seek the help they need there." Presumably, synod's foreign missions committee, who made the absurd recommendation, believed that the CRCNA should be responsible for sending undershepherds to Argentina. The CRCNA later did step into the breach, but it initially believed that the mother church in the Netherlands had the primary responsibilty, though it would share in the work. Strange it was that the GKN so readily wrote off Argentina as a mission field at the very synod that became known as the Synod of Missions.

Elder Andreas Struis, the Vice Consul in Rosario, led worship twice a Sunday for the remnant of 30 persons, reading sermons sent from Holland, and conducted weekly catechism classes. In 1902 he sent a letter to the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA) requesting closer ties. The elders of the Rosario congregation, following the advice of the Kampen theological faculty, in 1897 ordained Struis as pastor with the laying on of hands. The extremity of the need dictated this unusual practice. The more solid footing brought back many of the seceders of 1893, but Struis had to work fulltime to support his family and could not dedicate himself 100 percent to the church. This prompted him in 1901 to accept a call from the wealthier Buenos Aires congregation, which could pay his full salary. The Rosario church never again had an ordained pastor.

In 1908 Rosario placed itself under the tutelage of the Buenos Aires congregation. Thereafter, it limped along with occasional visiting ministers until it disbanded in 1923, despite a formal reconstitution of the church in 1916. Because of the lack of a regular pastor and a failure to live in harmony, Rosario was the first church to dissappear but it was not the last. The Reformed families joined other denominations: Methodists, Baptists, Free Brethren, Waldensians, and even the Salvation Army. This forced assimilation spelled the end of the Reformed community in Rosario.

Meanwhile, formal worship began in the Barracas neighborhood of southern Buenos Aires in 1894, under the leadership of several gifted elders, C. Nieuwenhuizen and C. de Boe. The church was organized in 1900 with 150 souls, mainly of working class families, and the next year Rev. Struis was called. He carried on for five years, while the maturing congregation repeatedly appealed to the GKN and the CRCNA to send a trained minister. They too, like Rosario, were ignored, until 1908 when the GKN sent the Reverend Dr. John van Lonkhuijzen, pastor of the GKN congregation in Aarlanderveen, for a period of two years, in response to a call from the Buenos Aires church. The congregation received Van Lonkhuijzen with tears of joy; their prayers of many years had finally been answered.

Before Van Lonkhuijzen arrived, many members had given up hope and joined the Baptist Mission. Barely 50 souls remained and yhalf were children. The GKN had acted seven years too late and a flourishing congregation nearly died. After Van Lonkhuijzen returned, the Buenos Aires church reverted to a "leeskerk" (a service with printed sermons read by an elder), but it received more attention and financial help from abroad because Van Lonkhuijzen campaigned actively on their behalf in the Netherlands and later in the United States.

The lack of consensus in religious matters plagued the Reformed settlements. In Van Lonkhuijzen's words, the state of the Reformed community was one of "hopeless division, endless confusion, and limitless decline." The young people especially went to the cities and many abandoned the faith of their fathers, after coming to the realization that in a Catholic country par excellence, there was no longer any social obligation to keep their religious tradition. The failure to establish and maintain Christian day schools was also fatal. Public schooling pulled the children into the Argentine culture and led to outmarriages.

Van Lonkhuijzen was doubtless dismayed by the dismal situation in the Reformed churches, and this may explain his decision to return to the Netherlands after only seven months! In that time he nurtured the Buenos Aires church, established a small congregation in the town of Tres Arroyos, laid the base for founding Dutch Christian schools in the two congregations, and organized the Reformed churches into a classis, based on the Church Order of Dordrecht.

The Reverend Antonie C. Sonneveldt (1889-1959), who arrived in Buenos Aires in late 1910, stood on Van Lonkhuijzen's shoulders and brought a sustained organizational push and new dynamism. Instead of staying seven months, he remained fifty years as the first and only Reformed itinerant preacher in Argentina! Soon the congregation surpassed its former membership high of 150 souls. Sonneveldt's coming was the most significant event in the development of the Reformed Church in Argentina. The CRCNA even sent $400 for his support for two years as an endorsement of his work.

Then barely 30 years of age, Sonneveldt devoted his entire career to nurturing the Reformed faith in Argentina, serving two pastorates in Buenos Aires (1911-15, 1926-55) and one in Chubut (1915-26), all the while going on preaching circuits to scattered Hollanders throughout the country. In 1914, for example, Sonneveldt visited the Boer colony and preached 25 times, confirmed elders and deacons, heard 28 confessions of faith, baptized 60 children, and organized a youth association. Being located in the national capital, the Buenos Aires church also benefitted from continued immigration and the church continues to the present.

The Tres Arroyos church, located on the southern pampas, had a rocky start. At the turn of the century, the congregation in Buenos Aires sent elder Fritz Benning to encourage the lay leaders there to organize a church and Christian school in the Dutch language "so that the Dutch nation not be lost," but the settlers were too disjointed to act. Pastor Struis of the Buenos Aires church went there to preach and baptize, but it was Van Lonkhuijzen who in 1908 succeeded in organizing a small church with seventeen adult members. The patience and perseverance of these half dozen core families and their descendants is primarily responsible for keeping the Tres Arroyos congregation alive until the present day.

In 1911 the GKN sent "Meester" A. Rolloos to gather the scattered flock of Hollanders in the area and found a Dutch Christian School, but he departed hastily after less than a year, to be followed by Rev. Sj. Rijper, a Sonneveldt protege. Rijper founded the school in 1913 and remained as pastor for six years, putting the congregation on a sure and permanent footing. In 1930 the CRCNA sent its first missionary pastor, the Rev. Brandt Bruxvoort, and he led the congregation for five years. He was followed in 1937 by the Rev. J. Jerry Pott, who remained until 1950 when he succeeded Sonneveldt at Buenos Aires. Pott went on preaching circuits with Sonneveldt and worked among the Dutch immigrants in San Cayetano, San Francisco de Bellocq, and Claromecó. Of the dozen and more missionary pastors sent out by the CRCNA, he served the longest--twenty years (1937-1957), and his ministry was marked by much success.

Social characteristics

The Buenos Aires ship lists reveal three high points of Dutch arrivals--1888-1890, 1905-1917, and 1920-1925, with the peaks in 1889, 1911, and 1925. This trend line closely tracks Dutch immigration to the United States in these years, although it was thirteen times less in raw numbers (Table 1, Figure 1). The parallel cyclical pattern suggests that similar economic conditions were at work in the Netherlands and in both receiving countries, even though they were on opposite sides of the equator. The United States and Argentina offered cheap lands on the frontier and industrial development was gathering momentum. After 1890 the nature of the Dutch movement to Argentina changed from a folk migration to a commercial exchange. Families predominated in the first wave; from 1882 to 1890, 74 percent were married. In the next decade, 1891-1901, 55 percent were married. This number dropped to 47 percent in the years up to World War One. During the war years 1915-1918, only 37 percent were married, but afterwards, from 1919 to 1926, the number increased again to 47 percent because entry into the United States was blocked by the new quota laws. Overall, 55 percent were married, compared to 70 percent among Dutch to the United States (Figure 2).

The occupational distribution among Protestants and Catholics, however, was the same. One-fifth were professionals and directors, another one-fifth farmed, one-third were agents and brokers, one-sixth were skilled craftsmen, and one-tenth were unskilled laborers. Over two-thirds of Protestants took passage directly from Dutch ports, whereas two-thirds of Catholics embarked from non-Dutch ports, mainly in Belgium and France (Table 2). Many were merchants traveling on business.

Second and third wave trends

After a fifteen-year lull in immigration, a second wave began in 1905 and ran until 1917, totaling 2,200 Dutch. This was followed by a third spurt after the war, from 1920 to 1926, totaling another 1,200 (Table 1). The vast majority after 1905 were merchants, traders, and professionals, rather than farmers who had predominated in the first wave. In the third period, 1918-1926, farmers made up a mere 14 percent, as did skilled and unskilled workers (Table 4). Commercial persons had become dominant, and nearly one-half sailed from ports other than Holland. Of these, two-thirds came from ports elsewhere in Europe and one-third from South America, Africa, and Asia. Most traveled in luxurious first and second class accommodations. Proportional to their share of the arriving passengers, Protestants sailed from Dutch ports more than did Catholics; 70 percent were Protestant and 25 percent Catholic, compared to the overall passenger ratio of 62 percent Protestant and 33 percent Catholic. The few farmers in the third wave made a significant impact on the Tres Arroyos colony. These were sons of wealthy landowners from the Haarlemmermeer Polder near Amsterdam who arrived in 1924 with their substantial inheritances. They had been recruited by the Rev. Sonneveldt, who regularly visited Tres Arroyos. In an Argentine promotion meeting in 1923 at Aalsmeer, a village on the Polder, Sonneveldt presented such a glowing picture of Tres Arroyos that twenty young farm laborers decided to try their luck for a season. Their favorable reports then prompted a number of farmers' sons to emigrate the next year. Nearly all married daughters of first wave 1889 immigrants and prospered.

These innovative farmers introduced new agricultural crops and techniques, established the renowned Alfa farmers co-operative, and mastered the challenges of big-time farming in an inflationary business environment. They also supported the Reformed Church and its parent-run Christian school. Jan Verkuijl, one of the most successful of the 1924 contingent, rose from managing the Alfa Co-operative to leadership in the national organization. As chairman of the Committee for Immigration, established in 1933, he frequently returned for recruiting trips to the Netherlands and migrants kept coming until the early 1950s.

It was the religious, economic, and social efforts of the 1924 migrants that enabled Tres Arroyos to survive and prosper as a Dutch community. It was virtually the only Dutch enclave to do so. The others withered away.


Dutch migration to Argentina was an individual movement for labor and trade, instigated by government fare subsidies. But the program ran amok due to rose-colored promises by Argentine officials, chronic political instability, and the economic crisis of the early 1890s. General economic development and industrialization in Argentina fell far behind that in North America. This made advancement more difficult for immigrants as well as for nationals. Argentina was "a paradise that never was."

Unlike the United States, where the Dutch were led by their pastors to plant Reformed and Catholic colonies, in Argentina they came as singles or family clusters without clerical leadership. They were "like lambs without a shepherd," in the biblical imagery of Diego Zijlstra, a immigrant diarist who survived the harsh years. The mother church in the Netherlands did not send a pastor to Argentina for nearly twenty years, until 1908. In contrast, Dutch immigrants to North American settled in hundreds of church-based colonies, led by their pastors, and the colonies were nourished by a continuing flow of family and friends in a typical folk migration. A regular stream of pastors also answered the calls from Christian Seceded churches across the Netherlands. By contrast, the Reformed church in Argentina never received enough trained pastors and educators. That it survived against such odds is nothing short of amazing.

The sense of aloneness for Protestants in Argentina was all the more vivid because the country was overwhelmingly Roman Catholic. Instead of implicit, if not explicit, government support of Protestant churches, as in the United States, Argentine policy was inimical to them. This made it far more difficult for Dutch Calvinists to transplant their churches and uphold the formal "requirements" of the faith. It also led to inevitable intermarriage with Catholics and to Catholic baptisms of the children.

&#Argentina as a Catholic country could never rival North America as a home for Protestant Hollanders. The social and political culture was too different. In the United States the Dutch Reformed Church was one of the oldest denominations, dating from the founding of the New Netherland colony in the 1620s. "Old Dutch" members of this denomination warmly welcomed the "Young Dutch" arrivals in the mid-nineteenth century into their churches and served them with advice and financial help. Argentina had no such welcoming party of religious brothers and sisters for Reformed immigrants. They had to survive as best they could as individuals or clusters of families.

Nor was there the chain migration that so characterized the North American story and is vital for continuing a migration tradition. Argentina continued to be "terra incognita" for Netherlanders. So few Dutch settled there that they lacked the critical mass needed to build viable communities. In the United States the Dutch were colonists; in South America they were immigrants or simply migrants. Colonists transplant themselves and their institutions and maintain their ethnoreligious identity for generations, whereas immigrants leave the old ways and assimilate rapidly into the host culture. Or they remigrate. In the years 1897-1905 53 percent of all Argentine immigrants remigrated. While the Dutch rate of re-migration was likely less, it certainly far surpassed the North American rate estimated at 15 percent.

In 1969 nine Dutch Reformed churches remained active in Argentina, totaling 1,600 members. The viable congregations were those in Tres Arroyos (540 members) and Tandil (84 members) in Buenos Aires Province, Buenos Aires city (319 members), Sarmiento (249 members) and Diadema Argentina (50 members) in Chubut Province, Mar del Plata (120 members), and the South African enclave of Comodoro Rivadavia (272 members). As Dutch ethnic churches, all were threatened with stagnation and remained financially dependent to some degree on outside support from the CRCNA and the GKN. Diversify or die was the choice they faced, but to break out of the ethnic mold was too difficult for most.

Today the only bonafide Dutch immigrant enclave is the closed community of Tres Arroyos with its 400 members, which survives as an ethnic island, but it too is threatened by exogamy and cultural assimilation into Argentine life. Thousands of second and third generation Dutch from Tres Arroyos, who are spread across the country, maintain some regular contact with the mother colony, which Netherlands field sociologist C.F. Jongkind described in 1983 as a "positive, prestigious entity." But its days as a Dutch enclave are also numbered.

Table 1: Dutch in Buenos Aires Passenger Lists, by Year and Time Periods

Year No Year No

1882 17 1905 125

1883 #9; #9; 2 1906 115

1884 #9; #9; 9 1907 133

1885 #9; #9; 7 1908 168

1886 21 1909 208

1887 #9; #9; 7 1910 228

1888 82 1911 345

1889 745 1912 134

1890 270 1913 199

1891 -- 1914 173

1892 23 1915 157

1893 10 1916 111

1894 -- 1917 107 2203 44%

1895 28

1896 #9; #9; 5 1918 #9; #9; 42

1897 39 1919 #9; #9; 46

1898 44 1920 218

1899 59 1921 101

1900 11 1922 167

1901 18 1923 197

1902 19 1924 152

1903 #9; #9; 9 1925 295

1904 48 1473 30% 1926 68 1286 26%


Source: Buenos Aires Ship Passenger Lists, 1882-1926

Table 2: Religion of Dutch Arrivals by Ports of Departure (in percent)

Ports of Departure

Religion Dutch Europe Non Europe Totals

Protestant 68 22 #9; #9; #9; 10 2888

Catholic 37 51 9; 12 1613

Source: Buenos Aires Ship Passenger Lists, 1882-1926

Table 3 Dutch in Buenos Aires Passenger Lists by Time Period and by Ports of Departure

Time Periods

Ports 1882-1904 1905-1917 1918-1926 Totals

Dutch #9; 908 33% 1097 #9; 40% #9; #9; 740 #9; 27% ; 2745 100%

62% ; ; 50% ; ; 57% 55%

Europe #9; 516 31% #9; #9; 817 #9; 50% #9; #9; 307 #9; 19% ; 1640 100%

35% ; ; 37% ; ; 24% #9; #9; 33%

Other 9; 49 9; 8% #9; #9; 289 #9; 50% #9; #9; 239 #9; 41% 577 100%

3% ; ; 13% ; ; 19% #9; #9; 12%


Totals #9; 1473 2203 1286 ; 4962

100% 9; 9; 100% 9; 9; 100% 100%


Source: Buenos Aires Ship Passenger Lists, 1882-1926

Table 4: Occupation Rank Categories by Time Periods

(employed persons only)

Rank Categories* 1882-1904 1905-1917 1918-1926 Totals

N % N % N %

Professional 59 11 263 49 ; 219 40 #9; 541

10% 22% 30% #9; #9; 21%

Commercial 106 13 434 52 ; 303 36 #9; 843

17% 36% 41% #9; #9; 33%

Agricultural 273 48 187 33 ; 105 19 #9; 565

44% 16% 14% #9; #9; 22%

Skilled 110 28 212 55 66 17 #9; 388

18% 18% #9; 9% #9; #9; 15%

Unskilled #9; #9; #9; 68 30 114 50 46 20 #9; 228

11% 9% 6% 9%

Totals 616 24 ; 1210 47 ; 739 29 2565


* Rank Categories are:

Professional (professional, sub-professional, owner/entrepreneur, sub-managerial)

Commercial (Employee/clerical, high commercant, shopkeeper, peddler)

Agricultural (farmer, farm laborer)


Unskilled (semi-skilled, unskilled)

Source: Buenos Aires Ship Passenger Lists, 1882-1926