The strange political anachronism that is a cluster of rocky islands in the Southern Atlantic will, for the foreseeable future, be a thorn in the side of the British government; one of those small thorns which, for the most part, you are able to ignore but which occasionally flares up into a throbbing, angry, infected wound. Whilst the average person living in the UK rarely gives the Falkland Islands a thought, for the Argentinians the question of Las Malvinas is central to their political life. Regaining them for Argentina is one of the principal platforms on which many of their politicians stand for election. When Britain went to war over the Falklands back in 1982, many people were surprised that Thatcher’s government would risk the lives of British servicemen over a distant outpost of a dismantled Empire. But go to war we did, and the Islands were reclaimed. Following the war, relations between the UK and Argentina reached a low point from which they have never recovered.
Just last week, the Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones was the latest politician to blunder inadvertently into the debate. The Argentinian Ambassador, Alicia Castro, following a meeting with Jones, published a statement on the proceedings, in which she declared that she “refutes the propaganda from a sector of the Malvinas Islands’ inhabitants portraying Argentina as hostile, in an attempt to justify the UK government’s refusal to resolve the sovereignty dispute.” It is not known whether Jones knew Castro would make this statement, but there were calls immediately for Mr Jones to distance himself from such ‘distasteful’ comments. As any British politician knows, the Falklands question is the Pandora’s Box of British politics – no good can come from trying to address it. Britain will only come out appearing to be clinging to its colonial past whilst simultaneously hamstrung by the powerful Falklands lobby in Westminster.
Rather distressingly, then, for the British government, the United Nations has instructed the UK to address the question on numerous occasions since it passed Resolution 2065 in 1965, which called for both states to conduct bilateral negotiations to reach a peaceful settlement of the dispute. In defiance of the cherished special relationship, the US has often backed Argentina in the debate, in a collaboration of New World against Old. Even American actor Sean Penn decided to weigh-in with his opinion, back in 2012, proclaiming that “I think that the world today is not going to tolerate any kind of ludicrous and archaic commitment to colonialist ideology.”
In one of the least suspenseful elections ever held, just 3 people from a 92% turnout voted against remaining part of the UK in a referendum held in March 2013. David Cameron suggested that this had settled the question once and for all and that the wishes of the Islanders should be respected. Argentina labelled the referendum a political farce and has refused to drop its claims to Las Malvinas.
The Falklands are an archipelago of around 778 mountainous islands covering 4,700 square miles in the middle of the storm-battered South Atlantic. The population stands at about 2,932, primarily native Falkland Islanders (descended from 19th century British settlers), with a smattering of recent immigrants from the UK, Gibraltar, France, Scandinavia, Saint Helena and Chile. There are less than 30 Argentinians living on the Falkland Islands. Recent oil exploration has so far proved fruitless and the main industries remain fishing and agriculture. The climate is cold, wet and extremely windy. So why is Argentina so keen to have them back?
The foundation of Argentina’s claim to ownership of Las Malvinas is that the Islands were originally a colony of Spain, taken by force by the British, and therefore should have been inherited by Argentina when it declared independence from Spain in 1816. However, discovery and colonisation of the Falklands isn’t as simple as the Argentinians might have us believe.
Although there is evidence that there may have been prehistoric occupants, the Islands were uninhabited at the time of the first recorded landing, by an English Captain, John Strong, en route to Peru and Chile in 1690. Strong sailed on, however, and the Islands remained uninhabited until the French established Port Louis on East Falkland in 1764. Two years later, British settlers founded Port Egmont on Saunders Island, a little to the northwest of West Falkland, but it’s entirely possible that the two colonies were unaware of each other’s existence. That same year, 1766, the French surrendered East Falkland to the Spanish, who renamed Port Louis ‘Puerto Soledad’. When the Spanish stumbled across Port Egmont in 1770, they launched a war and took the settlement from the British, but lost it again in 1771.
The Spanish and British managed to coexist in the archipelago until 1774, when the British withdrew from the Islands for economic reasons, leaving behind a plaque claiming them in the name of King George III. In the upheaval of the Napoleonic Wars, during which Spain was allied to France, and in the aftermath of British invasions of South America, the Spanish evacuated their colony on East Falkland. By 1811, the only inhabitants were gauchos and fishermen, and the Islands became politically undisputed fishing grounds until 1823, when a German-born merchant by the name of Luis Vernet was granted permission by Buenos Aires to fish and rear cattle in the ruins of Puerto Soledad. He grew his enterprise and eventually brought over more settlers, and in 1829, Buenos Aires named him Military and Civil Commander of the Islands. A raid by the US warship USS Lexington in 1831, captained by US Navy Commander Silas Duncan, ended Vernet’s tenure as governor of the Islands. Buenos Aires attempted to reassert control over the settlement by installing a garrison there, but a mutiny in 1832 was followed by the arrival of British forces, who established British rule.
The British troops departed soon after and the same year, Vernet’s deputy, Scotsman Matthew Brisbane, returned to pick up where Vernet had left off. However, unrest followed, and gaucho Antonio Riviera led a group of dissenters in murdering Brisbane and attacking the settlers. In the wake of this, the British returned to impose order once more. The Falklands Islands became an official Crown Colony in 1840 and began to be populated by Scottish and Welsh emigrants, descendants of whom have lived on the Islands ever since.
Like many places in the world, the history of the Falkland Islands is complex and muddied by the colonial one-upmanship of the European powers during the 18th and 19th centuries. Much water has passed under the bridge and the world has changed dramatically since Buenos Aires last had control of Puerto Soledad. But since the first official inhabitants were French, albeit briefly, if we are tracing back rightful ownership on historical grounds, should not the Falkland Islands technically belong to France?
Lying approximately 300 miles off the Argentinian coast in comparison to the nearly 8,000 miles from the UK is, admittedly, a rather significant geographical imbalance. Argentina claims that this disparity strengthens their claims to ownership of the Islands, but this case doesn’t hold up well to scrutiny. At its narrowest point, the English Channel is only 20.6 miles wide – does that give France the right to ownership of the UK as well?
…And a dash of politics
In the 1960s, against a backdrop of emerging nation states across the world declaring independence from their old colonial masters, the United Nations called for universal decolonisation. Argentina seized upon this mentality as an opportunity to further its claim on Las Malvinas, egged on by the US. But if we backtrack a little, what is it that makes Argentina (and by extension, the US) any less of a colonial nation? Modern day Argentina is a product of the Spanish colonists who settled in South America in the 19th century, persecuting and marginalising many of the indigenous people already living there. Nowadays, studies have found that some 56% of the Argentinian population have traces of indigenous DNA in their genetic makeup. They came, they conquered, and they entwined their cultures and produced a new nation. Shouldn’t this be the antipathy to outdated claims to territorial entitlement?
The British government has been perfectly willing for the sake of political expediency to ignore the views of native populations in its past decolonisation efforts – see Hong Kong and Diego Garcia, for example. But the opinion of the people who have made their homes on the Falkland Islands must be considered – the overwhelming majority of them want, as their cringe-worthy Union Flag referendum-day suits demonstrated, to remain British. They are, as has often been said, more British than the British.
As much as I have a natural aversion to flag-waving Old Boy patriotism and conceited nostalgia for the good old days of the Empire, the Argentinian government has not made annexation with Argentina an attractive prospect for the Islanders. If this changes, maybe the Falkland Islanders will begin to see the economic and trade benefits of a union with their closest neighbour. But, until then, their views must be respected. Sean Penn was right – colonialism is an antiquated notion, and just as Britain has no right to claim territories for itself against the wishes of the native population, neither does Argentina.
Author: Ellie Wilson
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