Thirty years ago this week, on the 14th June 1982, Argentinian forces surrendered in the Falkland Islands and the British regained full possession of the islands. I remember it well because it was my birthday and I was living in neighbouring Chile at the time. The Chileans believed with good reason that if the Argentinians had prevailed they would go on to seek to resolve another ancient dispute with Chile over some rocks off their southern coast known as the Beagle Islands after Charles Darwin’s ship, the Beagle that sailed through there.
These rocks were of no particular strategic value although it was conceivable that there might have been hydrocarbons nearby. But that is not the point to the Argentine nation. Their politicians, whether military or of dubious democratic authority, often need to divert the population from their disastrous management of the economy. The Beagles had been claimed by the Chileans long ago but the Argentinians had counterclaimed. The Chileans suggested this claim should be referred to independent adjudication. At various times Queen Victoria, the Pope and a panel of five international judges were asked to settle the dispute and all decided in favour of Chile. On the last occasion, in 1971 the Chilean and Argentine Presidents signed a treaty to submit it to independent arbitration. The judges delivered their verdict in 1977 that the islands were Chilean. The Argentinians responded with a military attack on Chile in 1978 which was subsequently aborted.
It has been much the same in the Falklands. Noone knows which European first set eyes on them. There are various recorded sightings in the 16th century but no attempt was made to claim them. We do know who was the first to set foot on them. In 1690 Captain John Strong en route to Chile was driven east from Cape Horn in a violent storm. He found himself off the northern tip of the islands, which he identified from a previous sighting by Captain Richard Hawkins. Strong charted the sound between the two main islands and named them after the First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Falkland. He then sailed on.
Under the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 Spain’s control of its traditional territories in the Americas – which by implication embraced the Falklands - was formally confirmed but there was intense trade rivalry throughout the 18th century between Britain, France and Spain and ambitions were not restrained by this or other treaties but only by the power of military might. Lord Anson saw the Falklands as a refuge and refreshment base for the navy. But the first to carry through a plan to take and settle the Falklands was de Bougainville, a French aristocrat and adventurer who sailed from St Malo in 1764 and formally claimed the islands in the name of Louis XV. Only a small fort and colony were established but, together with Spain’s general historic rights in the region, this settlement is at the root of Argentinian claims as we shall see.
At about the same time the Admiralty sent out Commodore John Byron, known better as ‘Foulweather Jack’, to claim the islands. Unaware of the French presence he landed on West Falkland in 1765 and planted the Union Jack and a small vegetable patch at a place he called Port Egmont before sailing away. He was followed in 1766 by Captain John McBride with orders to build a fort and eject any settlers. But by now there were 250 French at Port Louis and they were the ones who insisted on the British leaving. Now the Falklands took its troublesome place on the stage of world politics for the first time. Spain was furious with both France and Britain for these breaches of the Treaty of Utrecht. As an ally of France it insisted that the French should give up the Port Louis colony and de Bougainville was handsomely compensated.
Under the Buenos Aires captain general a new Spanish Governor was appointed and the colony was renamed Port Soledad. In 1769 a Spanish expedition was despatched to rid the islands of any British presence, a forerunner of the 1982 crisis. The British commander, Captain George Farmer duly quit the settlement ‘under protest’. The British ministry had been minded to come to an accommodation with Spain but as was to happen two centuries later domestic politics intervened. Lord North’s government was under pressure at home, diplomatic frenzy broke out with threats of war on both sides and finally an agreement was reached to allow the British to return to Port Egmont ‘to restore the King’s honour’, Spain none the less retaining sovereignty. The great Samuel Johnson was commissioned to write a pamphlet with the purpose of deflating the importance of West Falkland in British eyes. I have read this document which is written in beautiful language as one can imagine describing the place as ‘thrown aside from human use, stormy in winter, barren in summer, an island which not even the southern savages have dignified with habitation, where a garrison must be kept in a state that contemplates with envy the exiles of Siberia, of which the expense will be perpetual’. But I doubt that Johnson was really exaggerating his case. A British lieutenant previously stationed at Port Egmont had called it ‘The most detestable place I was ever at in all my life’ while the first Spanish priest to arrive there had written ‘I tarry in this miserable desert, suffering everything for the love of God’.
The British did return but were to leave just three years later leaving only a plaque with the legend: ‘Be it known to all nations that Falkland’s Ysland, with this fort, the storehouses, wharfs … are the sole right and property of His Most Sacred Majesty George III, King of Great Britain.’ (Later British sources have made the Ysland plural, thus extending the claim beyond West Falkland.) In 1790 the British signed with Spain the Nootka Sound Convention, by which Britain formally renounced any colonial ambitions in South America ‘and the islands adjacent’.
As the independence movement gathered strength the colonial authorities decided in 1811 to remove the Spanish settlers from Port Soledad. The Falklands Islands were effectively abandoned for the general use of passing ships. But in 1820, the new state of the United Provinces of Rio de la Plata, forerunner of the present Argentina, sent a frigate to claim them as part of its post-colonial legacy from Spain. The sealing and whaling vessels at the Port, some fifty in number, declined to accept this new authority, but various attempts were made by the Argentinians to establish order with a governor arriving in 1823. A replacement governor sent in 1829 sought to establish farming and trading rights to go with the hunting and fishing rights previously set. The British consul in Buenos Aires protested at this seeking to sustain the British claim to the islands, despite Nootka Sound.
Then for the first time in this sorry saga the Americans became involved. The new Governor arrested an American ship, Harriet, for illegal sealing and he confiscated some of her property. He took the captain to Buenos Aires for trial. This time the American consul took umbrage and protested that the United States of America had never recognised Argentina’s claim to the islands. They, the Americans could do what they liked there. By chance there was an American warship USS Lexington in Buenos Aires, and in 1831 this was dispatched to Port Soledad to recover the sealskins. The Captain of the Lexington, one Silas Duncan, went much further, and spiked the Argentinian guns, blew up their powder, sacked the settlement, and arrested most of the inhabitants. He then sailed away declaring the islands free of government. Washington and Buenos Aires were still wrestling with this act of piracy a century later.
The Admiralty seized this opportunity and in 1833 sent two warships to retake the islands for Britain. They succeeded in this and cleaned up the remaining Argentinians who were mainly convicts, one of whom had murdered yet another hapless Argentine governor. Ever since, apart from two months in 1982, the Falkland Islands have been under the British flag.
From time to time Argentina would repeat its claim but for much of the next century relations were good. The British treated Argentina as a commercial colony, if not a military one, and Argentina benefitted from British capital, access to trade, engineering and mining skills and much more. But the First World War put an end to that. Argentina, which had been among the leading economies of the world, now collapsed. Military governments came to power in the 1930s and a more nationalist, even fascist tone entered into its politics. Meanwhile in British politics the flag was taken down throughout the Empire and British politicians could not really understand why this stubborn community in the Falklands had no desire for independence. This of course was ludicrous as such a small island population could not have survived alone. They were similar to Gibraltar in that they were inhabited almost exclusively by British citizens while a neighbouring power claimed them on some ancient justification.
The Argentine case rests on the argument that discovery alone has never been accepted as the foundation of sovereignty. It must be followed by occupation and settled administration. Thus the French have prior claim but ceded this to Spain. Argentina claims that it inherited Spain’s sovereignty through post-colonial legacy.
Britain makes three arguments. First it asserted a claim in 1765 and never renounced it. In 1833 this was being reasserted to fill a political vacuum. This argument is not strong. Second is the doctrine of prescription. This broadly states that continuous possession over a long period of time constitutes a right to ownership. Akin perhaps to the popular idea that possession is nine tenths of the law but that idea is not valid and in this case it has been continually challenged. It does, however, have the merit that if the world cannot agree on historic borders there would be even more violent conflicts.
The strongest British case rests on the principle of self-determination, enshrined in the United Nations’ Charter. The islands have a mostly indigenous population that passionately wants to stay British.
Diplomatic efforts to resolve this conundrum continued in the decades after the Second World War not helped by the swings between Peronism and military government in Argentina and the lack of serious focus by the British Foreign Office. From 1964 to 1981 the dispute escalated without resolve. Then in 1981 General Galtieri, with support from Admiral Anaya and with covert support from the Reagan administration, who saw him as a strong man in the continuing cold war against communism in the American hemisphere, ousted General Videla as President. He quickly escalated the level of rhetoric over Las Malvinas, the Argentinian name for the Falklands.
At the time I was working not far away in Santiago de Chile. My sales manager was Argentinian and one day early in 1982 he asked me ‘Don David, you read the English newspapers don’t you?’ ‘Yes.’ I agreed. ‘Well, is there anything in them about Las Malvinas?’ I confessed that there was not. But it seemed that the Argentine newspapers were full of this story so it must have been obvious to British diplomats and intelligence operatives. Nevertheless when the invasion came we seemed totally unprepared. I will not rehearse the whole story of the war which is very familiar and which has been rehashed in endless newspaper articles and television programmes.
As a Brit living in Chile I became a hero. Once I was in a bar and when it emerged that I was British everyone bought me drinks and sang Beatles songs. By contrast I had to visit Spain during the war and took an internal flight to Vigo. I had asked for a non-smoking seat- it was still necessary then-but found that I was in the smoking section. I complained politely to the stewardess who promptly called the captain. He threatened to throw me off the plane and announced to all the passengers that this was what you could expect from the English pirates!
Back in Chile I was drinking in another bar - I was single then, I met my wife a few weeks after the war - and got into conversation with a couple of Brits. They were very vague about their reason for visiting Chile but I later surmised that they were SAS who worked with the Chileans on intelligence matters about the Argentinian navy based in Patagonia.
Thirty years on Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the President of Argentina, is again upping the ante. Again the economy is in a mess. She has nationalised the previously independent Central Bank to get hold of its assets and even taken over the previously independent statistics office so she can publish inaccurate data about inflation and thus get away with lower pay settlements. She has nationalised the Spanish oil company Repsol’s share of YPF with compensation based on a share price that her previous threats had driven down by over half. This week she was presenting her case to the United Nations. Ignoring the issue of self-determination, a key UN principle, her principal argument seemed to be proximity. The Falklands Islands are about 700 kilometres from Argentina, not much less than the distance of Iceland from the UK so perhaps that means we should claim Iceland.
In March Argentina sought to block British trade in response to its claims to sovereignty over the Falkland Islands, with the Argentine Industry Minister Debora Giorgi calling on 20 major businesses to stop imports from the UK by finding local alternatives, an act that is contrary to international trade law.
Alicia Castro, the Argentine ambassador to the UK, declares that the Falkland Islanders’ right to self- determination is of no consequence, “because Britain expelled the Argentine authorities and population from the islands” and “implanted its own population”. Given that this is what the Spanish did during the colonisation of Argentina itself there is some hypocrisy in her government’s claims.
Both sides have a case. Years of flawed diplomacy has left an almost impossible situation. It is inconceivable that after spending so much blood and treasure that the British would now abandon the Falkland islanders. However, it seems that the Argentinians will not give up. Years ago it might have been possible to find a middle way with shared sovereignty. But as I described in the case of the Beagles, even when Argentina has signed a solemn treaty of arbitration it refuses to accept the result. Then you could say the same of the British in the eighteenth century.
But if you’d like to know what that great sage Sean Penn thinks about it then I’ll close with a quote from him: “This is not a cause of leftist flamboyance nor significantly a centuries-old literary dispute. But rather a modern one, that is perhaps unveiled most legitimately through the raconteurism of Patagonian fisherman. One perhaps more analogous to South Africa than a reparation discussion in South Carolina. As a result we must look to the mutual recognition of this illusive (sic) paradigm by both countries…”[i]
Main source: The Battle for the Falklands Max Hastings & Simon Jenkins. Michael Joseph Ltd 1983
[i]Sean Penn on the Falklands dispute The Guardian
Copyright David C Pearson 2012 All rights reserved