The curious dispute over the Falkland Islands

Thirty years after the Falklands War, the dispute over who controls the British outpost simmers on

Now for something completely different – a blog about the Falkland Islands.

I spent the past two weeks there, as a member of ROIM, an international team observing the referendum on the future political status of the islands. Unsurprisingly, the vote was overwhelmingly to remain British. There were 1,522 voters of which 92% voted, and of those that voted 99.8% voted in favour and 3 or 0.2% voted “no”.

Despite the tiny numbers of people involved and the absolute likelihood of this result, the referendum attracted a huge international media interest. There were way more international reporters and TV channels at the announcement of the result than we would ever expect to see at a New Zealand election, and they came from all over the world. And not just reporters. As well there were professors from various universities that were making an academic study of the controversy.

The place fascinates people. The interest flows largely from the almost absurd contradiction of a serious war in which over 1,250 lives were lost being fought over this bunch of islands that are desolate, remote, windy and cold and with such a tiny population. The land area is just over half the size of Wales. The controversy is sustained because no matter that they convincingly lost the war now over 30 years ago, and no matter what the Falkland Islanders think or wish for the future, Argentina will not give up its emotional connection and sovereignty claim.

The task of our mission was not to comment on the issue but to assess the voting and counting. There was no doubt about it - the voting process was in accordance with international best practice, technically sound, with a careful and systematic adherence to established fair voting procedures.

Being there, the facts of the long-standing sovereignty dispute are picked up – not that facts have much to do with it, I should add. This dispute is flooded with emotion.

Unlike many colonised lands, the Falkland Islands had no prior indigenous human population - it was completely empty. The first to set up shop there were in fact the French. As with New Zealand, the basic attraction for the early arrivers was to harvest (almost to the point of extinction) seals, whales and believe it or not, penguins (which were slaughtered and boiled down for oil  – about 1 pint per penguin).

The French were present from 1764 to 1767. The British established their first station in 1765 but left in 1770. In 1765, Captain John Byron landed on Saunders Island and explored the coasts of the other islands claiming the archipelago for Britain. The following year, Captain John MacBride returned to Saunders Island and constructed a fort named Port Egmont. They then discovered the French colony at Port Saint Louis (founded 1764) initiating the first Falkland Islands sovereignty dispute! This one was between France and Britain.

The Spanish took control of the French Port Saint Louis and renamed it Puerto Soledad in 1767. In 1770, a Spanish expedition expelled the British colony at Port Egmont, and Spain took control of the Islands. Spain and Britain came very close to war over the issue then but finally pulled back and concluded a treaty in 1771 allowing the British to return to Port Egmont with neither side relinquishing sovereignty claims. But with the then Revolutionary War under way in America all British forces were withdrawn in 1776 as they were needed to put down the American rebellion, which, as we now know, they failed to do.

From 1774 to 1811, the islands were ruled as part of the Viceroyalty of the River Plate (the precursor of Argentina). In 1777, their troops destroyed the remains of Port Egmont and the British plaque claiming sovereignty was removed and sent to Buenos Aires. Spanish troops remained at Port Louis, known then as Port Soledad, until 1811 when they were called back to Montevideo to be used against the revolutionary forces spreading through Spanish South America. They left behind a plaque claiming sovereignty for Spain.

Initially in 1826 and again in 1828 following the failure of the earlier expedition, a merchant from Hamburg of Huguenot descent (Vernet) sought British permission to build a settlement at the former Spanish settlement of Puerto Soledad. Britain subsequently protested when Vernet announced his intention to exercise exclusive rights over fishing and sealing in the islands. The American representative also protested at the curtailment of “established rights”, not recognising the jurisdiction of the United Provinces over the islands. Then the US Navy got involved – the USS Lexington raided in December 1831 to dispute fishing and hunting rights. The Lexington reported only the destruction of arms and a powder store, but Vernet made a claim for compensation from the US Government stating that the settlement was destroyed. Compensation was rejected, and the Lexington's Captain declared the islands "free from all government". The seven senior members of the settlement were arrested for piracy and taken to Montevideo where they were subsequently released without charge.
Finally on 2 January 1833, British Captain James Onslow arrived at Port Louis to request that the Argentine flag be replaced with the British one, and for the Argentine administration to leave the islands. Outnumbered and outgunned, they departed without a fight on 5 January 1833. In 1840 the capital was shifted to Port Stanley.

The permanent settlement was then organised and the islands have continued under the British since. If you look at the date that is before settlement really got underway here in New Zealand. In more recent years they have discovered that the Falklands has rich fishing and oil potential.  This will only make resolution harder.

While very much a “potted history” it captures the essence of events over the years. It leaves me with two reactions; one a bit superficial – a “where is Monty Python and John Cleese when we need them” sort of response. The second more serious; such is the emotional quotient that neither side will give. The present Falkland Islanders – all 2,850 of then - and their forebears have been there since 1833. Certainly they will never give it up. Not unreasonably they seek self determination. Argentina calls them “a bunch of squatters” who are “occupying a building illegally.” They will not give up.

This dispute unfortunately will endure.