The uncertainty surrounding the ownership of the Falkland Islands is a direct result of their relative unimportance. The European seafaring nations have frequently seized from each other rich islands in the Caribbean. But in such cases the affront has been such that it is soon followed by a treaty, either restoring the territory to its previous owners or ceding it to the newcomers.
The bleak Falklands, far south in the Atlantic, have changed hands with similar frequency. But in the past there has never been sufficient sense of urgency to settle the issue.
The British are the first to record the existence of the islands. John Davis sights them in 1592. John Strong is the first to land, in 1690. He names the islands after the treasurer of the navy, Viscount Falkland, and then sails on.
The islands remain uninhabited until the French found a colony at Port Louis on East Falkland in 1764 (they call the islands les Îles Malouines because the expedition arrives from St Malo). In the following year a British expedition under John Byron (grandfather of Lord Byron the poet) establishes a fort at Port Egmont on the tiny Saunders island north of West Falkland. Byron claims the islands for Britain (unaware that the French are on East Falkland, though this would not have deterred him). Soon the British acquire new neighbours. The French cede their settlement on East Falkland to Spain.
Spain, adapting the French name to become las Islas Malvinas, is the first nation to take settlement on the islands seriously. Spanish forces make repeated efforts to expel the British from Saunders Island. They finally succeed in 1774.
For the next sixty years the islands are exclusively in Spanish hands, but during this period the allegiance of the local Spaniards changes. When the Argentinians assert their independence from Spain, in 1816, they also lay claim to the Spanish territory of the Malvinas. Argentinians take possession of the islands in 1820.
In 1832 Britain reasserts its claim to the Falklands (hardly as yet exercised outside Saunders Island). A year later a British force arrives to evict the Argentinians. And at last British settlement begins.
The Falklands Islands Company is founded in 1851, primarily to exploit the wild cattle descended from herds imported by the French. Subsequently sheep farming becomes the basis of the islands’ economy. By 1892, when the Falklands are formally granted the status of a colony, a population of some 2000 British settlers is economically self-supporting.
After the British invasion of 1833 the Argentinian government consistently denies any British right to the islands. The issue lingers on as an unresolved dispute in international law, while successive generations of British familes in the Falklands increasingly feel the strong claim of possession.
In 1964 the dispute is brought before the United Nations. Argentina argues that the Malvinas must revert to them, not only for legal reasons but to end a relic of colonialism in their immediate neighbourhood. Britain replies that such a change would instead create a colonial situation, with the islanders transferred against their will to another power.
In 1965 the General Assembly invites Argentina and Britain to enter negotiations. But little progress is made by the time, in 1982, when the dispute escalates into open conflict.
The withdrawal of a Royal Navy support vessel from regular Falklands duty suggests to the Argentinians that British interest in the islands is perhaps declining. Meanwhile the Argentinian leader, General Galtieri, needs some impressive national achievement to bolster his unpopular regime. The recovery of the Malvinas in time for 1983 (the 150th anniversary of the British invasion) would fit the bill perfectly. The general decides to take a chance.
The Falklands War: AD 1982
On 2 April 1982 a force of 5000 Argentinian troops lands in the Falklands, claiming sovereign rights over them as the Islas Malvinas. The defending British garrison of eighty-one marines is easily overwhelmed. General Galtieri pays a triumphal visit to Port Stanley, the islands’ capital.
In Britain the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, immediately mobilizes a fleet to recover the islands. An exclusion zone of 200 miles is declared around the region, with the warning that any ship or aircraft found within this zone will be assumed to be hostile. By the end of April the first units of the British task force reach the scene.
On May 3 the Argentinian cruiser General Belgrano is torpedoed and sinks with heavy casualties (368 dead). This becomes the most controversial event of the war, because of allegations that the ship was outside the exclusion zone and was heading away from it. The following day the British destroyer HMS Sheffield is hit by an Exocet missile, with the loss of twenty men.
The first British landing is on East Falkland, where a bridgehead is established by May 21. Within the following week Port Darwin and the nearby Goose Green airstrip are captured. On June 14 it is announced that British troops are in Port Stanley and the Argentinians have surrendered.
The casualties in the war number 655 Argentinian dead and 255 British (the majority of the British deaths occur on the landing ships Sir Galahad and Sir Tristram, bombed while unloading supplies near the Fitzroy settlement).
In Britain the victory does wonders for the political fortunes of Margaret Thatcher (somewhat in the doldrums before these events). In Argentina the war has considerably more dramatic results. The military regime, already unpopular, is totally discredited by the embarrassing defeat – a self-inflicted one in the sense that the junta initiated the action. Galtieri resigns three days after the surrender, but this is only the beginning of the Falklands repercussions in Argentina.
Fortress Falklands: from AD 1982
In the Falklands the result of the war is an enormously increased semi-permanent British garrison, protecting the islands against the possibility of a renewed Argentinian invasion. By the end of the 1990s the population of the colony consists of some 1700 troops guarding 2200 residents. The islands acquire the name Fortress Falklands, as the costs of the brief war continue to escalate.
One of the first acts of Carlos Menem, on becoming president of Argentina in 1989, is to open peace negotiations with Britain. They make little immediate progress, but hostilities are formally concluded by 1995.
A treaty in 1995 also tackles another important issue which has been a subtext in the conflict. Geological surveys suggest that there may be extensive oil reserves in the Falklands region. This, as much as national pride, is a reason for claiming possession.
Although no progress is made on the matter of sovereignty, a compromise on oil is reached in 1995. Britain and Argentina agree to share, in proportions varying in different regions, any wealth deriving from the anticipated oil fields. The British share is to be used to defray the cost of the war and the garrison. Licences are issued in 1996. Exploratory drilling begins in 1998.