The sovereignty dispute over the Falkland Islands
between Great Britain and Argentina
The Falkland Islands
in the South Atlantic
are claimed by Britain
disputes that saying the islands (Las Malvinas in Spanish) should be part of its territory and in 1982 even went to war over this. So what's the background to all this?
Let's begin by looking at a few criteria on which territorial claims can generally be based and then work them into an overview of the history of the Falkland Islands
One claim is the simple "it's always been ours" – which is never really true, as you only have to go back in history far enough to derail that kind of argument. Even Britain wasn't "British" when the Vikings and Normans ruled those lands, and Argentina as a country didn't even exist at the time when the first territorial claims on the Falklands were made. We'll come back to this aspect in a bit.
Of course Argentina claims that it inherited
the grounds for the territorial claim from Spain
, i.e. the former colonial power from which it finally gained independence in the 19th century. The flaw in this argument is that the notion that the islands were indeed previously Spanish territory is even more tenuous, as will also become clear in a moment.
Another major argument put forward in claims of sovereignty is "territorial integrity". That's a bit tricky too in this case, especially given that we are talking about remote islands. It is true that they are a small landmass that is much closer to what today is Argentina and a long distance from Britain, almost halfway round the globe, in fact. Yet at 300 miles off the coast they are further away from the Argentine "mainland" than is usually accepted in international law as justifying the territorial integrity argument. Nor is it so easily applicable in general, otherwise the Channel Islands
should belong to France
(which the latter does indeed claim) and Australians
could claim that New Zealand
should be theirs. So let's drop this point right here.
Yet another question is that of "who was there first". This can mean two things, either who lived there first or who "discovered" the place first. As the Falkland Islands were uninhabited when they were discovered by European explorers, the first of these two strands does not really apply. There may have been visits by people of the Yamana tribe of Tierra del Fuego in prehistoric times, but it is unclear whether any ever tried to settle on the islands. (In any case the Yamana were more or less wiped out in their original homeland by the European colonial population during the 18th and early 20th centuries – see also under Ushuaia
This leaves us with the question of who discovered the islands. That's unclear as well, shrouded in the murky early history of the age of exploration. The islands could first have been sighted
in the 16th century by Spanish or British explorers passing by, or even by the Italian Amerigo Vespucci (who, ironically, the whole continent came to be named after, even though Italy
never played a role in the territorial claims in the New World).
Who first set foot on the islands (other than the Yamana) is somewhat better documented. It may have been an Englishman, or maybe it was the Dutch who are said to have visited one of the outlying smaller islands of the archipelago in ca. 1600. The first landing coupled with a claim of possession of the lands was definitely made by an Englishman, namely one Captain John Strong. He claimed the islands for the Crown in 1690 and also named the body of water between the two main islands after his expedition's financier, the 5th Viscount Falkland. This channel is still known as Falkland Sound, and it is from this that the whole archipelago derives its name in English. So why is it known as "Las Malvinas" in Argentina
(and the rest of Latin America)? That has to do with the first settlers, which brings us to the final and most decisive core of the territorial dispute:
Of course discovery and claims of possession are one thing, the other is who then actually made the land their "home
". It is clear that France
established a settlement on East Falkland called Port St Louis (still locally known as Port Louis today) while almost simultaneously the British staked off a plot further west on Saunders Island (just off West Falkland), between 1764 and 1766. Both were at first unaware of the other.
The name the French gave the islands was Iles Malouines, after St Malo in Brittany (where some of the settlers hailed from). This was later corrupted to Las Islas Malvinas in Spanish.
So if the islands were first settled and claimed by both France
, how come any Spanish claims entered the equation? This is where things get more complicated. Suffice it to say this much: It seems that the Spanish bought out the French at Port Louis. Spain
claimed the territory from the French on the grounds that it fell into their general Latin American sphere of influence agreed much earlier and crudely with the then greatest colonizing competitor Portugal
. At the time of the first settlements on the Falklands, the then greatest powers, Spain, France and Britain were in constantly changing squabbles over their respective spheres of influence, both in Europe and the New World, so there was also an international political dimension involved from the start.
A few years after taking over Port Louis, the Spanish also expelled the British from their fort on Saunders Island, this time by military force. This caused a diplomatic crisis and nearly sparked the first war over the islands, but an uncertain compromise was reached whereby both countries could keep their settlements while the question of sovereignty was simply left open.
When a few years further down the line the British withdrew from their settlement anyway (out of economic considerations) they left a plaque asserting the British claim of sovereignty. The Spanish colonial masters then ruled the archipelago from Buenos Aires
. However, the Spanish in turn left the islands in 1811, also leaving a plaque claiming sovereignty. But de facto nobody actually claimed anything for real on the ground for the next few years. Only British and American sealers occasionally visited the islands, but politically they were effectively left unclaimed, at least physically, for a good number of years.
Meanwhile, the "United Provinces of the River Plate" – a kind-of precursor to the later Argentina
– had been formed and claimed independence from Spain. It was a time of great chaos and shifting borders, also involving Brazil and what was to become Uruguay and Paraguay. The southern parts of the future Argentina, especially Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego were not yet colonized, however – that came only in the second half of the 19th century. So it remains a bit ironic that Argentina these days claims that Ushuaia
is the rightful administrative capital of the "Malvinas".
But back to the 1820s – and enter Louis Vernet. This was a foreign merchant (originally from Hamburg
, some sources say, others say France
) who had emigrated to South America and repeatedly tried to gain a foothold on the Falkland Islands, as an economic enterprise, after first having been given fishing rights in their waters by the new United Provinces. Aware of British sovereignty claims he even sought permission to set up business – and a settlement – but he was formally only given that permission by the Buenos Aires government (apparently in lieu of money he was owed). That they also appointed him "governor" of all of East Falkland was challenged by the British.
But Vernet's greatest mistake was that in an effort to establish and defend his monopoly on seal-hunting in the island he disgruntled the USA
by seizing several American ships in 1831. This prompted the US to send the warship USS Lexington
to raid Vernet's settlement while he was in Buenos Aires for the trial of the captured Americans. So arguably the islands were even in the hands of the USA for a short while.
In reality, however, there was chaos on the ground. An Argentinian military consignment was sent to the islands in late 1832 but a mutiny cost the commander his life. Meanwhile Britain also sent a naval force in order to reassert Britain's original sovereignty claims. They arrived at Port Louis in January 1833 and demanded that the flag of the United Provinces be taken down and that the British flag be flown instead. Outnumbered, the new commander of the small military force surrendered and departed. At the same time the gauchos, who had been brought in to work in cattle farming, but who had not been paid since Vernet's departure, wanted to leave too – but they were encouraged to stay on.
It is important to note at this point that the Argentinian claim to the islands hinges crucially on these incidents in the year 1833 – namely in that their assertion is that the "Argentinian population was expelled" by the British that year. But that is clearly not actually true (even evidenced by Argentinian documents from the time, according to many historians' accounts), as only the military was forced out, who didn't have a recognized right to be there in the first place. There was no real Argentinian civilian population, just the settlement's motley crew of workers and their families, who were from various backgrounds, including creoles and indians.
On the ground it was then Vernet's deputy, a British captain named Matthew Brisbane, who tried to restore and re-establish rule over the settlement. But in 1833 a gang of gauchos under one Antonio Rivero, murdered Brisbane and the other leaders of the settlement. The survivors fled and were later rescued by a British ship – while the settlement was left derelict and unused.
In January 1834, British rule was decisively re-established, namely through Lt Henry Smith who made Port Louis a military outpost and had Rivero and his gang arrested. Bizarrely, in Argentina Rivero is frequently portrayed as a hero who allegedly led a "rebellion against British colonial rule" on the islands ... even though he could not even be tried for the murders because official British colonial rule and its jurisdiction had not even been installed yet.
But that now came quite swiftly. Over the next few years the Falklands were made an official colony and more settlers were encouraged to go and live there. A new capital was set up at a natural harbour and named Port Stanley
in 1845. It was also a time of increased economic significance of the shipping route around Cape Horn, and the Falklands as a provisioning and ship-repair base experienced a boom, both in terms of economy and population growth.
Several generations on, the population of the islands had become a self-determined people, and though originally British, had developed characteristics of its own – which is also evidenced linguistically. The native Falklanders speak English with an accent that sounds a bit like a mix of British and southern hemisphere Englishes such as South African and Australian.
In any case, it was only ever these Falklanders who established the islands as their home for more than just a brief period – and not just for fleeting opportunistic economic adventures, as had been the case until Vernet's failed settlement was superseded by the British colonizers. (Vernet, by the way, went bankrupt in the process, but later recovered through leather manufacturing enterprises. He died in 1871 in Buenos Aires
and is buried in Recoleta cemetery
So the Argentinian argument that allegedly an original Argentinian population was thrown out and replaced by an "artificially transplanted" new British population really does not hold water. True, the first settlers after 1834 were brought in from far away, but several generations on, that is hardly of much relevance any more. It is now their home infinitely more clearly than it had ever been home to anybody else in its entire history.
Moreover, the will of the population has to be taken into account – and that had always been made very clear: they do not want to be under Argentinian rule but would like the ties to the UK to remain in place. This was most forcefully demonstrated in the recent referendum on the status of the islands conducted in March 2013, when a whopping 99.8% voted in favour of keeping the British Overseas Territory status quo untouched. Only three voters apparently did not vote in favour of that – but without voting for Argentinian rule (that was not the question!).
Irrespective of all this, Argentina
has continuously maintained its claim on the islands. And the issue remains of immense propagandistic value to the country (see also under Ushuaia
and Buenos Aires
). The view propagated to this day is that allegedly the population of the "Malvinas" is kept "hostage" by an "usurping" military colonial power (= Britain).
The Argentinian claim had indeed received a certain boost from the 1960s within the context of worldwide decolonization efforts gaining momentum. However, what makes the question with regard to the Falklands
very different from, say, decolonization in Africa, is the fact that the islands were not "stolen" from a native population – there wasn't one – but it was empty land settled, just like much of what became Argentina (although the latter did
involve the displacement/extinction of indigenous populations). Today's existing population certainly does not feel "kept hostage", quite on the contrary. It is also important to mention that the islands are largely self-governed and almost self-sufficient ... except for, you guessed it, defence. But the protection by the British military is completely welcomed by the islanders.
Conversely, handing the islands over to Argentinian administration (from Ushuaia
in Tierra del Fuego) would effectively make
the islands a colony – not de
-colonize it. And this would indeed require either the expulsion of the current population or it being subjugated by an imposed and quite unwelcome Argentinian authority. So the Argentine arguments simply do not add up.
Remarkably, though, the Argentinians nearly had it their way all the same. By the late 1970s Britain was prepared to loosen its ties with costly overseas colonies. Services such as higher education or hospital treatment were sought by the Falklands
on the Argentinian mainland, ever since an agreement over visa issues had been reached between Britain
Britain apparently even considered the idea of a lease-back solution, whereby sovereignty would pass to Argentina but administration would remain with the islanders – even though this "sell-out" option was emphatically opposed by the islanders themselves. One reason the Argentines were not trusted by the Falklanders was what was happening in Argentina itself – where since yet another military coup the junta began their internationally condemned "dirty war" against the opposition (see especially under ESMA
and Parque de la Memoria
In any case, the impression the Argentines must have got from the negotiations with Britain in the late 1970s and early 1980s was that Britain wasn't prepared to take any costly risks in defending the Falklands, and so in 1982 Argentina simply snatched them. But that changed everything. (As one person I met on the Falklands put it: it was typically British, they were already handing the islands over bit by bit on silver platters, but when the Argentines then tried to snatch the whole thing the reaction was: No! In that case you can't have any of it!)
Britain did fight back – so the Argentines had made a massive miscalculation. But due to great popular support at home they stuck with their military operation. That had been another reason for the junta to start the invasion in the first place – to divert attention from internal economic troubles and intensifying tensions and rioting at home.
lost the Falkland War
, the junta also lost its grip on power – and its downfall came in 1983. Since then the country has been more or less democratic.
, on the other hand, Thatcher's popularity was boosted on a wave of patriotism – and she proceeded to win the next election by a landslide (whereas in early 1982 her popularity had been waning).
Shortly after the war, the Falklanders were also given the right to full British citizenship, infrastructure on the main islands was vastly improved, a new permanent military base was set up (giving the islands more military protection than they had ever had), farming land was redistributed into more private hands, fisheries given a boost, etc., etc. – and life in general improved. In terms of per-capita income the Falklands are now more prosperous than even Great Britain
After a complete freeze on diplomatic relations, Britain and Argentina resumed these from 1990 onwards and tensions seemed to ease off. But since the mid-2000s, Argentina has taken to reiterating its old territorial claims ... literally only reiterating them. No new more convincing arguments were put forward, just the same old insistence on the arguments discussed above.
A particularly virulent phase of Argentine sabre-rattling came, somewhat predictably, in 2012 – the 30th anniversary year of the war. At times Argentina even threatened to cut off the only commercial flight link to the islands from Chile
by closing the airspace to Chilean planes. It never actually came to that. But provocations, especially with regard to ships coming from or going to the Falklands
The propaganda Argentina
spreads around Latin America with regard to "Las Malvinas" is quite successful – apparently most Latin Americans do indeed believe that the islands are actually Argentinian, with a suppressed (Spanish-speaking) population under the thumb of an illegitimate British military rule. Only when they actually come to visit the islands themselves (I've heard this from some Brazilians) do they quickly realize how wrong all that is.
In actual fact, the Falklands could hardly be more British in nature if they tried. And the populace certainly has no wish to change this.
Being neither Argentinian nor British (nor Falklander), I personally have no stake in the dispute and should be neutral. But having studied the history and current situation of the Falklands first-hand to some degree of depth I cannot help but falling firmly on one side of the argument, namely the British side. Admittedly, my ties to the UK are closer (see about
), but that alone wouldn't have stopped me from disagreeing with the country politically (as I have on many issues including, for instance, over the Iraq war that was started in 2003). In this case, though, I really cannot see any reason why to adopt the Argentinian view.
are de facto British, have almost always been so since they've been settled, they were first claimed by Britain long before anybody else did, and after several generations the islanders have become a people in their own right whose right to self-determination has to be respected. They could be a completely independent state – if only they could afford full independence as such a small country in the light of their big Latin American neighbour's repeated muscle-flexing. So they continue to rely on Britain
for protection. But they are fine with just that. I cannot see any grounds for any change to that in the foreseeable future.