This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Falklands/Malvinas conflict. The war, although short-lived, continues to weigh heavily on the Argentine conscience. However, the dispute over the islands did not begin in 1982. The territory has been a source of bitter tension since its first sighting by Europeans 500 years ago. Argentina and Britain are not the only ones to lay claim, the Spanish, the French and even the US have all attempted to take the islands for their own ends at some time or other.
So aside from the jingoistic proclamations of both sides, what is the true story behind the islands? Who discovered the archipelago and who settled there? Unfortunately these questions are so charged with political implications now that it is often difficult to gain an accurate picture of the Falklands/Malvinas past.
Origin of the name
The name in English, ‘Falklands’ originates from the British landing in 1690 by Captain John Strong. Strong named the channel between the two islands ‘The Falkand Sound’ after a leading British naval official Anthony Cary, the fifth viscount of Falkand. The name was later used to describe the whole group of islands.
The Spanish name ‘Malvinas’ is a derivative of its French name les Malouines. The island was christened by the French explorer and commander Louis Antoine de Bougainville in 1764 in reference to the French port of Saint Malo, where Bougainville and his expedition departed from.
First Sightings and Landings
There is considerable debate about who first discovered the islands and who landed first. Given that accounts of the islands’ discovery are so key to both Argentina’s and the UK’s claims to sovereignty of the islands (as well as Spanish and French previously) it is difficult to gain a clear picture.
Argentine versions claim that the Portuguese cartographer Esteban Gómez, who deserted the famous Spanish-funded Magdellen expedition in 1520, sighted what he called the ‘Islas de Sansón y de los Patos’ (Islands of Samson and the Ducks).
The first undisputed sighting was made by the Dutch sailor Sebald de Weert in 1600, although it took almost another century for anyone to land on the islands.
In 1690, John Strong and his British crew became the first people documented to land on the islands.
Despite this, the first settlement was established by the French navigator, Louis Antoine de Bougainville in 1764. The Frenchman established a stronghold named Port Saint Louis on the eastern island, claiming it in the name of the French crown much to the annoyance of France’s allies the Spanish. The following year, the British set up a colony on the western island called Port Egmont.
Under Spanish Control
A year later, Bougainville sold the colony to the Spanish Throne and Port Louis was renamed Puerto Soledad. A Spanish governor was sent and in 1770 Spain sent 1,400 troops from Buenos Aires with the aim of ejecting the British colony. After intense negotiations that almost led to Britain and Spain going to war, the British were allowed to stay at Egmont. However, the British decided to leave four years later ostensibly for economic reasons.
Argentina gets involved
After Argentina’s declaration of independence from Spain in 1816, the Buenos Aires government officially proclaimed its right to sovereignty. The islands were initially used by the Argentines as a penal colony, but by 1828 there was an established settlement involved in sealing, fishing and other trade.
However in 1826, the US and Argentina seriously fell out over fishing rights. The Argentine governor seized three US seal hunting ships caught poaching and sailed one to Buenos Aires as a trophy. In retribution the US warship Levington landed and destroyed the Puerto Soledad leaving only escaped prisoners and pirates. In 1832 Argentina sent a replacement governor to restore order but the population quickly rebelled and kill him.
British take control
Fearing that the US would claim the islands for themselves, the British sent a force to reinvade the islands. On 2nd January 1833, the Royal Navy warships Clio and Tyne under Captain Onslow arrived and forced the Argentine commander Esteban José Francisco Mestivier and the other settlers to leave.
The Argentine government protested strongly against the invasion but the British claimed their right to sovereignty due to the negotiations that had been made with the Spanish in 1771.
Once under British control, an extended plan of colonisation began with the establishment of Port Stanley in 1845.
Over the next century Argentina became increasingly assertive in its claims for the island, culminating in the United Nations passing Resolution 2065, which called on both nations to find a peaceful solution to the problem.
The islands remained under the UK’s rule.
By 1982, the military junta that had taken control of Argentina in 1976 was facing serious economic problems with inflation spiralling to 600%. Anxious to detract attention from the growing crisis, the incumbent military leaders elected to invade the islands Argentina had claimed as theirs for the last 150 years. Under the codename ‘Operación Rosario’, on April 2nd 1982, an Argentine force invaded the islands renaming Port Stanley ‘Puerto Argentino’ and unleashing a wave of nationalist sentiment.
However the euphoria was short-lived, the British sent a large expeditionary force to retake the territory. After a short but bloody air, naval and eventual land war the Argentine forces surrendered on 14th June.
In total 649 Argentine and 258 British servicemen lost their lives. The defeat destroyed the military’s already fragile credibility thus cementing its fate. In 1983 it was overthrown and democratic elections reintroduced.
Argentina continues to lay claim to the islands, although they presently still remain under British control.