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Europe and the Falkland Islands / Malvinas


Location of the Falkland Islands

Location of the Falkland Islands

Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons
The Falkland Islands have been in the news on several occasions in recent decades, after disputes between Britain and Argentina over sovereignty – essentially, who owns the islands – has turned heated, and on occasion violent.


The 'Falkland Islands' are a group of around two hundred small islands with two larger ones; the latter pair are named East and West Falkland. They are located about three hundred miles northeast of South America.

Origins of European Settlement

Like much to do with the Falklands, the origins of European settlement begin with a controversy involving the English. England’s John Davis was probably the first European to see the islands, in 1592, when his ship was blown to them in a storm, but his report was not widely published in England due to politics. Claims that Magellan discovered the islands earlier have been convincingly rejected. A further Englishman, Richard Hawkins, claimed to have found the islands in 1594. The first incontrovertible sighting was by Holland’s Sebald de Weerdt in 1600. It took a further ninety years before the first known European landings, when another Englishman, John Strong, arrived in 1690, naming the ‘sound’ between the larger islands after a fellow Britain, Viscount Falkland. The name has since spread to the whole collection of islands.

Over the next fifty years people used the island for fresh water and scurvy negating plants; French sailors started to call them islands Malouines, which eventually evolved into Malvinas. England planned to explore the islands in 1749, but suspended their expedition, not because they ceded to Spanish claims to the islands as later suggested by Spain, but in order to temporarily avoid a dispute and secure more favourable trade agreements. In the end, European settlers arrived on January 31st 1764, when Frenchmen Louis-Antoine de Bougainville started a colony on East Falkland of ex French-Canadians.

British settlers landed on West Falkland on January 12 1765, unaware that France had already settled a different location. Spain purchased the French settlement in 1766 (formally accepted in 1767), and in the first recorded skirmish on the islands Spain forced the British off West Falkland in 1770. This situation lasted for a year, when control of the British settlement was handed back to Britain after both the threat of outright war between the two nations and a large discussion about who had sovereignty of the islands. Thanks to vague language, the deciding agreement allowed both to claim it. However, the British settlement was withdrawn in 1774 for purely economic reasons, and the East Falkland settlement lasted until 1811. Crucially, although Britain withdrew their citizens, they did not withdraw their claim of sovereignty.

South America enters the Frame

With no European colonies on the Falklands, just sealers who found the islands useful, the newly independent government in Buenos Aires claimed its own sovereignty over the islands, as heirs of the Spanish empire from which they had just become independent. A businessman called Vernet formed a private settlement in 1826 on the second attempt, having gained permission from both the Buenos Aires government and a British official. When Buenos Aires appointed a governor in 1829 Britain complained that they had no right. In 1831 a US ship, acting to avenge the arrest of US seal hunters in the area, who claimed a right to the islands as heirs of Britain, destroyed the settlement.

Thus, when Britain, worried about South America and US sealers, renewed their interest in 1833 and reactivated their dormant claim, there were only a few remaining settlers. Some left without violence, others decided to stay under the new government. The British renewed settlement, installing a civilian governor. By 1885 the settlement, based around the capital of Port Stanley, was nearing two thousand people with the main economic venture being sheep farming. However, little was invested into the island’s potential strategic importance or economic growth.

Twentieth Century Disputes

The Buenos Aires government, now Argentina, maintained that the islands were theirs, and in 1964 the issue was taken to the newly formed United Nations. An official UN committee debated the sovereignty of the islands as part of their handling of decolonization issues. Argentina’s arguments involved the islands’ location (close to Argentina), the Papal Bulls and related Treaties which gave European claims to that region to Spain, from whom Argentina had succeeded, and the need to end the European colonialism they felt the island represented. Britain stressed that they had been in possession of a self sufficient, continuous settlement on the islands since 1833, that the islanders identified themselves as British, and that under UN efforts to promote self determination the islands should stay British. The result was the UN passing a resolution asking Britain and Argentina to discuss an equitable answer.

The Falklands War

Britain negotiated with Argentina, and on occasion seemed close to handing over sovereignty. In the late 70s the islanders made it clear they wanted to remain British – albeit with a better constitution – and talks advanced slower than Argentina wanted. Then the military government of Argentina, desperate for success to prop themselves up, invaded the islands on April 2nd 1982. Although British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was warned the US would not provide troops or air power, Britain responded. The Falklands War was fought and after ten weeks Britain had reclaimed the islands. Argentina’s fatally weakened government collapsed, and Margaret Thatcher turned military victory into electoral victory thanks to a wave of sudden patriotic sentiment.

This war effectively ended negotiations, and although the two countries did restore diplomatic relations in 1990, several thousand British troops remain on the islands. Both nations maintain their positions, although the British acted to strengthen their legitimacy with a new constitution for the islands in 2009. Most recently tensions have grown again over oil from the islands.

The Falklands War in full.

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