Friday, 8 April 2016

Falklands Bumper Month

Hello and welcome to this month’s bumper edition of Falkland Island blogs. I have suspended normal service in order to dedicate April to this one topic, obscure though it may seem. It comes to something when I feel the need to explain my departure from the everyday soup of Bohemian obscura by writing about something as ‘ordinary’ as the Falkland islands, but in Dec 2015/ January 2016 this year I had the unique and privileged opportunity to visit those strange islands courtesy of the RAF. It was an unusual and wonderful time, one which I shall probably never have the occasion to experience again, so I thought I’d make the most of it and do some wildlife photography, writing, and a study of the Ecology of the Falkland Islands for my work in teaching Biology. So this blog is the ideal repository for such ramblings.

Ak-ak. Argentinians at war, 1982. 

If you are anything like me, probably every time you hear about the Falklands your mind goes back to 1982, the war with Argentina, and the political expediencies of the miserable Thatcher government, which used the conflict to fuel nationalistic fervour for the approaching general election. I think the perception on the left is that Thatcher planted a flag in the ground for political advantage regardless of the fact that Falkland is a bleak windswept rock miles from anywhere, and Argentina was an easy military target. I think also most lefty people also think the Argentinian’s had a good point about the Malvinas belonging to them given its location, and any responsible thinking modern state would enter into negotiations in order to head off a conflict, thus saving lives, money, and resources. Reasonable points. From my visit there, I found out a few extra titbits of information which may relate to that narrative.

Port San Carlos, not far from Goose Green. 
Landing place of British Forces, code named "Green Beach"
Ironically, the port is named after the 1768 Spanish expedition ship. 

1. The first evidence of human settlement on Falkland is likely to have been Fuegian Indians making their way across the Magellan straights. Early European settlers occasionally discovered canoes discarded in coves and beaches which match the style and design of Yaghan Indians of Chile. It is hypothesised that, being nomadic canoe people, they were blown off course in the Magellan straights canoeing between the islands, but I like to think their journeys were the result of adventure, risking everything for the promise of new horizons. Another convincing evidence that the Yaghans were first on the scene comes in the form of the Warrah, a now extinct wolf- fox resembling the Culpeo (South American Fox or jackal) which was known to travel in Yaghan canoes with their masters. The Warrah was still alive and stalking the shores of Falkland up to the time the European settlers arrived, but quickly became extinct. So if anyone has a historic claim to the Falkland islands it’s the Chileans.

Warrah (extinct,left). Culpeo (South American Fox or jackal, right) 

Yaghan Indians in various initiation costumes

Yaghan canoe, 1898

2. The Falklands remained uninhabited until the 1764 establishment of Port Louis on East Falkland by French captain Louis Antoine de Bougainville, and the 1766 foundation of Port Egmont on Saunders Island by British captain John MacBride. Whether or not the settlements were aware of each other's existence is debated by historians. Both the British and Spanish settlements coexisted in the archipelago until 1774, when Britain's new economic and strategic considerations led it to voluntarily withdraw from the islands, leaving a plaque claiming the Falklands for King George III. Buenos Aires attempted to retain influence over the settlement by installing a garrison, but a mutiny in 1832 was followed the next year by the arrival of British forces who reasserted Britain's rule. My own impression is that none of this dog’s breakfast of settlement, mutiny, abandonment and leaving of plaques is any basis on which to assert sovereignty over an island, let alone go to war over it 200 years later.

3. From 1966 until 1968, the UK confidentially discussed with Argentina the transfer of the Falklands, assuming its judgment would be accepted by the islanders. An agreement on trade ties between the archipelago and the mainland was reached in 1971 and, consequently, Argentina even built a temporary airfield at Stanley in 1972. Nonetheless, Falklander dissent, as expressed by their strong lobby in the UK Parliament, and tensions between the UK and Argentina effectively limited sovereignty negotiations until 1977. It is worth noting that not all the Falklanders are enamoured with the current relationship with the British military despite the liberation of the islands in 1982. Tensions revolve around land and business disputes, as well as local- squaddie squabbles (Falklanders are insultingly called Bennies after the character Benny from Crossroads; an uncultivated rural character).

This history brings into question the conventional wisdom that (i) the Argentinians invaded without any territorial or legitimate claim, (ii) all of the Falklanders feel ‘liberated’ by the actions of the British government and are living happily ever after. Having said that, the Falkland islands had a sovereignty referendum in 2013 where they chose by a majority of 99.8% to remain an autonomous British territory. But with Argentina eyeing you from across the water, perhaps staying in the pocket of the imperialist Big Brother you know is a necessary evil. 

To this day, minefields and military debris litter the Falklands

Of course, whatever exegecies the situation demanded, the history of the conflict has left the British military with a significant geographic asset, with oil, farming and fishing potential, and a major strategic & communications post in the Southern Atlantic. I suppose that was the piffling unintended consequence of the Tory party winning the 1983 general election.

Belgrano sinking. 323 people died, mainly young sea cadets.
The Argentine ship was sailing away from the conflict zone.

North Utsire

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