The Falkland Archipelago is a group of closely-knit islands centered at about 52ºS, 60ºW in the South Atlantic Ocean, approximately 515 km (320 mi) off the southern coast of Argentina. It consists of two main islands…East Falkland, which covers 13,000 sq km (4,950 sq mi) and West Falkland, which covers 9,100 sq km (3,600 sq mi), and about 200 smaller islands and islets. The islands are mostly rocky and treeless and often swept by strong winds and cold rains.
The Falkland Islands are an internally self-governing Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom, although their defense and foreign affairs remain the responsibility of the British Government. Argentina also claims the archipelago and calls the group Islas Malvinas. Serious contention over ownership of the islands has been going on since 1770, first between Britain and Spain and later between Britain and Argentina (an ex-colony of Spain), which eventually led to war in 1982.
There is only one town, Stanley (the capital), which is located along the harbor of Port Stanley deep within Port William on the east side of East Falkland. This very colorful and picturesque town is the principal community and port of the archipelago and has been the capital of the British dependency of the Falkland Islands since 1842. Almost 2,000 people, out of a total Falklands population of nearly 2,800 people, live here. The rest live in isolated farms or ‘camps’, as the locals call them, that are scattered about within the archipelago. Stanley is a bustling little town with many amenities for visitors, including the eclectic Falkland Islands Museum, 19th century Anglican Cathedral, war memorials, historic shipwrecks, Government House, historic pubs, and lots of shops, as well as interesting nearby sites for those interested in natural history. The town was held by Argentine troops for ten weeks in 1982 and suffered some damage before being retaken by a British task force during the Battle of the Falklands, or the Conflict (as the locals refer to it).
To fully understand why this strong contention exists, it is important to study the islands’ history. There is evidence that aboriginal people inhabited the western islands at some time in the distant past, but apparently it involved very few people at best and there was never a thriving population of aborigines over a long period of time. It is possible that small numbers of Yaghan Indians may have made unintentional one-way trips from Tierra del Fuego to the Falklands by drifting in bark canoes in the strong Falkland Current. The earliest recorded history of the Falkland Islands goes back at least five hundred years, but is quite vague. Amerigo Vespucci reported sighting islands off southern South America at 53ºS latitude in 1501, but bad weather kept him from landing. About 20 years later, Captain Esteban Gómez of the San Antonio (one of Magellan’s ships) deserted his expedition and the crew overwintered at a group of islands they named Islas de Sansón y de los Patos, where they lived off weird ‘ducks’ that had couldn’t fly and had beaks like gulls. Although there are flightless ducks in the islands, the gull-like beaks probably refer to penguins. The islands soon appeared on Portuguese maps.
By the 1540s, Spanish ships were habitually stopping at the islands for safe harbors, food, and water. Soon after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, Britain, France, and the Netherlands developed strong navies and began exploring the world’s oceans. John Davis, an Englishman blown off course by a storm, sighted the islands in 1592 and the group became known as Davis Land. About a century later, in 1690, John Strong, an English privateer was sailing the southern waters searching for French ships when he discovered the sound between the two main islands and named it Falkland Sound in honor of Viscount Falkland, a commissioner of the Admiralty. This name eventually came to refer to the entire archipelago.
In the early 18th century, a group of French fishermen (actually they were Bretons from St. Malo) became the first European settlers. They named the islands Îles Malouines, but the name was later corrupted to Islas Malvinas by the Spanish. As a result of the French and Indian War (also known as the Seven Years War), France lost nearly all its holdings in the New World and soon became eager to gain a new foothold somewhere in the Americas. So, the following year Louis de Bougainville established an official settlement in the Falkland Archipelago at Port Louis, just north of modern-day Stanley on East Falkland. The French settlers brought in livestock and immediately began burning and clearing the tussock (tussac) grass. They also began shipping whale oil and seal skins back to France. A few months later, John Byron (grandfather to Lord Byron) landed at Port Egmont on Saunders Island and claimed the archipelago for Britain. He didn’t know about the French settlement at Port Louis. The following year, the British returned to Port Egmont and established a settlement there, but as the British continued exploring the islands, they were surprised to find the French settlement. The British insisted the French must leave. The French insisted the British must leave. The Spanish soon learned of the two settlements and insisted both the French and the British must leave.
In 1766, France agreed to leave, and Spain bought the settlement and renamed it Puerto Soledad. Britain, however, refused to leave and this nearly led to war between Britain and Spain when both countries sent war fleets to contest the sovereignty of these strategically important islands.
The Spanish argued that the islands belonged to Spain because of the Treaty of Tordasillas of 1494, with which Pope Alexander VI adjudicated between Portugal and Spain (his two “Catholic children”) in their competing claims of new lands. It set an imaginary longitudinal line 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands (46° 37' W longitude)…all new non-Christian lands found west of this line were to go to Spain and everything east would be controlled by the Portuguese. Britain, being a Protestant country and longtime enemy of Spain, felt no need to abide by this treaty.
War was narrowly averted, but because of problems that began brewing in the American colonies in 1774, Britain pulled out from many of its overseas settlements. In 1776, the British forces departed Port Egmont, but left a plaque asserting Britain's continuing sovereignty over the islands. Spain continued to rule the Islands from Buenos Aires until 1811, when it also withdrew because of problems with the independence movements in Spanish colonies of South America. Spain left the islands permanently, but also left behind a plaque claiming sovereignty over the islands.
For the next couple decades, the Falkland Islands became the domain of whalers and sealers who used the islands as shelter from the common storms of the South Atlantic. This tradition continued for centuries, since the Falkland Islands have often been the last refuge for ships damaged at sea. Most of the ships using the islands were British and American sealers, which were involved in the very lucrative trade in fur seal pelts. Problems arose when the newly established United Provinces of the River Plate (formed when Spain gave independence to the southern colonies) assigned an Argentine governor in the islands to manage the activities of the whalers and sealers. This caused problems with both the British and American fishing fleets, which ultimately led to the destruction of Puerto Soledad by an American warship.
In 1833, the British military returned to the Falkland Islands, claiming it had been British all along, and removed the remaining Argentines. In 1840, the British Government decided to colonize the islands. Stanley was established in 1844. The island economy prospered through selling supplies to ships and making repairs to ships damaged while sailing around Cape Horn. Stanley became one of the world's busiest ports, partly due to the many ships involved with transport during the California Gold Rush. In the mid-19th century, sheep were introduced and wool became an important commodity for trade. Soon, many Scottish and English immigrants began to settle in Stanley or work on the large sheep stations scattered about the islands.
However, the economy began to suffer as iron steam-powered ships were developed and transit of the Strait of Magellan became easier and safer, making it unnecessary for ships to round the Horn or visit the Falklands. When the Panama Canal was opened in 1914, a quicker and safer route was available that bypassed the Falkland Islands entirely. Port Stanley continued to be an important port for the whaling and sealing industries in the early twentieth century (until the center of operations was shifted to South Georgia), as well as British warships (and garrisons) during the two World Wars.
The Falkland Islands was the location of a major naval battle during World War I, when the German fleet under the command of Admiral Graf Maximilian von Spee called at the islands intending to destroy the Royal Navy radio relay station and coaling depot. However, a British squadron happened to be at Stanley at the time and in the one-sided battle which followed, most of Spee's squadron was destroyed.
After WWII, Argentine President Juan Perón called for Britain for the return of Islas Malvinas. Argentina had long claimed that everything that had once belonged to Spain in the region, now belonged to Argentina. In 1965, at a time when Britain was divesting herself of several colonies, the U.N persuaded the British and Argentine governments to begin talks for a peaceful solution to the question of sovereignty. In the ensuing years, many friendly links between the two countries were established and agreements were made allowing mutual commerce, postal systems, and travel. However, sovereignty continued to be a major contention, and in 1982, under the leadership of a military government, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands. The Argentines, it seemed, were totally unprepared for British resolve. A British task force was put together quickly and within weeks arrived in the Falkland Islands. After about ten weeks of fighting, Argentine forces surrendered and were repatriated to Argentina. As a result of the war, the Argentine government fell out of favor and civilian rule was reestablished. Relations between the two countries have been slow to improve.
In recent years, an emphasis has been put on improving the economy and making the islands as self-reliant as possible. There has been considerable success at this, because the Falkland Islands control a large-scaled fishing industry within its rich waters. Squid fishing fleets belonging to Japan and Taiwan work in the eastern waters. Other fishing interests center on the valuable Patagonian toothfish, otherwise known as Chilean sea bass.
In addition, the islands are often visited by cruise ships, as well as small expedition ships that sometimes combine visits to the Falkland Islands with trips to Antarctica. The rugged beauty and spectacular wildlife of the islands is a big draw to those interested in natural history.