The Falklands War

Posted on October 25, 2010

One cannot visit the Falklands and be unaware of the war fought there in 1982. We have to back up a few centuries to understand this. Uninhabited islands, they were first sighted by the British in 1740. Yet no settlement was made. A French explorer, Louise-Antione de Bouganville arrived 24 years later with settlers from St. Malo, on the Brittany coast of France. They called the islands, 'Les Iles Malouines.' A year later the English established a settlement in another part of the islands. And a year later the French sold their claim of the islands to the Spanish. The French name passed into Spanish as 'Las Islas Malvinas.'

Today you see billboards across Argentina proclaiming "The Malvinas are ours, now and forever." The Kelpers, English to the core, scoffed at Argentine claims that they were victims of British imperialism. Argentina mostly languished under dictatorships, with shaky economies, making the idea of union with Argentina unappealing.

The British and Spanish tussled over control, but then agreed each could have its own settlement and they'd essentially ignore each other. Then the British abandoned the place in 1774. The Spanish abandoned the islands (these were not pleasant or easy place to inhabit in the 18th century) in 1810. Argentina achieved independence in 1816. And in 1820 re-established a settlement there, putting an Englishman in charge of the settlement. He was ousted and his 2 successors murdered by mutineering locals (not the happiest place on earth back then). The British returned to the Falklands in 1833, and told the Spanish to depart. Without much fuss, they did, it was too unprofitable and too much trouble. Today most Falklanders trace their lineage back to the mid 1850's when settlers arrived from England. Others have tales of shipwrecked sailor ancestors.

Though part of the British empire it was a backwater. Sheep ranching was the only profitable enterprise and vast areas of the islands were given over to this. The wool was sent to England, and the locals had almost no choice but to work on the farms. There was little contact with the outside world, no air links and only infrequently ships called to resupply the islands, and carry wool to England.

Argentina never forgot its claim that the islands belonged to them, and successive generations Argentinians were raised with belief they belonged to them. Today you see billboards across Argentina proclaiming "The Malvinas are ours, now and forever." The Kelpers, English to the core, scoffed at Argentine claims that they were victims of British imperialism. Argentina mostly languished under dictatorships, with shaky economies, making the idea of union with Argentina unappealing. The Argentine claim would be less hypocritical if Argentina had not grabbed and annexed half of Paraguay in the War of the Triple Alliance that Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil fought against Paraguay from 1864-1870.

The islands finally got an airport, a gift from Argentina in the 1977. It was seen by many islanders as a Trojan Horse, (how right they were), but at the same time it opened an air link to the outside. People could get in and out without spending 4 days on a ship, but the economy was still wool based and the population about 2000 people and 2 million sheep.

In 1982 Argentina under military president General Galtieri was again facing economic chaos, corruption and his brutal regime seemed to be falling apart. The best antidote for this is to launch an invasion (Galtieri and Bush may have read the same book). The Falklands invasion did briefly unite the country. He expected little or no resistance from the English, assuming they'd negotiate a settlement. He underestimated Margaret Thatcher, and the English fought and won, dealing a humiliating defeat to the Argentines.

Argentina returned to democratic rule, Ms. Thatcher was re-elected, and the Falklands were revitalized into the mini economic powerhouse they remain today.

Islanders tell you with a sense of tragedy that the cost for others were just too high, and that today's prosperity ought to have come with much less loss of life and militarism. The Argentines lost many conscripts, about 750, the British lost about 450, and 3 islanders were killed.

Stanley was invaded and occupied for 2.5 months, and the troops did not always behave well, though islanders went about their lives best they could, often without water and electricity and constant shelling at night. The conscripts were ill supplied, people tell stories of them begging for food or going through garbage cans looking for food. Their commanders took over homes as needed, but the conscripts lived in tents and they had orders not to steal or purchase food at the local stores, so were cold and hungry. The radio congratulated the Kelpers on being 'liberated' said nothing would change, but immediately they had to drive on the other side of the road, and when schools reopened the Argentine Spanish curriculum would be introduced. They were meant to dismantle their short wave radios and bury the parts a kilometer apart. While no abuses were recorded, the person in charge, Major Dowling, an Anglo-Argentine was particularly nasty and fond of humiliting people, and indicated his idea of dealing with locals unwilling to become Argentines would be to do away with them (it sounds harsh, but Argentina at the time was 'disappearing' its own citizens they deemed leftist or a threat).

Twenty eight years ago, but people talk about it as though it were yesterday. I suppose one never gets over their home being invaded and the uncertainty that accompanies it.

Today Argentina remains the uncomfortable neighbor. They permit only the weekly flight to Chile as it has to fly through Argentine air space. And lately they've been blockading supply ships, forcing them to take a longer route and thereby pushing up costs of goods. The fisheries in the surrounding seas are very rich, and it fish and not wool that account for the prosperity of the islands today. A huge military presence also pumps money into the economy, as well as acting as deterrent. About a 1000 soldiers are here at any one time. The fiercely proud and loyal islanders do not take well to the frequent soldier lament that it's such a boring place to be. "They could bloody well be getting shot at in Iraq or Afghanistan" one feisty woman barked at me. It now looks like oil is likely to be discovered in territorial waters, which they say is going to cause more problems with Argentina. Trouble maybe, but not in paradise (unless you're a penguin or a Kelper).