As you'll discover on a Falkland Islands tour, this remote bit of land--the Falklands' land mass is roughly equivalent to that of Connecticut--has had quite a history of dispute. From the time the first European set foot on its shores to the present day, various nations have argued over who has sovereignty over the archipelago.
Because of the strategic location of the islands, near Cape Horn and as a possible naval base, the French, Spanish, and British disputed possession of the islands from that point on. The Spanish claimed them in 1713 under the Treaty of Utrecht, but the French established the first presence there 1764 with the founding of Port Louis. Unbeknownst to the French, the British constructed a Port Egmont on Saunders Island in 1766, and the disputes began when the two colonies discovered each other, and escalated when Spain discovered the both of them.
Spain and France reached an agreement whereby France surrendered Port Louis to Spain, who renamed it Port Soledad, with Spain reimbursing the cost of the settlement. Great Britain and Spain failed to reach an agreement, and in 1770, the Spanish Governor of Buenos Aires sent a naval contingent number 1600 to Port Egmont. The small British company quickly surrendered, and Spain assumed total control of the Falklands. The British prepared for war, as the Spanish tried desperately to seek backing from the French to reinforce their possession of the islands. Louis XV refused to offer his aid, and so the Spanish opted to compromise with Great Britain. Port Egmont was returned to British hands, and the matter of sovereignty remained unaddressed. However, all sides understood that the British colony was a small holdout from the hostile mainland of South America.
Indeed, the British found themselves under too much pressure from the impending American War of Independence, and withdrew their presence from Port Egmont in 1776. They left behind a plaque asserting their continuing control in their absence, but Spain effectively took control of the Falklands until 1811. When they withdrew, they too left a sovereignty plaque.
The Falkland Islands are thought to have been sighted by Amerigo Vespucci in the 1500s, but the first recorded landing on the archipelago was accomplished in 1690 by English explorer John Strong. His discovery marked the beginning of long years of dispute between the British, French, and Spanish. He called the islands Hawkins Maiden Land, and named the Falkland Sound after Viscount Falkland, treasurer of the Royal Navy.
The Falklands remained empty of permanent residents for the next several years, though sealers and whalers took advantage of the vacancy to moor their ships near the islands, using them as a base for their hunting. Argentina threw itself into the mix of possession claims when it sent David Jewett to the Falklands to claim sovereignty in 1820. He found several ships from different countries moored near the islands, as the sealers and whalers had taken advantage of the island’s vacancy. Argentina appointed Luis Vernet as governor of the islands in 1829, to loud British protests.
Argentina stepped on American toes when Governor Vernet seized U.S. seal hunting ships during a dispute over fishing rights. The U.S. expressed their displeasure by sending Captain Silas Duncan and the USS Lexington
to destroy the Argentinian settlement in 1831. Duncan took the entire population of the port, recorded as 40 people including Vernet, aboard his boat. He declared the islands of free of government, and returned to Montevideo, Uruguay, with his prisoners. Argentina attempted to regain control of the Falklands, but they were dominated by the pirates and escaped convicts from a failed penal colony.
In 1833, nearly 60 years after leaving the Falklands, the British decided to return and reassert their authority. The settlers already living in the Islands were allowed to remain, and the British proceeded to build a naval base at Stanley. Over the next 150 years, the Falklands proved to be a strategic point for ships navigating around Cape Horn, as well as ideally located to service ships during World Wars I & II. However, despite this strong British presence in the islands, Argentina had never officially given up its claim to the Falklands. In 1945, with the creation of the United Nations, Argentina claimed its right to the islands and to efforts to reclaim them. Talks continued into the 1960s, but no solution was resolved upon, largely because the ~2000 inhabitants of the Falklands were primarily British and preferred to remain under British control.
The Falklands War
The situation came to a head in April of 1982, when Argentina invaded the Falklands, South Georgia, and the South Sandwich Islands, all British territories in the south Atlantic. At the time, Argentina was embroiled in an economic crisis and civil unrest over the unjust rule of the military junta. Government leader General Leopoldo Galtieri sought to divert rising public unrest by exploiting his country’s long-standing territorial feelings towards the Falklands.
The U.N. Security Council called on Argentina to withdraw and for the two countries to come to a peaceful resolution. When Argentina refused, the British sent their troops to reclaim the islands by force, leading to the brief but intense Falklands War.
The British launched their famous navy to retake the islands by amphibious assault, and the ten-week conflict resulted in 649 Argentinean deaths and 258 British deaths. The British were victorious and reclaimed the territory on June 14, 1982, although the war was never declared by either country.
In the years since the war, the British have strengthened their military presence in the Falklands, and, since 1989, have resumed diplomatic relations with Argentina. These relations are still somewhat tense, however, as Argentina has recently renewed its claim over the Falklands and requested that Britain reconsider the issue of sovereignty.