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Falkland Islands: A Legacy of Disputes

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. He called the islands Hawkins Maiden Land, and named the Falkland Sound after Viscount Falkland, treasurer of the Royal Navy.

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.

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. Vernet captured three U.S. ships on the charges of illegal sealing, and apparently plundered them and outfitted them for war. The U.S. sent Captain Silas Duncan and the USS Lexington to Port Soledad. 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 pirates and escaped convicts from a failed penal colony.

The British invaded and resumed control of the Falkland Islands in 1833. They left various officials in charge through the next decades, although the small population was largely still made up of pirates and convicts.

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