Icon of the month: The Falklands
Almost nothing has happened here except war. For every human
there are six landmines (and 150 sheep). It is cold, but snow
does not accumulate because it rains, on average, on three or four
days in every week. If you work on the Falklands you are a soldier,
a farmer or a fishermen (catch per year: 220,000 tons, 200,000 of
which is squid).
The islands were first spotted by Europeans in 1592. No one
thought it worth stopping. Not until 1690, when a landing lasted
just long enough to establish that there were no indigenous
inhabitants. In 1765 the British arrived and claimed the islands
for George III. A Captain John MacBride established a settlement on
West Falkland without noticing that the French had moved onto East
Falkland a year earlier. Neither of them stayed long. In 1776 the
British left, leaving only a plaque claiming sovereignty. By then
the French had handed over to the Spanish, but they too left only a
plaque when withdrawing home to fight Napoleon.
For decades the only visitors were whalers, pirates, and hiders
from South Atlantic storms.
In the 1820s Argentina (or the United Provinces of the Río de la
Plata as it was then) encouraged the creation of a colony under its
rule. The 'success' of the new settlement - Charles Darwin called
conditions 'miserable' when passing through - led to a new
declaration of sovereignty. In response Britain sent - oh
precedent - a naval task force, though no fighting was necessary.
'It is my intention to hoist tomorrow the national flag of Great
Britain' declared Captain Onslow of HMS Clio. ' I request you will
be pleased to haul down your flag on shore and withdraw your
force.' It was enough, but not the end.
The Islands' more recent history needs less elucidation - save
to say that, as is always the case, we have probably made too much
of the heroism and too little of the horror. By the end of the
1970s, Britain had become a sad and chastened place. But in
Margeret Thatcher it had found a winner, with a conquering attitude
she took to the miners ('the enemy within'), the IRA, the GLC and
socialism of all kinds.
Victory, though, has made the last 30 years awkward ones.
Although Islanders - 'belongers', they call themselves - are
entitled to protection from dictatorial junta, there is no
disguising the fact that their status is an anachronism. And an
expensive one too. It cannot be beyond the wit of man or
tank-driving woman to devise a settlement that allows Falklanders
their British citizenship without granting them the exploration and
fishing rights that by most standards of geography, history and
(dare I say it) morality are South American.
And now there is oil. 'When the islands were unimportant, their
fate would have been easy to settle' wrote the historian Felipe
Fernandez-Armesto. 'The magnitude of the problem has grown with the
magnitude of the stakes.' By refusing to share natural resources
for fear of legitimating British claims, President Nestor Kirchner
ensured that Argentina does not profit from oil exploration. All
this because of a rock in the sea with nothing on it but penguins.
Truly God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the
things which are mighty.
No solution looks imminent, but Britain will eventually cede to
the changing demands of global politics. Brazil, whose economy
recently overtook the UK's, supports Argentina's claim, as does the
rest of burgeoning South America. It is unlikely that Britain will
forever choose the claims of a tiny number of island settlers over
the benefits of world trade. As ever, one wonders what it was all
'And everybody praised the
Who this great fight did win
But what good came of it at last?'
Quoth little Peterkin.
'Why that I cannot tell,' said he,
'But 'twas a famous victory.'