Although there’s evidence that Patagonian Indians may have reached the Falklands in canoes, the islands were officially discovered on August 14, 1592 by John Davis, master of HMS Desire, during an English naval expedition, although a 1522 Portuguese chart indicates knowledge of the islands. The Falklands’ Spanish name, Islas Malvinas, derives from early French navigators from St Malo, who called the islands ‘Les Malouines’ after their home port.
No European power established a settlement until 1764, when the French built a garrison at Port Louis on East Falkland, disregarding Spanish claims under the papal Treaty of Tordesillas that divided the New World between Spain and Portugal. Unbeknownst to either France or Spain, Britain set up a West Falkland outpost at Port Egmont, on Saunders Island, in 1765. Spain, meanwhile, discovered and then supplanted the French colony after an amicable settlement. Spanish forces next detected and expelled the British in 1767. Under threat of war, Spain restored Port Egmont to the British, who only a few years later abandoned the area – without, however, renouncing their territorial claims.
For the rest of the 18th century, Spain maintained the islands as one of the world’s most secure penal colonies. After it abandoned the colonies in the early 1800s, only whalers and sealers visited, until the United Provinces of the Rio de la Plata (as Argentina was formerly known) sent a military governor in the early 1820s to assert its claim as successor to Spain. Later, a naturalized Buenos Aires entrepreneur named Louis Vernet initiated a project to monitor uncontrolled sealers and sustainably exploit local fur seal populations.
Vernet’s seizure of three American sealing vessels, Harriet, Superior and Breakwater, in Berkeley Sound triggered reprisals from a hotheaded US naval officer, Captain Silas Duncan, commanding the corvette USS Lexington, who vandalized the Port Louis settlement beyond restoration in 1831. After Vernet’s departure, Buenos Aires kept a token force there until early 1833, when it was expelled by Britain. Vernet pursued his claims for property damages in British courts for nearly 30 years, unsuccessfully.
Under the British, the Falklands languished until the mid-19th century, when sheep began to replace cattle, and wool became an important export. Founded by Samuel Lafone, an Englishman from Montevideo, the Falkland Islands Company (FIC) became the islands’ largest landholder. Other immigrant entrepreneurs occupied all other available pastoral lands in extensive holdings by the 1870s.
Woolraising was very successful and spawned similar operations in South America. Nothing stood in the way of sheep: the warrah, the island’s only native mammal, was wiped out; bounties were placed on birds felt to be a threat to sheep; and the native tussock grass was soon devastated by overgrazing. By the late 1800s, the island’s ecology was tottering and the amount of exhausted land needed to sustain each sheep was growing. The deliberate introduction of cats and the accidental introduction of rats devastated small bird populations.
Land overuse brought problems, and so did land ownership. From the 1870s to the 1970s, the islands were a near-feudal society with landowners in London – absentee landlords, often exhibiting all the bad qualities those words imply – caring only about the bottom line, while the islanders were essentially poorly paid laborers. Since all the land had been parceled out in the early days of British rule, islanders could not acquire any. Even publicly owned land was minimal; apart from a few outlying islands, the Falklands today are almost devoid of parks and reserves.
Things began to change in the late 1970s when the sale and subdivision of large landholdings was encouraged in order to slow high rates of emigration. Change has become even more rapid since 1982. Prior to the Falklands War, there were only about 35 farms in the Falklands, and the islands’ population was declining steadily. Now there are about 90 owner-occupied farms averaging about 12, 000 hectares. Unfortunately, encouraging local farm ownership coincided with a steep long-term drop in wool prices, so many of the new Falkland landowners have been struggling.
During the long years of unchanging pastoralism, the two world wars were the Falklands’ only major interruptions. In WWI, the Battle of the Falkland Islands was fought southeast of Stanley. The biggest intrusion on island life, however, came with the invasion of the Falklands by Argentina in 1982.
Argentina and Britain restored diplomatic relations in 1990, but since the war, most Falklanders want little or nothing to do with Argentina. Argentine politicians regularly boast that the islands will soon be Argentine once again, but British officials insist they won’t hold negotiations on the islands’ sovereignty until the Falklanders ask for them.
Following the war, Britain showed greatly renewed interest in the islands. Falklanders received full British citizenship, and Britain also allowed the Falklands government to declare a Conservation and Management Zone around the islands, giving the Falklands control over fishing and oil-exploration rights in that area. Britain had refused permission for this previously for fear of irritating Argentina.
The Falklands remain a colonial anachronism, administered by a governor appointed by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in London. In local affairs, the eight-member elected Legislative Council (Legco) exercises power over most internal matters. Four of the eight members come from Stanley, with the remainder representing Camp. Britain controls defense and international relations.
Many books about the islands have been written since the 1982 war, but the most readily available general account is the third edition of Ian Strange’s The Falkland Islands (1984), which covers the islands’ geography, history and natural history. To get the most out of your visit, pick up A Visitor’s Guide to the Falkland Islands (2005), by Debbie Summers, a native Falklander. Published by Falklands Conservation (www.falklandsconservation.com), it’s filled with color photos, excellent maps and interesting facts.