Great Britain Occupies the Falkland Islands

Following the sack of a small Argentine settlement on the Falkland Islands by the United States, the British reasserted an old claim to the islands, establishing a permanent naval base and civilian settlement. Argentina never ceded its claim to the islands, but Great Britain afterward retained continuous control of the small archipelago.

Summary of Event

Lying at 51 degrees south latitude, three hundred miles east off the coast of South America, the treeless, windswept Falkland Islands have periodically assumed importance in the annals of history. In the 1970’s, discovery of potentially very large though currently unexploitable oil reserves in the territorial waters of the Falklands sparked a conflict culminating in the Falkland Islands War between Great Britain and Argentina in 1982. Suddenly, the question of their rightful ownership became important, and the tangled history of territorial claims to the islands became worthy of scrutiny. Falkland Islands
Argentina;Falkland Islands
Vernet, Louis
British Empire;and South America[South America]
[kw]Great Britain Occupies the Falkland Islands (Jan., 1833)
[kw]Britain Occupies the Falkland Islands, Great (Jan., 1833)
[kw]Occupies the Falkland Islands, Great Britain (Jan., 1833)
[kw]Falkland Islands, Great Britain Occupies the (Jan., 1833)
[kw]Islands, Great Britain Occupies the Falkland (Jan., 1833)
Falkland Islands
Argentina;Falkland Islands
Vernet, Louis
British Empire;and South America[South America]
[g]South America;Jan., 1833: Great Britain Occupies the Falkland Islands[1780]
[g]British Empire;Jan., 1833: Great Britain Occupies the Falkland Islands[1780]
[g]Argentina;Jan., 1833: Great Britain Occupies the Falkland Islands[1780]
[c]Expansion and land acquisition;Jan., 1833: Great Britain Occupies the Falkland Islands[1780]
[c]Colonization;Jan., 1833: Great Britain Occupies the Falkland Islands[1780]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Jan., 1833: Great Britain Occupies the Falkland Islands[1780]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Jan., 1833: Great Britain Occupies the Falkland Islands[1780]
Bougainville, Louis-Antoine de
Fitzroy, Robert
Duncan, Silas
Rosas, Juan Manuel de

The Falklands supported no aboriginal inhabitants before the coming of Europeans. Esteban Gomez, sailing with Ferdinand Magellan’s fleet, may have sighted the islands in 1520. British and Dutch explorers also reported them before 1600. An Englishman, John Strong, landed and conducted surveys in 1690 but did not attempt settlement. The earliest claim to the islands based on occupation is therefore that of the French.

In 1763, Louis-Antoine de Bougainville Bougainville, Louis-Antoine de obtained backing from the French government to establish a colony on East Falkland, relocating settlers who had been expelled from Acadia Acadia at the close of the Seven Years’ War. Spain objected, citing the Treaty of Utrecht (1714), and in 1767 France conceded, withdrawing its colonists and accepting monetary compensation. The Spanish occupied the abandoned French outpost, and from 1767 until about 1800 they maintained a small military presence on East Falkland. This lapsed during the Napoleonic Wars.

The Falkland Islands

Meanwhile, unbeknown to the French, Great Britain was developing a settlement and naval station on West Falkland. Founded in 1765, Port Egmont was to serve as a provisioning station for ships rounding Cape Horn. Because uncertain relations between Spain and Britain periodically closed South American ports, having a safe harbor on the Falklands became essential to British expansion into the Pacific.

In 1770, Spain seized Port Egmont and expelled the British, citing the agreement with France. The British maintained that that agreement applied only to East Falkland. In 1771, a British naval force retook West Falkland, meeting no opposition. In 1774, faced with more urgent naval matters elsewhere, Britain withdrew from its base, albeit without relinquishing its claims.

From 1800 until 1820, the Falklands were abandoned to feral cattle Cattle;in Falkland Islands[Falkland Islands] and to seal hunters of several nations. Meanwhile, the Spanish colonies proclaimed their independence. During the long process of consolidation and establishment of boundaries for the newly independent states, a naval officer in the service of Buenos Aires landed at Port Louis in 1820. He claimed the Falklands for his employers and left a garrison there. In 1826, the newly constituted Republic of Argentina granted a charter to Louis Vernet, a German-born immigrant, to found a settlement. By 1831, this settlement was a viable concern, with about one hundred civilian inhabitants cultivating the soil and exploiting wild cattle.

Conflicts arose between Vernet and sealers Sealing industry who wantonly slaughtered seals and cattle. To combat this behavior, the Argentine government officially appointed Vernet governor and empowered him to seize offenders. In 1831, after repeatedly warning American sealers to stay away, he seized one of their ships and sent the crew to Buenos Aires for prosecution. America responded predictably. A gunboat under the command of Captain Silas Duncan Duncan, Silas attacked and sacked Port Soledad, formerly Port Louis. The U.S. government backed his actions, refusing to compensate Vernet.

In 1832, the British reviewed the situation in the Falkland Islands and Argentina. The infant Republic of Argentina was engaged in a civil war, as its dictator, Juan Manuel de Rosas, Rosas, Juan Manuel de consolidated his power. Thus, though Argentina arguably had a legitimate territorial claim, it lacked the ability to enforce it. Moreover, given the record of aggressive American territorial expansion and the rivalry between Britain and America over whale fisheries and access to markets on the Pacific coast of South America, the British viewed the attack on Port Soledad as a possible prelude to American occupation. They therefore dispatched the warship Clio, which arrived in January of 1833. Finding Port Soledad apparently deserted, the British declared the Falklands to be without effective sovereignty and raised the British flag over the islands. Argentina disputed the claim, as Vernet’s agent was still present, along with some of the settlers and a few troops.

When Robert Fitzroy Fitzroy, Robert arrived in the HMS Beagle
Royal Navy;Beagle expedition
Beagle, HMS in 1834, he discovered the same vacuum. Gauchos had murdered Vernet’s agent, and the remaining settlers fled in terror at the approach of any ship. Fitzroy made his usual meticulous survey of the coastline and physical features of the Falklands while the ship’s naturalist, Charles Darwin Darwin, Charles
[p]Darwin, Charles;on Falkland Islands[Falkland Islands] , cataloged the flora and fauna. Fitzroy’s recommendations, which included establishing a penal colony, helped convince the Admiralty and the British government that the Falklands were worth developing on economic grounds.

An act of Parliament in 1842 established the Falklands as a Crown Colony and appointed a governor. In 1843, the seat of government was moved from Port Louis to Port William, which was renamed Stanley. The Falkland Islands Company, founded in 1851, oversaw the transition of the economy from exploitation of feral cattle to raising sheep for wool. During the latter half of the nineteenth century, the economy of the Falklands rested on three legs: wool, servicing ships rounding Cape Horn, and the whaling industry. Administratively part of the Falklands, the remote Antarctic island of South Georgia South Georgia housed the factories processing whale carcasses, while Stanley served as the commercial hub of the industry. The population of the Falkland Islands rose steadily, from perhaps 50 in 1833, to 287 in 1851, 2,043 in 1901, and a high of 2,392 in 1931. In 1980, 1,813 people lived on the four thousand square miles of territory, along with one-half million sheep.


Construction of the Panama Canal Panama Canal;and Falkland Islands[Falkland Islands] reduced the importance of the Falkland Islands as a port of call, and the whaling industry became extinct. This left wool as the sole basis of the economy. By the middle of the twentieth century, the Falklands appeared to have outlived their usefulness as a territorial possession. In the 1970’s, however, geologists discovered the South Atlantic oil field. Most of this field lay beneath deep water, in some of the stormiest seas on earth, precluding its immediate exploitation. It was clear, however, that major oil reserves lay within the territorial waters of the Falkland Islands.

When Leopoldo Galtieri Perón, Juan seized control of the Argentine government in 1981, he found a country whose sovereignty was compromised by British control of its economic sector. His strategy for combating this situation included reasserting Argentina’s long-dormant claim to the Falklands, first through negotiation and pleas to the United Nations. In 1982, when negotiation seemed fruitless, Galtieri mounted a full-scale military invasion of Las Islas Malvinas (the Spanish name of the islands, derived from the old French name, Les Malouines). The British elected to fight back, reinvading and retaking the islands after a brief but intense contest in which 236 British soldiers and 655 Argentineans were killed. Economic considerations played an important role in their decision to resist Galtieri. However, the British were also able to point to the interests of the English-speaking Falkland islanders, mostly of British descent, who had no desire to live under an Argentine dictatorship. The failure of the Argentine invasion was a key factor in the downfall of Galtieri and return of Argentina to civilian rule.

Had the British not seized control of the Falklands in 1832, the islands’ history would undoubtedly have been different. Viewing the turbulent history of Argentina during the dictatorship of Rosas Rosas, Juan Manuel de , it is hard to imagine that country developing the islands successfully or preventing other countries from exploiting them piecemeal. Occupation by the United States, or, later in the century, by Germany could have heralded more aggressive attempts to establish hegemony in southern South America. Thus, in terms of international commerce during the nineteenth century and environmental preservation in the present day, British occupation had far-reaching consequences.

Further Reading

  • Burgess, James Bland. Letters Lately Published in the Diary on the Subject of the Present Dispute with Spain Under the Signature of Verus. London: B. Kearsley, 1790. An earlier view of Britain’s claims.
  • Fitzroy, Robert. Narrative of the Surveying Voyages of His Majesty’s Ships “Adventure” and “Beagle” Between the Years 1826 and 1836. Vol. 2. London: Henry Colburn, 1839. Reprint. New York: AMS Press, 1966. Fitzroy presents the captain’s view of the Beagle’s famous voyage of exploration, with much discussion of naval strategy.
  • Gibran, Daniel K. The Falkland War: Britain Versus the Past in the South Atlantic. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1998. Includes historical background of the 1982 Falklands war and an economic history of the islands.
  • Hoffman, Fritz L., and Olga Mingo Hoffman. Sovereignty in Dispute: The Falklands/Malvinas, 1493-1982. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1984. Defends Argentine claims; good diplomatic history for the nineteenth century.
  • Matthew, H. C. G., and Brian Harrison, eds. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: From the Earliest Times to the Year 2000. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Good entry on Fitzroy.

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Charles Darwin. Falkland Islands
Argentina;Falkland Islands
Vernet, Louis
British Empire;and South America[South America]