Ownership of the Falkland Islands has long been a subject of debate. Even claims to discovery of the Islands are varied. Some credit Amerigo Vespucci, some credit Esteban Gomez, while others credit the Camargo expedition of 1540. None of these claims can be verified; however, the first Briton to see the Islands was John Davies who sighted the Falklands from aboard the Desire in 1592. He noted in his journals that his ship had been tossed by storms and ended up near “certain Isles never before discovered by any knowen relation.”
Regardless of who discovered the island, the first recorded landing was made by Captain John Strong in 1690. As he and his crew searched for the wreck of a Spanish treasure ship, they found themselves running short on food and water. They weighed anchor on the island and loaded up on fresh water and an abundance of geese and ducks. Before leaving, Captain Strong named the sound between the two large islands Falklands Channel in honor of Viscount Falkland, who had sponsored the expedition. As time progressed, the name Falklands eventually encompassed the whole island chain.
Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, the Spanish and the French had been launching further and further into the region. The Spanish had taken over much of the Central and South American mainland, and had claimed hegemony over the continent. French ships were exploring and mapping the area, searching for land for French colonies; however they found little that the Spanish had not already claimed. At this time the Falklands fell within the Spanish claims.
In 1740, George Anson alerted the British government to the strategic opportunities that the Falklands presented. The islands sat in a key location along the east-to-west route, and Anson suggested that the islands would make an ideal anchorage point.
The British government prevaricated about deciding on a settlement, and in the mean-time, the French set about building one. This started a furious struggle between the French and Spanish governments. Meanwhile, unaware of the competing forces, the British finally moved on Anson’s suggestions and launched their own expedition in 1765.
Finding the spot ideal for a permanent settlement, the British sent a full garrison along with livestock and supplies enough to sustain a settlement of 100. The first British settlement was called “Port Egmont” in honor of Lord Egmont who had sponsored the endeavour. Only when the British began to explore the islands in earnest did they stumble upon the French settlement at St. Louis.
Eventually, both the British and the French were forced to leave, and the Falklands once again were placed under Spanish control. Before leaving, however, the British left behind a flag and a plaque declaring their sovereignty over the islands – and their intention to return.
In 1832, Britain did just that. After reasserting its claim, British forces arrived, evicted the Argentinian settlers, and established a British settlement.
Throughout the late 19th century, sheep farming became the core industry of the islands. This brought on a substantial migration from the British Isles. Within a period of fifty years, the population increased seven-fold, growing from a mere 287 in 1851 to 2043 by 1901. Some immigrants came from England; however, most came from Scotland – in particular, from the Orkney and Shetland Islands. By 1892, the Falklands were granted status as a colony.
Ownership of the islands continued to be hotly contested, culminating in the Falklands War in 1982. This led to the establishment of a semi-permanent force of 1700 British troops remaining to protect the 2200 residents. Hostilities weren’t formally dissolved until around 1995.
Today, less than a third of Falkland Islanders consider themselves British, though the population is English-speaking and all Islanders have full British citizenship. The most recent census showed that about 70% of the population is primarily of British descent.
Filed under: Relics of Empire
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