A Brief History of the Falkland Islands

On 2 April 1982, Argentina invaded and occupied the Falkland Islands. It was the beginning of a ten-week conflict that ended with the Argentines surrendering on 14 June and the islands returning back to British control.

2022 marks 40 years since the conflict and the audacious Operation Black Buck raids carried out by the RAF. Operation Black Buck consisted of seven missions that are now legendary. The missions were flown using a fleet of V-force aircraft – Avro Vulcans and Handley Page Victors – and contributed to regaining the islands which had been a British territory since 1833.

The Falkland Islands have over 500 years of complex history. Early sightings of the islands were reported to forewarn sailors in a treacherous part of the world’s oceans and to map the New World. European mapmakers were keen to draw accurate charts for explorers and sought information from returning sailors. 

Over the centuries, long before the age of jet technology, the islands were claimed by the French, Spanish, British and Argentines. Today the islands are officially designated the Falkland Islands in all United Nations documentation, but in its early years a number of names were applied to the area.

In 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued the papal bull (a type of public decree), Inter Caetera. He decreed that New World lands outside of Europe, which were not already held by a Christian Prince, to be divided between Spain and Portugal. The Treaty of Tordesillas was made the following year between the two countries and agreed that the dividing line between the two should be changed 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands. The Falkland Islands lie on the western side of the line and would come under Spanish sovereignty, although they had not been discovered at that time.

Modern day map showing the lines dividing world between Spain and Portugal.

The other European powers had not signed the treaty and generally ignored it. By the early 1500s other European nations had rejected the idea that the Pope had the right to decide sovereignty of the New World. The validity of the Inter Caetera had been overwhelmingly denounced, even by influential people within Spain.

In 1580, the Spanish Ambassador complained about English ships in Spanish seas and made a demand for satisfaction from Queen Elizabeth I. The complaint was in reaction to Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe. The response from the Queen was:

“Her Majesty does not understand why her subjects and those of other Princes are prohibited from the Indies, which she could not persuade herself are the rightful property of Spain by donation of the Pope of Rome . . . and that only on the ground that Spaniards have touched here and there, have erected shelters, have given names to a river or promontory; acts which cannot confer property. So that this donation of alien property (which be essence of law is void) and this imaginary proprietorship ought not to hinder other princes from carrying on commerce in these regions, and from establishing Colonies where Spaniards are not residing, without the least violation of the law of nations.”

She continued:

“…every nation had a right by the law of nature to freely navigate those seas and transport colonies to those parts where the Spaniards do not inhabit.”

English Ships and the Spanish Armada, August 1588

In 1588, Spain sent an Armada to invade Britain. Their aim was to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I and her establishment of Protestantism in England, to stop English interference in the Spanish Netherlands, and to stop the harm caused by English and Dutch privateering ships that disrupted Spanish interests in the Americas. The attempt was thwarted by the professionalism of the Royal Navy, good naval battle tactics and bad weather.

Flag of the Falkland Islands

In August 1592 English Captain, John Davis, made the first recorded sighting of the Falkland Islands. During a storm, Davis’ ship, the Desire, was fortunately blown amongst the islands, which provided shelter from the winds and storm.

In recognition of the sighting, the 14 August is known as Falklands Day in the islands and the Falkland’s Coat of Arms includes an image of Davis’ ship and incorporates the motto – Desire the Right – which is a reference to the ship’s name. The ship and motto have been included on Coats of Arms displayed on the Flag of the Falklands, since 1925.

John Davis, who was a master navigator, also invented a navigational instrument – the backstaff and double quadrant – which measures the altitude of the sun by the projection of a shadow.

Backstaff Davis Quadrant

On 2 February 1594, while repeating Francis Drake’s 1577 Voyage of Discovery, Britain’s Richard Hawkins sighted an uncharted land and named it Hawkins Maiden Land. In a publication of The Observations of Sir Richard Hawkins in his Voyage into the South Sea, Hawkins describes the sighting:

“… about nine of the clocke in the morning, wee descried land, which bare South-West of us, which we looked not for so timely and coming neerer and neerer unto it, by the lying, wee could not conjecture what land it could be…. It hath great Rivers of fresh waters; for the out-shoot of them colours the Sea … The Land, for that it was discovered in the Reigne of Queene Elizabeth, my Sovereigne Lady and Mistris, and a Mayden Queene, and at my cost and adventure, in a perpetual memory of her chastitie, and remembrance of my endevours, I gave it the name of Hawkins Maiden land … the Westernmost part lyeth some threescore leagues from the neerest Land of America.”

By the 17th century it was clear that an uninhabited archipelago, which has land mass about the size of Yorkshire, lay off the coast of South America.

In January 1600, the islands were named Sebald Islands by Sebald de Weert. On his journey home to the Netherlands after an expedition to the East Indies via the Straits of Magellan, de Weert noticed some islands that did not exist on his nautical charts. He was unable to land due to harsh conditions and continued on his journey, naming the islands the Sebald de Weert Islands.

(L) Illustration by William Hacke, one of the most prolific manuscript chart makers for his time, in 1699.

(R) Pepys Island depicted on an 18th-century map.

In December 1683, while circumnavigating the globe on the Bachelor’s Delight, the British Bucaneer, William Ambrose Cowley, discovered what he believed was an uncharted island in the South Atlantic which he named Pepys Island, named after Samuel Pepys, Secretary to the Admiralty. Cowley’s companion on the voyage, William Dampier, considered the sighting to be the Sebald Islands, the alternative name at that time for the Falklands. Dampier was correct, Pepys Island was a phantom island. However, the mention of a discovery of this new island prompted a number of voyages to the mythical land.

In 1690, English captain John Strong, made the first recorded landing on the islands. Strong was on an expedition from London to South America between 1689-1691. Commanding HMS Welfare, he explored the strait that separates the two main islands. Strong named the channel Falkland Sound, in honour of the man who sponsored his journey – Anthony Cary, 5th Viscount of Falkland.

HMS Dolphin at Tahiti 1767

Between June 1764 and May 1766, British captain John Byron was on a discovery expedition with the Royal Navy vessel HMS Dolphin. This was Dolphin’s first circumnavigation of the globe. She would eventually become the first ship to circumnavigate the world twice. The mission was to seek new trade markets and claim any undiscovered or unclaimed lands for the British. A search for Pepys Island was part of the voyage. After searching in vain for the phantom island Byron eventually reached the northwest tip of West Falkland in January 1965.

On describing the port and naming it Port Egmont, in Byron’s Journal of his Circumnavigation, 1764-1766, he wrote:

“Port Egmont (which I so named after the Earl of Egmont) I think it without exception one of the finest Harbours I ever saw in my life.”

Byron went on to claim the islands for King George III and wrote:

“I took Possession of this Harbour & all these islands for His Majesty King George the Third / of Great Britain & His Heirs, tho’ they had been before taken Possession of by Sr Richd Hawkins in the Year 1593” [actually in 1594]

Unbeknown to Byron there was French settlement on the East Falkland. French explorer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville had colonised the island in 1763. He named the area Iles Malouines, which was named after the point of departure for his ships and colonists – the port of Saint-Malo in Brittany, western France.

In 1766 France agreed to leave the island after Spain complained about the French presence in areas that were considered Spanish territories. The agreement was based on the alliance between the Bourbon kings of France and Spain – the Pacte de Famille. The Spanish name for the archipelago is Islas Malvinas, which is a translation of the French name of Iles Malouines.

The Spanish were aware of the British presence on the islands when their close ally France handed back East Falkland. On 28 November 1769, Captain Anthony Hunt observed a Spanish vessel surveying the western island. The commander of the vessel was sent a message requiring him to depart. In 1770, the Spanish authorities in Buenos Aires began issuing warnings to the British on West Falkland to leave what they considered their territory. The British also issued warnings, to the Spanish, for them to leave the British territory. In June 1770, the Spanish surprised the British settlement and captured Port Egmont. The British were evicted and allowed to set sail for England.

The incident, known as the Falklands Crisis of 1770, nearly led to war. The matter was addressed to the court of Madrid by the British. During the court discussions the question of sovereignty was evaded, with neither nation relinquishing its claim over the islands. Eventually, when France refused to back Spain, the Spanish court backed down and an agreement was made to disavow the actions of Buenos Aires and restore Port Egmont as it existed before being captured. The British agreed that they would disavow the conduct of Captain Hunt, who ordered the Spanish away from East Falkland.

The plaque placed at Port Egmont, Saunders Island to commemorate the first British colony on the Falkland Islands.

British and Spanish settlements coexisted on the islands until 1774, when Britain’s economic pressures led to a withdrawal from many overseas settlements. On leaving the Falkland Islands Britain left a plaque that claimed continuing sovereignty. During the period that followed a number of countries laid claim to the British territory, including Spain, which never gave up its claims to the Falkland Islands based on the Pope’s papal bulls.

Between 1810 and 1818 The Argentine War of Independence was fought. During this war, in 1816, Argentina declared independence. Prior to then the territory was part of the Spanish Empire. The Argentines claim to the Falkland Islands is based on inheriting them from Spain when sovereignty passed to Argentina.

Since the Falkland Islands had no inhabitants at the time, in 1823 Buenos Aires granted land to Luis Vernet. Vernet had also requested permission from the British Consulate in Buenos Aires and agreed to provide regular reports when they gave their consent. Later, Buenos Aires proclaimed him governor of the islands which the British protested restating their claim to the islands.

In December 1831, British naval officer, Robert Fitzroy, commanded the voyage of HMS Beagle which sailed around the world with Charles Darwin aboard. While at the Falkland Islands, Darwin studied the relationships of species to habitats. During the exploration he found ancient fossils like those he had found in Wales in the summer of 1831. When organising his notes as the ship sailed home, Darwin wrote that, if his growing suspicions about the mockingbirds, the tortoises and the Falkland Islands fox were correct then such facts;

“seemed to me to throw some light on the origin of species.”

The voyage provided Charles Darwin with much of the material on which he based his theory of evolution.

HMS Beagle in the Straits of Magellan, image from Charles Darwin’s 1890 illustrated edition of The Voyage of the Beagle.

Captain Robert Fitzroy was not only the commander of the voyage, but also a scientist. He was a pioneering meteorologist who went on to make accurate daily weather predictions. In 1854 he established what we now know as the Met Office. Daily weather data was collected at 9am from set locations around the UK coast. These Daily Weather Reports assisted FitzRoy in developing charts that allowed predictions to be made which he called a weather forecast.

The data is still collected today and they form the longest continuous series of data in the National Meteorological Archive. The full series of reports is available from their Digital Library & Archive.

In December 1832, Britain returned to West Falkland. The first actions of Captain John Onslow and the crew of HMS Clio were to repair the fort at Port Egmont and affix a notice of possession. The Clio was later joined by HMS Tyne. On 2 January 1833, Onslow arrived at the east island and the Spanish settlement on East Falkland was asked to leave and replace the Argentine flag with the British flag.

“I have to direct you that I have received directions from His Excellency and Commander-in-Chief of His Britannic Majesty’s ships and vessels of war, South America station, in the name of His Britannic Majesty, to exercise the rights of sovereignty over these Islands. It is my intention to hoist to-morrow the national flag of Great Britain on shore when I request you will be pleased to haul down your flag on shore and withdraw your force, taking all stores belonging to your Government.”

Written request presented to Argentine officer – 2 January 1833

British forces disembarked on 3 January 1833 and switched the flags. British sovereignty of the islands was reasserted and Britain has held the territory ever since, apart from a 74 day period in 1982. It is the proud British history associated with the Falklands that led to Britain’s resolve to take back the islands when Argentina invaded on 2 April 1982.

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