A 212-year tug of war over Falklands: sovereignty vs. self-determination

On a windswept, island outpost, George Farmer and Don Juan Ignacio Madriarga had reached an impasse.

Ever since the British captain and Spanish commander had learned of each other's presence on the islands, pressure had been building. Farmer insisted his fort on the western island determined British rights in the area. Madriarga said his eastern island settlement established Spanish sovereignty.

On June 4, 1770, Madriarga sailed with 1,400 troops into the bay guarded by the British fort to issue an ultimatum. The British had 15 minutes to surrender, he said.

When Farmer refused, the Spanish fired on the blockhouse. With their superior numbers, they forced the British to surrender and, eventually, abandon the island.

The news hit London like a bombshell. Britain and Spain teetered on the brink of a war that neither side wanted - or could afford. Wounded pride and zealous patriotism were aroused on both sides over whether the faraway islands were to be Spain's Islas Malvinas or Britain's Falkland Islands.

Now, some 200 years later, Britain is again pitted against a Spanish-speaking country over these islands in the South Atlantic. And the issue of sovereignty remains as emotional - and controversial - as the confrontation in 1770.

Controversy 1: In 1770, British popular opinion clamored for war and proud Charles III of Spain turned a deaf ear to compromise for awhile. But an ambiguous settlement was worked out, allowing the British to return to their fort but affirming Spanish sovereignty over at least some of the islands.

The British abandoned the fort three years later. According to some historians, this was because of a secret oral agreement promising Britain's eventual withdrawal from the Falklands.

But other historians argue that keeping the fort was getting too expensive for Britain, which was having growing problems in other parts of the world (including some rather rebellious colonies in North America). However, the garrison left behind an intriguing plaque, claiming British sovereignty over all the Falklands.

Controversy 2: The settlement with Spainremained uncontested until 1810, when the Argentines declared independence from Spain. By 1820, the Spanish had been kicked out of Argentina and had abandoned the Falklands.

The United Provinces of the Rio de la Plata - which later became modern Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, and part of Bolivia - then took over, claiming they inherited rights to the islands from Spain.

What were the motives behind this move? Historians give several theories. One is that Argentina wanted the islands for sealing and whaling. Another view is that the country feared Spain or Britain would use the Falklands as a springboard to capture Argentina. Britain had attacked Buenos Aires in 1806 and again in 1807. And the islands did make a strategic outpost dominating the important Straits of Magellan.

A third motive arises in 1829, when Don Juan Manuel de Rosas, governor of the Buenos Aires Republic, appointed Louis Vernet governor of the islands. Some historians speculate that Senor Rosas wanted to increase his own standing and weld together the fragmented Argentine republics. Abandoned by the Spanish in 1811, the Falklands were an easy prize.

Controversy 3: In 1831, Governor Vernet seized an American sealing vessel, claiming it and other ships had encroached the Falklands' territorial waters.

The seizure brought the American corvette Lexington, which destroyed most of the settlement and forced many of the colonists home. The ship's captain declared the Falklands free of all governance. Two years later, Britain took advantage of the vacuum and sent a warship to take control.

Here again, Britain may have had several motives.

After the disastrous loss of the American colonies, Britain was busy rebuilding its empire and wanted to reassert its authority everywhere possible. Besides dominating the Straits of Magellan, the Falklands could serve as a coaling station and as a base allowing the British quick access to the strategic River Plate region (Rio de la Plata).

Since 1833, Britain has held on to the islands. Argentina has made repeated attempts to negotiate a settlement and has threatened several times to take the islands by force, if necessary.

Argentine claims are based on legal sovereignty - inheritance from Spain and the 59-year absence of the British between 1774 and 1833.

Britain's claim revolves around the 20th-century concept of the people's right to self-determination - 97 percent of the population is British.

As in 1770, talk of war surrounds the Falklands.

Currently, the Argentine junta seems to be appealing to jingoism and zealotry to divert public attention from economic hardship.

And the British government once again appears to be acting from a sense of wounded patriotism.

With a population of 300 sheep for every inhabitant, the islands, contested more for their symbolism than for the value inherent in the land itself, once again seem about to become the cause of a war nobody wants.

The Monitor would like to thank the numerous professors who assisted the research for this article. Special thanks to Prof. Ruben de Hoyos, coordinator of Latin American studies at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh, and Fred Strebeigh, a free-lance writer who spent three months in the Falkland Islands.

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