The improbable Falklands War still resonates decades later (2022)

ByKieran Mulvaney

Published April 1, 2022

13 min read

Shortly after midnight on the morning of April 2, 1982, a detachment of Argentine commandos landed on the Falkland Islands, a South Atlantic archipelago a few hundred miles off the country’s southern coast, and moved overland toward the settlement’s capital, Port Stanley. A few hours later, a larger landing force began unloading troops in Stanley harbor. By 8.30 a.m., with 800 Argentine troops ashore and 2,000 more about to join them, the islands’ British-appointed governor recognized the futility of resistance by the small garrison of Royal Marines at his disposal and agreed to surrender.

Not until 4 p.m. local time did confirmation reach London, more than 8,000 miles away. For much of the British public, the news was both shocking and confusing, not least because few had heard of the islands or could locate them on a map. In Argentina, however, the fate of what is known there as the Islas Malvinas had been a cause célèbre for generations. Their reclamation prompted wild celebrations in Buenos Aires.

The joy would prove short-lived. By June 14, Britain had recaptured the Falklands and neighboring South Georgia, after a “curiously old-fashioned war” over what then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan dismissed as “that little ice-cold bunch of land down there.” But despite being characterized by British journalist Max Hastings as a “freak of history,” the conflict had been brewing for 150 years, and the match that lit the long, slow-burning fuse was, improbably, the 19th-century arrest of three American sealing vessels.

Early claims to the islands

There is no certainty who saw the Falkland Islands first. It may have been Esteban Gómez, a member of Ferdinand Magellan’s 1519-22 circumnavigation of the globe; it may have been the English navigator John Davis on board the Desirein 1592. The first undisputed sighting belongs to the Dutchman Sebald de Weerdt, sometime around 1600, and the first known landing was by English captain John Strong in 1690. Strong seemed unimpressed, noting that there was an “abundance of geese and ducks” but that, “as for wood, there is none.” He charted the sound between the two islands, named it after the First Lord of the Admiralty, Viscount Falkland, and sailed away.

Indeed, despite the jostling for possession that would unfold over the ensuing centuries, few of the French, British, or Spanish settlers who took turns colonizing the islands seemed particularly enamored by them. “I tarry on this miserable desert, suffering everything for the love of God,” lamented the Reverend Sebastian Villeneuva, the first priest at what was then the Spanish colony of Puerto Soledad, in 1767. Four years later, the British government was so anxious it would have to reinforce the country’s claim to the islands that it commissioned Samuel Johnson to belittle them as “thrown aside from human use, stormy in winter, barren in summer … which not even the southern savages have dignified with habitation.”

But if few seemed keen on the islands, no claimant wanted any other country to possess them. When French and British explorers established settlements in the 1760s, Spain reacted with fury, arguing that the actions were a violation of the Treaty of Utrecht, which it claimed reaffirmed Spain’s dominion over its traditional territories in the Americas. The French colonists promptly withdrew. After a few years, so did the British—but not before leaving a plaque claiming sovereignty.

Britain takes control

In 1816, the forerunner of the modern Argentine republic formally declared independence from Spain and four years later claimed the islands. Without a Spanish presence, the islands descended into an anarchic refuge for sealers. So in 1829, Argentina appointed a governor, Louis Vernet, who attempted to impose order by arresting three U.S. sealing vessels. In response, Silas Duncan, the captain of the U.S.S. Lexington steamed to the archipelago, destroyed all military installations, razed all the buildings, and then sailed away, declaring the islands free of government.

With the islands a more lucrative proposition given the growth of the sealing industry, Britain saw an opportunity and stepped into the vacuum, raising the Union Jack on January 3, 1833, and formally establishing the Falkland Islands as a Crown Colony in 1840.

Although Argentine resentment simmered for more than a century, the country did not press its claim to sovereignty until the 1960s, according to a 1983 paper in the Naval War College Review. A 1965 United Nations resolution recognized the existence of a dispute and invited the two countries to enter negotiations over the islands’ future. The level of engagement on the issue was not equal: In their book The Battle for the Falklands, Max Hastings and Simon Jenkins note that British politicians visiting Buenos Aires “were constantly baffled by the emotion the subject aroused.” During the 1970s, both sides grew increasingly aware of the islands’ strategic usefulness, particularly in terms of fishing. But despite that, and despite its assertion that the wishes of the 1,800 or so inhabitants—whose principal income was wool from the islands’ 600,000 sheep—had to be paramount, Britain “was not willing to devote resources to the islands” and seemed increasingly inclined to reach an accommodation.

In Buenos Aires, the ruling military junta of General Leopoldo Galtieri, sensing a lack of British commitment to the cause, anxious to shore up its fading domestic support, and mindful of the rapidly approaching 150th anniversary of Britain’s annexation of the islands, drew up its plans. When a team of scrap merchants raised the Argentine flag over an old whaling station at Leith in South Georgia in March 1982, British officials began to realize the situation was rapidly spiraling out of control. But by then, it was too late: Argentina was preparing its invasion.

War begins

Despite its quick early victory, Argentina had underestimated Britain’s resolve, motivated by a determination to hang onto its dwindling Great Power status and by the belief articulated by Sir Henry Leach, the head of the Royal Navy, that if they failed to respond to the invasion, “in a very few months’ time we shall be living in a different country whose word will count for little.” Even as U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig engaged in shuttle diplomacy to find a resolution, a British task force of 127 ships—including Naval vessels and commandeered merchant ships such as the luxury cruise liner Queen Elizabeth 2steamed south toward the islands.

For all the history building up to it, when war finally erupted it was relatively brief. Argentina had not expected a forceful attempt to retake the islands. When it became clear that such an attempt would take place, the defenders expected it to come through Port Stanley and were caught by surprise when the British landed to the west and worked their way inland. Additionally, the Argentine forces “were riven by conflicts between officers and men, regulars and conscripts,” whereas the all-volunteer British force “demonstrated the virtues of military professionalism.”

Argentine forces on South Georgia surrendered almost as soon as British soldiers stepped ashore on April 25, 1982; and the main battle for the Falklands lasted 72 days, culminating in the capture of Port Stanley, on June 14.

But despite its brevity, the conflict was brutal: Argentine fighter planes sunk several British ships, and altogether about 900 people were killed—255 British and 649 Argentine, as well as three islanders. Defeat proved disastrous for Galtieri, who was deposed almost immediately—ushering in a new period of Argentine democracy. The previously unpopular government of Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, however, was reelected in 1983 and again in 1987.

Legacy of the war

Forty years later, Argentina continues to assert its sovereignty over the islands, and a 2021 survey found that 81 percent of the country believes it should continue to do so. A Malvinas Museum, established in 2014, presents Argentina’s claims to the archipelago. Conversely, in a 2013 referendum, 99.8 percent of Falkland Islanders—whose numbers have doubled and wealth has increased in the years following the war—opted to remain British. Of approximately 1,500 votes cast, only three were ‘no.’

But in the immediate aftermath of the war, wrote Hastings and Jenkins, a kind of silence descended on the islands anew: “Just as many of the islanders made clear their impatience to be alone once more, so the British did not conceal their burning anxiety to be gone from the islands … They had done what they came to do. By the end of June, most of the men who fought were gone.”

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