The Falkland Islands (perdón – Las Malvinas) are not high on my list of places to visit. They might long ago have been exchanged for the Isle of Wight without much loss. But oil has now entered the picture and we can undoubtedly look forward to renewed political chicanery. As long as it doesn’t lead to another futile war.
The Falkland Islands are an archipelago in the South Atlantic Ocean, located over 250 nautical miles (460 km) east of the coast of Argentina. The archipelago comprises 778 islands of which the capital and only city, Stanley, is on East Falkland. The islands are a self-governing British Overseas Territory, with the United Kingdom responsible for their defence and foreign affairs.
John Shakespeare, a former British diplomat stationed in Buenos Aires, has expressed his own somewhat acerbic opinion of the islands’ future in “The land that time forgot” published in New Statesman (29 March 2012). The article includes a potted version of recent history:
“Since its emergence from the ruins of the Spanish empire in 1816, Argentina had claimed the Falkland Islands as part of the new republic even though Spain had ceded the uninhabited islands to Britain in 1771. Despite protests from Buenos Aires, Britain formally settled the islands in 1833 and has occupied them ever since, with the exception of 74 days in 1982. Argentina has never relinquished its claim and although it never pursued it with any vigour until the junta took over in 1976, it became part of Argentine mythology. The Islas Malvinas, as they are called in Spanish, are shown on Argentine maps as being part of Argentina and at all schools in the country, even the highly regarded Anglo-Argentine ones such as St George’s and St Andrew’s, the day begins with the raising of the national flag and recital of the mantra that ‘las Islas Malvinas son argentinas’.”
So far, so succinct. A note of humour is injected when Shakespeare reconnoitres:
“Soon after I arrived in Buenos Aires I made a visit to the Falkland Islands to learn more about the main problem that I should be dealing with at the embassy. Thanks to the Communications Agreement of 1971, it was now possible to fly there from Buenos Aires by a weekly commercial flight operated, sinisterly, by the Argentine air force. I flew to Stanley in an almost empty plane – there was little traffic in either direction – and was met by the governor at the airstrip in his official car, a converted London taxi, with a roof high enough to accommodate his plumed hat on ceremonial occasions. Suddenly, an hour or two away from the seething, modern metropolis of Buenos Aires, I found myself in a 19th century English village whose inhabitants knew nothing of their Spanish-speaking neighbours 300 miles across the sea and wanted to keep it that way. Apart from discussions with the governor and islanders, I had one small duty to perform – to pass on a gentle rebuke to the governor from London about his method of disposing of confidential papers. After reading them, he was in the habit of flushing them down the lavatory at Government House. Legend had it that they would wash up on the shores around Stanley Harbour.”
Johnny English security at its very best. One can imagine an Argentinean spy trawling the harbour for encoded messages that deciphered turn out to be urgent requests for more British toilet paper and jars of Bovril.
Finally, we come to what the latest spat is all about:
“Now, once again, the Falkland Islands are in the news as the Argentine government steps up the pressure and our coalition government, unlike the Labour administration of the 1970s, digs in its heels. What has changed since then is the discovery of potentially huge reserves of oil in Falklands waters. Both sides realise that another attempt at imposing a military solution is out of the question – but both sides still have to show the necessary statesmanship that will lead, one hopes inevitably, to the joint exploitation of this new Eldorado.”
Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, quoted in the weekly news magazine Time (14 February 1983), famously likened the Falklands War to “a fight between two bald men over a comb”. Unfortunately, it is a fight some people still want to pick – this time over a jar of brilliantine!