For a number of centuries, the Falkland Islands were a matter of great controversy for numerous colonial powers, including Spain, Portugal and Britain, with all three laying claim to the strategically positioned archipelago. British colonialism prevailed, resulting in its culture being exported by emigrants. However, disputes over the sovereignty of the area continue to this day, with Argentina still claiming rights to the land.
Although it is possible indigenous people from Tierra del Fuego may have sailed to the Falkland Islands and occupied the territory, little evidence exists of any substantial settlements prior to its European discovery in the early 16th century. First appearing on a Portuguese map around 1522, the archipelago was not documented and it was not until the close of the century that English explorers John Davis, and later Richard Hawkins, noted and named it. It would take another 100 years for the islands to become known as the Falklands, after a 1690 expedition organized and funded by the Fifth Viscount Falkland mapped the isles.
The Spanish term for the Falkland Islands, Islas Malvinas, derives from the name given by the French founders of the first settlement, Iles Malouines, which referred to their home town of St Malo. In 1765, a year after the establishment of the French colony, the British, unaware of the presence of the French, formed a settlement at Port Egmont, claiming the remainder of the islands as British territory. The French settlement lasted only two years before the Spanish assumed control. Britain and Spain ruled their respective Falkland territories without hindrance for a number of years; however, with the outbreak of the American War of Independence in 1775 and boiling tensions on the Spanish peninsula, both withdrew, leaving plaques proclaiming sovereignty.
Over the next couple decades, the Falkland Islands became the home of British and American sealers and whalers, and, due its location, was a final destination for many ships that were beyond repair, including the British vessel Isabella, which limped on to the beaches of modern-day Speedwell Island in February 1813 and was left, along with the crew, while a team set off to find help on the mainland. Two months had passed before the crew aboard American sealer Nanina heard shots and saw smoke while sailing off the coast of the island. Later that evening, the British castaways made their presence known and joined the Nanina crew for dinner, and although the two represented the feuding countries involved in the 1812 War, the American captain agreed to rescue the party. However, while the Americans were collecting supplies for the trip back, the British hijacked the Nanina, leaving the crew stranded on the island for 18 months.
In the years which followed, the United Provinces of River Plate (modern-day Argentina) increased its presence on the archipelago, sending German emigrant Luis Vernet, with the permission of the British government to set up a colony on East Falkland around 1830, but claims of piracy by the US and capture of American vessels by Vernet led to his arrest and the removal of the majority of settlers. The claims of sovereignty made by Argentina during this period also led to the re-emergence of the British on the island, who took over Vernet’s seal hunting enterprise. During this period the HMS Beagle, Charles Darwin’s famous ship, also visited the islands.
By 1840, the decision had been made by the British government to officially colonize the Falkland Islands and construction of a capital was proposed by Lord Stanley, the British Secretary of State for War and the Colonies. The new town went on to become one of the world’s busiest ports during the 19th century, in part due to the booming California Gold Rush and its increasing ship repair trade. Port Stanley began to prosper, new buildings soared in the town and entrepreneurs snapped up the land, usually filling it with sheep. Wool exporting rapidly overtook sealing as the archipelago’s main income, while lamb surpassed the declining beef stock as the island’s meat staple. This pastoral and economic activity also saw the emergence of other settlements around the islands, including Port Howard, Darwin and Goose Green.
Life on the Falkland Islands remained unchanged through the first half of the 20th century, with the exception of the two world wars when a couple of incidents were played out between the British Royal Navy and German forces around Port Stanley, with the British succeeding on both occasions. As the century ticked on and Argentina came under the rule of a military dictatorship, claims were once again raised regarding the sovereignty of the archipelago. This led to a number of incidents during the 1960’s, and 70’s, but surprisingly economic ties with Argentina actually increased. This came to a head with the Argentinean invasion of the islands on April 2, 1982.
Not expecting retaliation from Britain, which at the time was reducing its naval presence in the region, Argentinean troops took over the Falkland Islands, placing many citizens under house arrest. British retaliation commenced seven weeks later, resulting in a 74-day conflict in which 649 Argentine troops, 255 British military personnel and three Islanders died. The British victory had a damning effect on Argentina’s military junta, which was removed from power shortly after. Since the war, Argentinean and British relations have been restored, but the dispute over sovereignty rages on, particularly in Argentina. Britain has responded by enhancing its military presence in the area and providing full British citizenship to Falkland Islanders.
Due to the archipelago’s lack of indigenous inhabitants, almost all of the population is of British, primarily English, origin. As a result, English is the main spoken language on the islands and the architecture and cuisine are dominated by British influences. The Falklands are not particularly famed for producing literature, but many books have been written by visitors to the islands.