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The Falkland Islands Conflict

No one really knows who discovered the Falkland Islands. Nearly every British historian will insist that the English explorer John Davis discovered the islands in 1592(1) while Argentineans typically credit Vespucci, Magellan, or Sebald de Weert. (2) The events of January 2, 1883 are not in dispute, however. On this date, James Onslow, captain of the HMS Clio, dropped anchor just off the Falklands. The next day he went ashore and raised the British flag. (3) This action infuriated the Argentines, who had taken control of the Falklands upon receiving independence from Spain in 1816.

With his imperialistic seizure of the islands, Onslow began a sequence of events that would end nearly 150 years later in war. Shortly after the invasion, the Argentine government set out four arguments in favour of their ownership of the Falklands: 1. Argentina ruled all land in the region formerly held by Spain. 2. Spain had purchased the islands from France. 3. Britain had abandoned its claim to the Falklands in a secret 1771 agreement. 4. Britain had abandoned its settlement in West Falkland in 1774. (4)

No matter how well formed these arguments may have been, they fell on deaf ears in Britain. Lord Palmerston, the British Foreign Secretary, simply asserted that the Falklands had been British since the initial claim of sovereignty in 1765. (5) Although Argentina remained in a state of official protest, few things changed over the next 132 years. The issue was finally brought to the forefront in 1965 when the United Nations passed Resolution 2065, which called upon Britain and Argentina to come to an agreement on the issue with reasonable speed. ) With this resolution began what came to be called the Seventeen Year War between the two nations.

In March 1967 Britain agreed that it might be possible to cede sovereignty of the Falklands to Argentina, as long as the islanders agreed. (7) While the Argentines may have viewed this as a major concession, Britain had really given up very little. The Falkland islanders were quite resolute in their desire to remain subjects of the Queen. They managed to force the creation of a Falklands Islands lobby whose purpose it was to frustrate any plans to hand over the territory to Argentina. ) The lobby combined with the islanders continuous protests to parliament was enough to stall the negotiations indefinitely.

The events of the following decade are notable only because almost no headway was made on the issue. While joint memos of understanding were forthcoming from the two countries, they did little more than voice each sides desire to bring the issue to a resolution. Events took on a more urgent tone as the years wore on, however. This was mainly due to the Argentineans, as Great Britain almost certainly desired a continuation of the status quo.

Argentina was being relegated to a position of third-rate influence in the world. The country was still recovering from la guerra sucia (the dirty war) waged by military dictator Jorge Videla from 1976 to 1978. During these two years, nearly 18,000 Argentineans vanished, including dozens of journalists, scientists, and religious figures. (9) Things had changed dramatically, however, by the end of 1980. Leopoldo Galtieri had ascended to the presidency of Argentina.

As commander-in-chief of the army and head of the three-man military junta which ran the country, Galtieri largely ended the dirty war and worked very hard to build a closer relationship with the United States. As the government was positioning Argentina as a new regional power, Galtieri began to concern himself with the state of the Falklands negotiations. He convinced himself that regaining the Falklands was essential to maintaining national pride. By December 1981, Galtieri, after speaking with Admiral Jorge Anaya, head of the Argentine navy, resolved that the Falklands would be in Argentine hands within a year. (10)

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