To whom do the Malvinas belong?

By: Mateo Lewinzon / Published on Dec 16, 2022
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The following article is a research essay I wrote during my high school senior year. This was part of the Cambridge AS exam for the subject Global Perspectives. The other part of the exam was an oral presentation.

An everlasting conflict.

      The archipelago located in the south Atlantic Ocean has been subject to dispute between different governments not only throughout decades but also centuries. Different nations had settlements in the territory and thereby claimed possession of the islands at a certain point in time. Conflicts like this in today’s western world are rare and unique, so this has gained worldwide attention in the last decades. There is a complicated and extensive timeline of events that these nations could use to back their claim over the islands, but it has been impossible for international organizations such as the UN to rule in favor of a claim since these are debated between the disputants, relying on mere perspective. The fact that history relies on interpretation has been one of the main problems of the conflict, given that many significant events took place during times when international treaties rarely occurred, and claims were not officialized by any organization nor forced to abide by international law. With that being said, the conflict lies beyond historical restitution and geographical logic, but it has inevitably turned into a matter of sovereignty and self-determination. The contemporary argument lies between the Republic of Argentina and the United Kingdom, two nations with strong historical ties to the island which endured a diplomatic dispute. Under questionable Argentinian rule, an armed conflict was ignited where almost a thousand people died. It is important to understand why things are the way they are by analyzing the complexity of the historical facts, the current stand of the nations involved, the international organizations ruling on the matter and most importantly, the island itself today and its population. How do the inhabitants feel about the issue, and would that be enough to justify the status of the island? How strong are the historical and geographical facts and whom do they favor? Why is that so difficult to determine? The answers to all of these questions will provide us with a deep understanding of the issue and may enable us to answer the question presented in the title.

      To this date, from a formal political standpoint, the islands are officially considered British Overseas Territories (UN Non-self-governing territories, 2019). This status was established when the UN introduced the Self Determination of Peoples, from the 1514 resolution of 1960. The principle of Self-Determination is an international governmental movement, with significant importance during the 20th century that aimed for the end of colonialism and argued that the people of each land should determine its sovereignty (Cornell Law School). By then, the population of the islands was entirely identified as British. A referendum took place in 2013 (BBC, 2013), asking the residents if they wished to remain a British territory. Only 3 people voted against it. From this standpoint, it is fair that the islands are British. Nonetheless, Argentineans never agreed with this status, arguing that the geographical proximity, the old treaties, and historical events should favor their claim, and the British possession is a form of colonialism. In 1965, after receiving pressure from Argentina, the UN forced both governments to start a peaceful negotiation which never resulted in anything.

Papal Bulls and old peace treaties.

Tordesillas Treaty "Teixeira planisphere". Map of the world made by a Portuguese cartographer in 1573. The Tordesillas Meridian is drawn.

      The old treaties favoring Argentina would suggest that the islands should have belonged to Spain and were passed down to Argentina after their independence. Despite there being no international organ that controlled those old treaties and the fact that they are no longer valid, they may point out invasions and broken promises. In 1493 the Pope issued a papal bull stating that America shall be divided equally between the kingdoms of Spain and Portugal. This was followed by the Treaty of Tordesillas the next year, resolving the division of the continent with a line along a meridian, 320 leagues west of the Cape Verde islands. The line was roughly located at today’s Brazilian western border, and it included the totality of north and south America and its islands. So, during the 16th century, the Falkland Islands should have belonged to Spain. But so, did the 13 colonies of North America. This was not a modern international treaty, and it was true only according to the countries that cared about what the pope said, which wasn’t the case with the British empire. Of course, Tordesillas didn’t have the consent of Britain and other kingdoms like France, who clearly pursued their colonization agendas regardless. However, according to the Argentinean chancellery, Spain had unquestionable control over the totality of South America and its seas due to the peace treaties of Madrid (1670) and Utrecht (1713), both of which had the purpose of promoting peace between the kingdoms of Spain and England and granted that those waters and territories belonged exclusively to Spain. The first Spanish settlement in the island was handed over by France under a treaty of that nature, but there are almost no 17th-century treaties being abided by today. However, closely following the complete timeline of events and considering the different historical perspectives is an interesting exercise that may help answer our questions.

Penguins and seals—and glory.

French colonization “Monsieur Bougainville Hoisting the French Colours on a Small Rock Near Cape Forward in the Streights of Magellan.”

      To begin with, the island was a land of penguins and seals before this never-ending Colonization dispute war started, as no native civilizations have ever populated the island, so they are out of the question. During the period in history when the great European powers sought to expand their territories and sailors made their way into the sea in search of glory, it was a matter of time before ships stumbled with it representing the three most powerful kingdoms: Britain, Spain and France. Argentinians and British even disagree on who discovered the island first. British seaman John Davis saw the island in 1592 and captain John Strong set foot on the islands in 1690. The official Argentinian version, however, states that the island was discovered first during the 1520 Magallanes expedition before the British discovery and was visited by other Spanish vessels during the century. There is also a claim about an earlier Portuguese discovery in the beginning of the 16th century. Unfortunately for the Argentinians, throughout the century the rival kingdoms of Spain and Portugal made strong efforts to keep their colonization goals and plans away from each other. This secrecy has left low amounts of evidence for these early expeditions, which are of course disregarded by Britain.

The first settlements.

      Regardless of who set the first foot on the island’s soil, it might be to the reader's surprise that the first settlement did not belong to the Spanish kingdom or the English. A French colony was established named Port St. Louis in 1764 on the east side of Îles Malouines, which is an adjective referencing the Saint-Malo port. The Spanish word for the island “Las Malvinas” is the translation for the French name. Only a year after the French established in the east, an English captain explored the West Falklands and established Port Egmont. Incredibly, the English and the French were completely unaware of each other’s presence and thought they were the only settlers. Later in 1766, France agreed to leave their settlement to Spain following some peace treaties. Port St. Louis was renamed to Puerto Soledad and fell under the management of the Spanish viceroyalties.

      If we only consider the first settlements, would it be fair to say that both Argentina and Britain do have a point on their claim? Many Argentinians argue the Spanish settlement was passed to the United Provinces after their independence. So why is it that today we do not have east Falklands belonging to Argentina and the west Falklands belonging to Britain? The events that follow the early history are not as linear and straightforward. Regardless, it is important to keep in mind that when we talk about historical settlements, we are not talking about regulated and globally conscious sovereignty, but pure de facto control.

Spanish control, Argentinian independence, gauchos and the famous Luis Vernet.

Life in the Falklands Life in the Falklands. William Dale's watercolor, 1852

      In 1770, after the Spanish realized the existence of Port Egmont, there was a tense diplomatic standoff threatening war between Spain and Britain. Despite the British effort to keep their settlement, Port Edgemont and many other British colonies had to be abandoned in 1774, as a measure to save resources during the critical economic situation the 7 Years War had left in Britain. This is the same cause of the tax increase over the 13 colonies that led to the War of Independence. Having clear intentions to return someday, they left a famous plaque, to remind everyone of their presence and rights over the territory. Still, the Spanish took control of the British side, removed the plaque, and maintained total control of the island until 1811, when the royalist settlers were summoned to help suppress the Argentine Revolutionary War.

      During the years that followed, the islands remained uninhabited until 1828 when the now independent United Provinces and Britain gave Luis Vernet, a German businessman living in Buenos Aires, permission to settle in Puerto Soledad to raise cattle and hunt sea lions, for sole business purposes. He ironically renamed the port back to the French name Puerto Luis, brought a couple of gauchos with him, and established a new successful colony. A year later, struggling to assert a monopoly on seal hunting and fishing, Vernet sent a petition to Buenos Aires asking to expel North American invasive ships from the coasts. They did not interfere directly but instead gave Vernet artillery, and rifles along with political and military powers over the islands, which the British would have never approved. After seizing 3 important ships and enraging the North Americans in 1831, Vernet’s settlement was raided and destroyed by the USS Lexington vessel.

      Despite the diplomatic efforts of Governor Juan Manuel de Rosas, the USA stated that Buenos Aires looked to claim territories that, according to the British version, were not precisely in possession of Spain before independence, and prohibited Buenos Aires from sailing near the islands. Having the support of North America, the British established a new colony in 1833, which endured and grew considerably. The descendants of this colony populate the island today.

The modern Falklands

      The English dominance of the Falklands remained uninterrupted ever since, except for the 10-week period in 1982 in which Argentina attempted to take forced control over the island. Even though Argentina was under the rule of a dictatorship and the war was a clear attempt to divert public opinion, the defeat in combat is remembered with bitterness among the patriotic.

      Obviously, from a social perspective, the inhabitants of the islands feel they are British. Therefore, it would be extremely difficult for Argentina to acquire sovereignty over the islands, considering modern international conventions and procedures. If they attempted to “recover” them again, be that by military action or not, the actions would be extremely immoral, and they would face severe consequences in their international relations. So, what use do historical facts have if they cannot determine anything? In my opinion, history is a living memory of the times in which nations from the western world disagreed with each other and fought for their values, and that is no minor thing.

      In the end, most people agree that the timeline is a complete mess, with much of the dispute relying on different moral perspectives and leaving no absolute answers. The old treaties possibly favor Argentina, but they have no validity nowadays. Regarding the timeline, the two sides of the conflict had built interest in the island simultaneously on each side of the islands. However, only Britain met the circumstances to populate the island through the remainder of the 19th century and onwards up to building a significant population. This precludes the possibility for Argentinians to claim anything since that would go against the sovereignty and basic international norms. Furthermore, from the United Nations’ point of view, this also determines the formal political status of the islands, which will never be accepted by Argentinians.