The Long Goodbye

This may come as a shock to some but it has been decided (a little while ago, actually): we will be leaving the Falkland Islands in June and won’t be returning. I won’t go into the details publicly, for personal and professional reasons, but it’s nothing untoward. Our time here has simply come to an end (as it was originally meant to three years ago).

Obviously the timing isn’t ideal; there’s this global pandemic on, you see. Our destination is currently unknown, but if this move has taught us anything it’s that you never know what’s waiting around the corner.

Those who have followed the blog over the past five years will know that these islands do (and will always) hold a very special place in our hearts. Our lives have changed in no small number of ways since we arrived here and so it will be incredibly difficult for us to say goodbye. It was always going to be.

Signing off the blog is not going to be easy either and we have a lot to organise before our departure so, for now, I leave you with the most appropriate photo that I have taken this week: the sun sets on Stanley silhouetting what remains of HMS Afterglow. Even her name seems appropriate now.DSC_0453

Stay safe and see you on the other side.

Uninvited Guest

Thirty eight years ago today, in the early hours of the morning, the first assault wave of the Argentine invasion force landed on the shores surrounding Stanley. Thus began 74 days of bloody conflict that would alter these islands forever.

The Falklands War

Argentine forces occupy the once peaceful seafront of Stanley

Contrary to what is often reported, the few dozen Royal Marines stationed in Stanley at the time put up an impressive fight against vastly overwhelming odds (trust the Royal Marines to see 36:5000+ as a ratio worth fighting on) before they were ordered to surrender by the Governor to save further casualties. Up to that point only Argentine soldiers had been killed, though that wasn’t for lack of trying; the Marines’ HQ was destroyed by phosphorous grenades and machine-gun fire BEFORE the Argentine special forces realised it was empty.

 

The sequence of events is well known (see the tab at the top) but this writer would argue that the true short- and long-term effects of the conflict have never adequately been documented or understood outside of these islands. I haven’t dared to attempt it (yet) and I’m not sure that I ever will. No doubt it would run into thousands of words, and not just as a result of my tendency to waffle on.

Anniversaries in history tend to bring about an increased sense of remembrance and the events of 1982 are no different. I write about this particular phenomenon this year, however, as there has been one notable difference in 2020: the parallel.

Recently, there has been a communal sense of foreboding, anxiety and uncertainty about what the future holds. There have been restrictions placed on travel in and out of the islands adding to that uncertainty. There has been a constant stream of press releases and official government notifications concerning all kinds of mundane things. There has been a detachment of military forces sent to assist by Her Majesty’s Government. Most significantly, there have been an ever-increasing number of restrictions on personal freedom and movement (though comparatively mild by international standards). All of the response to Covid19 has fallen in the lead-up to April 2nd.

Several people in the islands, then, have mentioned feeling a dark sense of deja vu. They have, however, pointed out that last time they could at least see the enemy.

I can’t pretend to understand: I wasn’t here. I did think it was insightful that the comparison was being made and that it wasn’t just by one person. The battles might have ended 38 years ago, but there is evidently more to reconcile here than a sovereignty dispute.

An unsocial distance

For this last week, we’ve been flightless here in the Falklands – a mildly concerning state of affairs as the option of getting away, such as for a medivac, is reassuring in case of emergencies. The latest news suggests that our Airbridge is due to restart at the end of the week. The link it gives us to the outside world is perhaps more symbolic than anything else at this surreal time but many are happy to see its return nonetheless.
Our situation remains similar to many other countries during this increasingly difficult challenge and the upsurge in blog posts is absolutely tied to the amount of time we’re spending at home, away from other people.

Thankfully for us, there is something that we can do in isolation here that gets us outside with plenty of room to keep our distance, it’s free and we end up with something tasty to eat without risking a trip to the shop: it’s teaberry season!

Particularly sweet and tasty, they are hard to describe as they don’t compare to anything else. They are traditionally baked into teaberry buns, but we like them with Easy-Yo yoghurt (the Falklands standard) and sprinkled on our cereal in the morning.Teaberries 25-03-20I’ll aim to add a few other articles over the next few weeks: perhaps more informative and less topical ones! I’ve got a few in mind and hopefully you might learn something  interesting with all this added time we’re all spending at screens.

Stay home, stay safe.

Can you dig it?

It seems that my attempts to be a good husband aren’t always completely on target: taking Han to an abandoned woollen mill on her birthday last year seemed to cause some amusement among our friends.

I got the message. Industrial sites, it seems, are not the correct kind of historic location for treating the wife. Fear not, readers, for I have learnt my lesson!

I present, then, for her very first Mothers’ Day, my wife and baby at their first ever archaeological dig:

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Allow me to explain this one: the fascinating history of the Falklands has become something I’ve become fairly interested in during our time here.

One other project I’ve been working on is the development of an area to the West of Stanley called Bennett’s Paddock. You can actually see the site on Google Earth and see the outlines there for yourselves. The shapes you can make out are the last remains of what was probably Britain’s most remote WWII garrison, ordered to the islands by PM Winston Churchill himself. I’ll include a short(ish – you know me) history of the site below, but the Paddock is scheduled for development in the coming few months, leaving no more remains from a significant but much-forgotten part of the islands’ history.

The Museum & National Trust were put in touch with a project officer from the Cambridge Archaeological Unit. He was very fortunately able to fly down, with his friend from Oxford University, and run an archaeological dig on the site before it gets demolished and all trace of it is lost forever. Thankfully, volunteers were forthcoming and the dig successfully went ahead. Thus, on Mothers’ Day weekend, we found ourselves at our first ever archaeological dig site trowel in hand.

Some interesting artefacts, structures and questions were all uncovered in the process and we all look forward to hearing more about the findings in upcoming academic papers, Museum publications and, quite possibly, a return to FITV for this budding historian. Oh yes!

The presence of this ominous 4×4 did, however, put an end to the efforts of these wannabe Indiana Joneses:

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Yes, that’s the British Army’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal vehicle, turning up to give us the latest on the ongoing saga duly reported by FITV on their Facebook:

FITV WWII postsIt transpired that an Argentine 105mm artillery position hadn’t quite been tidied up as well as it should have. A controlled explosion might have rendered the shell safe, but it has meant that the whole site is now ‘suspect’ and deemed inaccessible for the time being. Thus ended our first Mothers’ Day and dig.

If you’re concerned that I had my wife and child on a site with unexploded ordnance, I should add that this was a different part of the dig site, the de-mining team had done a detecting survey of the paddock beforehand and highlighted the risk areas and we were in no danger in our trench.I’m not that careless – I do quite like them both.

Unexploded ordnance is, sadly, still present across the islands. Those 74 days (and the aftermath) were chaotic enough to ensure that an EOD presence will be required in the islands for some time to come.

As for our fate during this uncertain time in global affairs? It is just that: uncertain. Following the pattern of pretty much all other countries affected, lockdown seems to be the inevitable destination, but it isn’t one we’ve reached yet. If/when we do, expect Pengoing South to gain some added content.

Now, without further ado, some much-needed history:

The West Yorks’ Camp – WWII in the Falkland Islands:

These islands are no stranger to military aggression and World War Two was no exception. Fortress Europa might have seemed a world away, but Japanese success in the Pacific and the Pearl Harbour attack showed just how ambitious the Japanese Navy could be. By December 1941, signals intelligence suggested that Japan was planning to take the Falkland Islands as a further symbolic blow to the crumbling British Empire.

Both Canada and the USA turned down the calls for assistance and Churchill knew that the flat, open islands could never be made truly defensible at short notice. The only option was to send enough men to cause the Japanese to think twice about committing a sizeable force for the attack. The 11th Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment was despatched as soon as possible. Their commanding officer was Lt Col Howard Green. When he was told of his mission, he sarcastically pointed out “so, it’s the West Yorks against the Japanese Empire”? His briefing officer simply replied “well, yes”. Interestingly, they were at least given mobile artillery support, making them one of the most heavily armed infantry battalions in the British Army.

There was little excitement on their journey down the West African coast, but rumour and speculation about their final destination must have been a constant distraction. Being issued with both cold weather and tropical kit gave little clue to their fate. The convoy arrived at Cape Town ready for some much-needed shore leave in July 1942, which they evidently took full advantage of. It was only after leaving port that they found out that they were bound for the Falkland Islands. As if to prepare them for being isolated from the rest of the War, it was to be another three weeks before they saw any other sign of land or humanity again.

Here in Stanley, word had spread about an upcoming garrison and the likely need to house the men, but no-one knew exactly how many men were coming or when they might arrive. No-one could even rule out a Japanese invasion before then so the arrival of an advance party to make preparations must have been some comfort to the local people. On the 11th August 1942, the main force anchored in Port William and the next few days were spent frantically trying to find billets for the men. Civilian houses were quickly occupied and HQ was set up in John Street in Stanley. It would be another 5 months of hard labour before the main force was able to move to its new Camp to the West of Stanley. With no other option available, every man would be involved in constructing the new Camp.

It was incredibly hard work, clearing rocks, laying over 15 miles’ of barbed wire and erecting huts in the difficult Falklands weather. Before long, the men were so exhausted that they requested for their evening meal to be served early so they could finish work at 4pm, eat and go straight to bed. Unusual soldierly behaviour by anyone’s standards.

Located so close to town, the new arrivals quickly became an active part of the community here, taking part in sports events, shows and helping to train the local forces. Look-outs and gun emplacements were set up around the islands and the soldiers soon established what would become their war-time routine.

Before long, the tide had turned in the Pacific and the Japanese retreated, leaving behind their threat of invasion. The West Yorks, however, faced another enemy: boredom. Some men turned to local crafts or keeping pigs and chickens. The Yorks had even shipped a small pack of beagles across the world to occupy their time with hunting each week. Others, however, turned to the bottle. Their War Diary records 16 different court martials, one unexplained fire and another 13 inquiries into ‘unexplained injuries’. Clearly, not everyone was having a peaceful deployment after all. Other details of their time in the islands are remarkably scant. Despite such a significant number of men, few records exist about their time here and more will hopefully be revealed over time.

As the war dragged on and the need for their presence decreased, rumours began to circulate that their time in the Falklands would soon be up. The War in Europe beckoned and the West Yorks finally departed Stanley (with mixed emotions) on 1st February 1944. They didn’t know it, but they were bound for England to help with the D-Day preparations.

If any doubt remained about the Camp’s significance to the Falklands, the Governor addressed the men with a heartfelt goodbye. Their time, he told them, had “re-forged and strengthened the already strong link that has always bound the Falklands to the Motherland”. They weren’t the Japanese, but the islanders would forever remember the men brought to these shores by the War in the Pacific.

Today, in the year 2020, that bond continues to be maintained and the West Yorks’ service is remembered by the ongoing investigation into their time here.

Little is known about the Camp’s demise after the War. Much of their footprint was destroyed but the circumstances remain unclear. The Nissen huts were eventually spread throughout the islands, becoming as much a part of the community as the men who once called them home. The rest of this story remains to be told.

Note: while there are photos of the men, their camp and their exploits here, copyright permissions remain with the Museum and National Trust and I will leave their publications to do this story justice in full.

Outbreak

It brings me no pleasure to be adding to internet furore but, I’ll be honest, this post is all about the posterity. It also holds many of my own thoughts/opinions and I am a historian, not a medical professional. Historians do, however, often have the advantage of the ‘big picture’ perspective and it seems that something historic has been happening of late.

I’m sure we’ll be looking back on our time here decades down the line and I’ve little doubt that it’ll be worth recording that Covid19 has made itself known to the world during our stint on these islands. There will be many lessons to learn from this. To what extent we, as a global society, learn those lessons still remains to be seen. Sadly, the only thing we often learn from studying history is that we simply don’t learn so I personally remain sceptical.

Right now, on 16th March 2020, the Falkland Islands can’t REALLY complain (yet) as there have been no recorded instances of Covid19 on the islands. That being said, the remote nature and small population has the inevitable result that medical services are limited; tests for the virus will need to be carried out in the UK (estimated turnaround time: 10 days). So no RECORDED cases doesn’t necessarily mean no cases.

Still, you might think, count yourselves lucky: we’re not in lock-down or unnecessarily wrestling over bog-roll in the aisles. No, we are not. Perhaps a hostile military invasion in living memory has made this community slightly more resistant to mass hysteria. Time will tell.

It’ll also be tempting to highlight that we’re on a remote set of islands and surely, therefore, a low-risk location. After all, island nations have a long history of keeping outside issues at sea. This could well be the case if bold, decisive isolationist action were to be taken at the sacrifice of the tourism industry and wider economy. As it is, we have had c.60,000 cruise ship tourists alighting this season and three weekly flights (including one MoD resupply service) that have been continuing to bring people from all over the world to these islands for work and tourism. These haven’t stopped (yet). An element of inevitability is detectable in many communications about the disease here but by the time it is confirmed, of course, it will have been here for some time and so it’ll likely be too late to contain in such a tiny community.

So we find ourselves on an island that has limited medical facilities (I don’t envy the person whose job it is to weigh up numbers of beds, medication, staff,ventilators etc), unable to test for the virus and reliant on emergency medical evacuation to countries that, understandably, may soon refuse international patients on account of infection or capacity. It’s statistical fact that, like the UK, comparatively high obesity levels, alcohol consumption and rates of smoking combined with an ageing population also mean that there are a significant number of ‘at risk’ individuals (elderly and/or with co-morbidities) in the community.

The islands are also highly reliant on the international community: many people need to come and go from the islands for medical care. As well as that, the islands are always host to people from all over the world carrying out work, research or training. The last census recorded people from over 65 different countries here. Several people that we know have either given up attempting to get home already or have been recalled early, having to fly out to avoid being stuck here when borders inevitably come down elsewhere.

So there is significant public concern being voiced on all platforms, with regular updates from our government and medical services. I’m sure individuals have their own plans too: one thing this place has got in abundance is space. Remote settlements and outer islands here have long been ideal hideaways for those hoping to avoid social contact.

Should the government have closed the borders? Will the virus even hit here? What will the effects be? How will people respond? How will our own lives be affected? Will we learn?
The only thing that can and will truly answer these questions is time.

For us, so far, life continues as usual and so we took advantage of some fine weather over the weekend to head out to my favourite spot on East Falkland: Whale Point. It was GREAT to be back out in the 4×4, off-roading and enjoying the sunshine, scenery and wildlife. As well as the St Mary, of course. I do love a good shipwreck story! Only a few obligatory photos taken this time as it’s our 100,000th visit there:

I’ll steer clear of in-depth analyses of this crisis as it unfolds on a global scale; that is the place of scientists and medical professionals and there are already far too many people on the internet weighing in where it is neither helpful nor necessary. Instead, I’ll now leave this as just what this blog has always aimed to be: just a different perspective from a wild and remote community in the South Atlantic.

 

EDIT: After I wrote this, Time Magazine did a much better job of explaining the whole thing than I did. As I live here, I have to play things differently, but fair play to them: https://time.com/5811309/coronavirus-falklands/

A Welcome Return

Our baby being born in Ireland in October has necessitated some reverse seasonal migration on our part. Having endured two winters in a row, we’ve returned to the Falklands in time to catch the last  few weeks of the Summer tourist season. Pushed into swift action by our severe lack of vitamin D, we no sooner unpacked and a phone call was made to one of our favourite haunts: Sea Lion Island.

As is so often the case here in the Falklands, the journey is part of the adventure and it was exciting to hop on a FIGAS flight again after so long away, even with a baby in tow this time:

We were a little concerned that we’d be arriving so late in the season that we’ll have missed some of the wildlife highlights (the Gentoo and Rockhopper chicks are pretty cute and curious)  but anyone following Sea Lion Lodge’s Facebook page recently will have noted that there was still plenty of interesting behaviour to be witness to. The island served up the usual array of outstanding penguin encounters, including viewing from the Lodge:

Sea Lion Island is particularly notable for its other bird life as it has no sheep, rats or mice to bother the ground nesters, but you never really know what you might see whenever you’re wandering around:

Regulars will know that Sea Lion is a crucial habitat for its long-studied Elephant Seal population. We might have missed the breeding season (not always a bad thing: “that’s not lovemaking” was a favourite quote by Han’s Dad on witnessing the process) but they haul out in Feb/March time to moult so there were still plenty of the beasts knocking around to cause some much-needed amusement:

This time of year, the animals that kindly lend their name to the island are well worth spending some time with as the pups are just starting to swim, play (king of the castle on a rocky outcrop) and, apparently, investigate washed-up Sei whale ribs:

Han was very much able to empathise with the suckling sea lion mums, as she found herself doing some cliff-top feeding of her own at the same time.

You’ll know that we have been very regular visitors to Sea Lion Island over the past few years (including a short stint guiding there) and you might think that we’ve seen and done it all, but there is a NEW addition to the island this year! One important highlight that only joined the island recently and has had a marked improvement on the whole experience:Sea Lion BookletIt’s as I always say: wherever you’re going, always bring a historian!

P.S. For our friends and family, a connection we’d like to point out: in the Falkland Islands, a male Sea Lion is called a Jasper!

We’re baaaaaaaaack

Well, we’re back in the Falkland Islands! And ‘we’ now means the three of us! Our first child was born in October and we are, obviously, delighted. We arrived back in the islands two days ago after a surprisingly smooth 18-hour Airbridge flight with a 4-month old. Two days and we have still not seen a single penguin! Shocking, I know (we’ll aim to change that later, don’t worry). We’ve been away for the best part of 5 months now and we are feeling it! Refamiliarising ourselves with our own house has been a surreal experience.

While much of the beauty of  life here is that things move slowly and many things rarely change, there have still been some noticeable differences in our absence. The transient nature of much of the workforce here means that many good friends have left the islands during our time away, which inevitably saddens us a little. There are, however, many new faces to get to know too and some of our closest friendships have begun here with even fleeting visitors.We look forward to finding out who our new friends will be.

As I previously explained, the blog will take something of a back seat as we figure out how to operate Bailey Child Version 1 but I’ll still aim to give the occasional update where I can.

We have chosen to keep this blog for our own records and for friends/family who might find it interesting to follow our various adventures (whilst also remaining aware that this is completely open to the public). We made this choice as informed adults, but our baby doesn’t quite have that level of evaluation yet. As a result, we are conscious of online privacy, safeguarding and issues around consent (and we don’t wish to begin the slippery slope of using our child as a tool for online popularity). As a result, baby updates/images won’t be featuring on here or any form of social media so please don’t expect to see them. Penguins, on the other hand, there will be plenty of.

Signing off

DSC_8331DSC_8342By now, you might recognise Cape Pembroke above, the sort-of Nature Reserve not far from our house. We say ‘sort-of’ as the government recently refused to back a motion banning driving off-road in the Reserve, so it continues to be trashed by unrestricted motor vehicle access, despite being a significant bird habitat and the location of a rare plant only found in one other location in the Falklands. If you’re sensing frustration in the tone of our writing, it’s because the Falklands are a wonderful place, but you do tire of years of witnessing the government’s continuing refusal to make a single decision that errs on the side of ‘gutsy’ (even when the official public consultation is overwhelmingly WITH them, as in this case). This one was a no-brainer and they still crumbled. Thankfully for them, in this political climate they can’t be accused of being the least effective national government around.

Anyway, as we were saying, the other day we nipped down to the Cape after work (driving on the ROAD, we might add, built recently at significant cost to allow all areas of the peninsular to be less than a mile from vehicular access, further adding insanity to the above decision). While this time we didn’t see any of the many Southern Right Whales that have been spotted there over the past few weeks, we did casually stumble into this large, sleeping female sea lion. You might have noticed from previous posts that this is quite a common occurrence here, really. We can’t count the number of wild sea lions we’ve seen up close in the Falklands in the last 4 years, it’d be impossible, but it’s amazing how adapted you become to such instances. The fact that this is so ‘normal’, then, might get you asking why we mention it now. The purpose is this: some things cause you snap out of it and realise that the ‘everyday’ occurrence that you just brushed off isn’t as ‘everyday’ as you might think.

This particular realisation came because we soon depart the Falkland Islands to return to Europe for the arrival of our first child. These island experiences will soon not be available to us. Imminent loss so often causes you to think about the things that you take for granted.

Our upcoming departure obviously means that we will be spending months off the Islands that we have written so consistently about for these past four years. Post-birth (we have been repeatedly assured) we’ll then be in a whole new world of priorities. Similarly, we have always been keen to point out that your life online is not your real life and real life should always take precedence. So it is, then, that we see little reason to pursue Pengoing South during our absence and sign off this blog for an indefinite period (with a predictable mixture of feelings).

We will be returning to the Falkland Islands, as a family, early next year but the extent to which we will be able to continue this blog alongside our role as parents remains unknown to us right now. It seems right to semi-retire the blog until we return and then to assess the feasibility of continuing it in the light of our new-found parenthood. This isn’t the end (I imagine our final post ever will be a far grander affair than this) but it might be the beginning of the end.

Thank you to all of you who have stopped by, kept up, enjoyed the pretty pictures, hopefully learned a few things and commented to let us know that we’re not talking to ourselves. In turn, we hope that you were able to enjoy Pengoing South for what it was always intended to be: a running account of our lives in these remote and unforgettable lands.

See you on the other side,

B & H

Neighbourhood Watch

I’ve had the title and outline of this blog posts saved in the drafts for several years now. It wasn’t that I was putting off writing it, it was simply that I was never really sure that I could do justice to the nuances of the subject matter. Now that we’ve been here for nearly 4 years and there’s been some recent developments, it’s time to address the elephant in the room. We need to talk about Argentina.

Image result for argentina falklands mapAs a historian and a resident of the Falkland Islands, it is hard not to talk about the fractious relationship that this territory has with its nearest neighbour: in one way or another it explains so much about life here; from the very internet I’m using to the strength of the economy through to social attitudes and even the size of the population (affected, of course, by the significant military presence). It’s a LONG history and it has been recorded in depth by Roger Lorton in his lifetime’s work on the Falklands Timeline, but his summary can be found on the timeline’s website.

This week, President Macri of Argentina faced a shock defeat in the primary elections there, beaten into second place by the team of Alberto Fernández and former President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner (who, interestingly, has been facing significant corruption investigations but is immune from prison while she remains in government: handy that). This hasn’t been viewed overly positively on a global context and Argentina’s currency and economy instantly suffered drastic further problems following the results. It is also no surprise that the Falkland Islands Association felt the need to issue a statement in the light of the results. So, what’s the problem and where does it come from? Here is MY brief (as much as I could) guide to the Falklands/Argentina relationship, with my openly declared British/Falklands viewpoint (a quick search online will reveal a wealth of things that disagree with me, though the same would be true if I declared that the Earth is round and vaccines save lives).

It is well worth mentioning that the recent…difficulties…are a relatively modern invention. Behind the scenes of the initial claims and counter claims bouncing around the various governments in the complex early years of Falklands sovereignty, there was a much-needed strong economic and social relationship between Argentina and the Falklands. Archives tell us of a number of families and businesses that came from Argentina to the Falklands and vice versa. Many of the early South American settlers and farms have Falklands roots. Understandable; there was no indigenous population on the islands so friends and support had to come from other pioneers around you in such trying conditions. Argentina was, for a long time, referred to locally as simply ‘the Coast’ and there has always been a small Argentine contingent among the population here. Argentina has, after all, got the largest English speaking population outside of the Commonwealth.

The issues stem from 1833 and this is where, as I understand it, the two versions of history part ways and cause the current stalemate. Argentina established a prison colony on the Falklands (then claimed by Britain following its earlier establishment of a settlement there). Britain found out and removed the prisoners and soldiers guarding them. Britain’s version of the story is that they removed the Argentine garrison but allowed anyone else present to settle under the condition that they would be living under British rule. Britain then sent settlers to the islands to join those already there and they all lived happily ever after (besides a brief 74-day interlude in 1982). Argentina’s version of the story is that Britain illegally removed the entire Argentine population, stole the islands from them and ‘implanted’ a British population. This means that, 9-10 generations later, the Argentine government’s position is that the current population here do not count as ‘a people’ and are an illegally implanted one. Here, some might point out the fact that this is all being said in Spanish while the rights and lands of the native South American people are ridden roughshod over. This is, apparently, besides the point. So too is the fact that this all happened back in 1833.

Anyway, by the late 19th century, the matter is essentially settled and the British population on the islands continue to establish themselves. All goes quiet for quite some time. All until 1946. General Juan Peron was elected President in Argentina on a populist platform, but bearing many hallmarks of dictatorial rule (including organised violence and a liberal attitude towards the application of the law when it came to his competition). Having made little mention of the islands since the 19th century, Peron’s government renewed old claims about the territory and used this to both unite and distract from issues at home. A pattern that would be repeated with frequency for the rest of the century. Fortunately for Peron (and those who succeeded him), the government controlled the education system and had a sound propaganda machine so they were able to push the ‘stolen from us’ myth upon generations of Argentines. Without going into the details of Argentina’s colourful political history, what follows from 1946 until 1983 were a series of either military dictators or Peronist Presidents. This period has been most famously characterised by the “Dirty War” which saw tens of thousands of opponents of the government disappear amid stories of the disposing of prisoners on one-way flights over the Atlantic.

The outcome of all of this was that, from 1946 until December 1981 (when General Leopoldo Galtieri became the latest military dictator to take the top chair at the Argentine table), the people of Argentina had been subject to a program of state-controlled education and propaganda which insisted that the Falklands rightfully belonged to Argentina and had been occupied illegally by the British since 1833. In fact, the British had claimed the islands long before Argentina existed as a country, but that’s a story for another day.

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Galtieri

Moving on from this, then, General Galtieri began his turn at violent military dictatorship by facing a dire economic situation at home. He really needed a cause that would unite and distract the people of Argentina. Something universally accepted by the people. Perhaps something they had been forcefully told for several decades. Luckily, at the same time, the British had recently been taking steps to indicate that they didn’t really want the hassle of the Falkland Islands (such as handing transport and fuel supplies on the Falklands over to Argentina). So, he gambled and invaded the Falklands in April 1982. He gambled on Thatcher not doing anything, he gambled on the UN not doing anything and he gambled on the USA not doing anything. He was wrong on all 3 counts and the rest, as they say, is history (see the tab at the top for the 1982 documentary).

Days after Argentina’s forceful ejection from the islands, Galtieri was deposed and Argentina suddenly became a democracy. As other certain countries are lately discovering, democracy is based on the will of the people. Never mind if that will has been dictated by clever lies, propaganda or the beliefs of others for far too long. Said the British guy. So Argentina is now democratic but, because of the preceding political history, no politician could ever hope to win an election by declaring anything other than the Argentine claim over the Falklands. That isn’t what the (majority of the) people believe and therefore that isn’t what will win votes. Tricky.

There was, inevitably, a period of cold relations between the two countries immediately post-conflict but by the 1990s, relations began to improve out of necessity (in spite of Argentina maintaining its claim to the islands and not apologising for its actions). I admit to finding it hard to fathom the continuing internal popularity of Argentina’s actions. An unpopular right-wing military dictator with a proven history of murdering his own citizens invades and occupies a peaceful neighbouring country and mass support for this action continues well beyond his lifetime. Parallels are not easy to find elsewhere in history. I had a fascinating discussion with an Argentine journalist last year and she admitted to not being able to explain it either: evidently the Falklands occupy a place in the Argentine national consciousness that stretches beyond my understanding. Tenth generation Falkland Islanders would argue that it stretches beyond logic or reason, too. There’s a reason why one of the first actions that all evil dictatorships (and Michael Gove) take is to attempt to control the state’s education: decades of it can yield results

This period of diplomatic warming (met by fierce and emotional resistance on both sides) did yield some progress: the reinstatement of the weekly flight between South America and the Falklands, for example. It was not to last, however. In 2003, Peronist Nestor Kirchner was elected as President and he was followed by his wife from 2007 until 2015 (nepotism: know your place).

Like their Peronist predecessors, Nestor and Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner (CFK) were nothing short of fanatical about the Falkland Islands and Cristina, in particular, began a policy of attacking the islands in any way that she could. She took an interesting diplomatic stance by doing things such as:

  • publicly called the islanders “squatters”
  • threatening to do all she could to prevent the discovery and exploitation of oil in the islands
  • removing Argentina from talks over oil extraction (that could easily have benefitted the Argentine economy)
  • restricting the use of Argentine ports and waters to island ships (and the occasional cruise ship that included the Falklands on its itinerary)
  • publishing an open letter in the Guardian calling for the islands to be Argentine
  • publicly objecting to the deployment of Prince William to the islands as an aggressive move (he was a Search and Rescue pilot, but OK).
  • giving state pensions to the terrorists who hijacked a passenger plane at gunpoint and landed it on the islands in 1966
  • introducing a new law in Argentina to dictate that all public transport must carry the logo “Malvinas son Argentinas”
President Cristina Fernandez unveiling the Condor Operation flag in Congress

CFK publicly unveils a flag on display in Congress used by the armed hijackers in 1966

NOTE: This list is, by no means, exhaustive. There will be many other instances that can be recounted, but this is sufficient to get the point across (I think).

In the face of all of this, the Falkland Islanders decided to send a clear message to its fellow democratic neighbour and the wider world: an internationally monitored referendum. The result was predictable: over 90% of the electorate turned out and 99.6% of them voted to remain a British overseas territory. Similarly predictable was the Argentine response: it didn’t count as it is the territory they care about, not the people. An interesting stance for a democracy to take.

Image result for falklands referendum

Falkland Islanders celebrate the referendum result being announced

Thankfully for the Islanders, the Kirchners’ questionable economic policies led to defeat in the polls in 2015, losing to the capitalist Macri.  He was open about improving relations with the United Kingdom and stuck to that. For the reasons already identified, he was unable to go too far in undoing the ‘Malvinas’ claim, but he remained largely silent on the matter and diplomatic relations were warming. Joint scientific collaborations concerning studies in the South Atlantic (cancelled under CFK) resumed, talks led to many of the unknown war dead in the Argentine cemetery being identified by the ICRC and, most recently, it seemed that a second flight to the Falklands from South America (Sao Paulo) would go ahead. Argentina still refuses to allow the Falkland Islanders to be present in any discussions (as they don’t view them as a people and they see all discussions as being between Argentina and Britain) so these kinds of agreements still haven’t been met with full support in the Falklands, but it does signal a diplomatic easing of tensions. The perceived compromises being made in the name of diplomacy are also often unpopular on both sides. The flights to the islands are, as far as I’m aware, the only instance in the World where a government dictates that a flight must land in its country in order to gain access to its air space and this, on principle, is objected to by some.

Macri’s defeat in the primaries and the threatened reinstallation of CFK as Vice-President could, then, usher in a new (another) era of economic and diplomatic bullying. It is likely that the second flight would be under threat and the diplomatic progress made so far undone.

Whether CFK returns to power or not, it is this writer’s view that the unique histories of the Falklands and Argentina mean that a ‘normal’ relationship is highly unlikely for many, many years to come. The claim to the Falklands is still enshrined in the Argentine constitution (and it would require majority support in their senate to remove it: highly unlikely). All sides are still mourning their war dead and all sides are democracies so they will be unwilling to lose public support by being seen to insult the sacrifices of their soldiers. The Falkland Islanders are distrustful of many Argentine or British attempts to build closer ties (that happened once before and they remember where it led…). Each year, the countries involved send delegations to the UN decolonisation committee to make, what is in essence, the same speeches and each year the UN votes that all sides should work toward a peaceful resolution of the dispute. Then they all go home and return the next year for the same thing. This repetitive outline of the stalemate seems to summarise the current situation well. For their own reasons, neither side can or will budge. It now becomes a matter of just how militant Argentina wishes to be in its claim.

This is, of course, a very simplistic breakdown of this intricate and highly emotive part of local history. The Falkland Islands Government summarises its position here and it is worth a read. Much of the above is, of course, hotly contested in many circles and will remain so for many years to come. I have simplified many things out of necessity so I can only hope that nothing that I have said or cut short has caused offence (to anyone with a valid, evidence-based, historical argument) but this is the situation as I read it. Just in case you’re interested. If you weren’t, I’m sorry you had to sit through all of that without a single reference to penguins or Milo Sheep. Normal service will be resumed shortly.

 

 

 

Milling Around

Last weekend was Han’s Birthday (and the last one we’ll spend as a twosome in this little family of ours) so it seemed right that we marked the occasion. Unbeknownst to Han, I decided that we should have a weekend away from the hustle and bustle of Stanley (I know Stanley’s not exactly a metropolis but there’s always so much going on e.g. we missed the Winter Ball, dinner with friends and a Treasure Hunt just over those 3 days).

After making the decision to try to surprise Han with her Birthday present (not an easy thing to do: she has the thwarting mix of both nosiness and diligence), I set about plotting the trip. In part, this was to treat my wife but, mostly, it was because I knew it would offer the chance to use the word ‘unbeknownst’. Ladies: if your husband is surprising you, that’s probably the reason why.

As it’s the middle of Winter, most of the regular islands are closed to tourists (Carcass, Sea Lion, Pebble etc) so I decided that we’d head West to somewhere I knew was open all year and I knew would be a good call. Regulars will be familiar with the appeals of West Falkland from several previous posts. I settled on the stunning Coast Ridge Cottage in Fox Bay West (the settlement is divided around the Harbour). The ferry that we would usually to the West was making its annual slog to Chile for service and repairs so a brief exchange with FIGAS (the government air service) had our lift there chartered. As flights are drawn up on a daily basis on demand, flight schedules are a somewhat last minute affair. All FIGAS flights are read out on the radio the day before departure to inform passengers (as well as, now, posted on their Facebook page). This makes surprising someone a little tricky, but they’ve thought of that! The public manifests can be altered to include pseudonyms. So it was that Mrs G. Inge and Mr T. Allman were publicly announced on the schedule. Now that I know pseudonyms are an option, I feel there is a lot more fun to be had with that in future.

Fox Bay is a beautiful area and there’s a lot to explore in terms of both wildlife, scenery and even a little fossil hunting (if it’s not the middle of Winter and you’re not 6 months pregnant).

 

The vast majority of land in the Falklands is taken up by farming and the surrounding area of Fox Bay is no exception. One thing that had been puzzling me since I found it out was that the Falklands produces a huge amount of extremely high quality wool but it is almost all exported in its raw form for processing elsewhere. So, for example, the majority of the wool from the Falklands is sent to Eastern Europe for cleaning and carding (lining the fibres up) and then some of it is sent back for local crafts people to work with. That all seemed a bit convoluted so I wondered why no-one had set up even a small mill here.

Turns out, someone had. From 1983 until 1997, the Falklands Wool Company operated out of Fox Bay in a series of Nissen Huts and processed some of the fine wool coming out of the Falklands into, what I’m told was, a high quality product indeed. Unfortunately the operation ultimately failed to become profitable. I am reliably informed that this was thanks to the involvement of various agencies insisting on scaling up the process and drawing it away from its original sustainable intention (so often the way with well-meaning aid agencies). The result is that Fox Bay still houses the old mill and we were lucky enough to get permission to investigate it.

Anyone who has ever been to the Cabinet War Rooms in London (if you haven’t been, do!) will understand the eerie atmosphere that results from an old building being simply locked up at the end of a working day and left for decades as a time capsule to its former life. Such is the case at the woollen mill. Machines are still loaded with wool, a coat was still left on the counter top and the tools are where they were downed 20+ years ago. It’s a strange feeling, to wander around there. It’s sad to see it all sitting idle and you can’t help but think of the missed opportunity.

I only hope that this operation’s failure doesn’t put others off the idea of processing wool right here in the Falklands. With such high quality product, it seems a shame to see it all sent away and I hope to one day be sporting a Falkland Islands jumper shorn, processed and manufactured once more in the islands.