I’ve always been an avid reader and it’s often the best way to learn about the history of a place. With that in mind, I’ve read a great deal of books relating to the Falklands. Partly, this is about learning more about the place I live. Partly, it is about being well-informed for my teaching. Partly, it is because so many people that find themselves here are outgoing and adventurous in their travels so their stories make for an inspiring narrative. From Captain Barnard’s marooning survival story to Shackleton’s short stint here after his epic journey in the James Caird, right through to Michael Palin’s recent visit tracking the Erebus, these passing travelers have all been able to offer their own thoughts on the Falklands with a global perspective too.
Lately, after attending an interesting public lecture at the Museum (something we’ve been making a habit here lately, and an enjoyable one at that), I picked up a copy of Conor O’Brien’s Across Three Oceans. I confess to not having heard of him before the lecture, but this plucky Irishman designed his own ship (the Saoirse) and sailed her around the World (collecting the accolade of being the first Irishman to do so but largely as a result of Ireland only recently becoming a country).
Written in 1924 language with a strong focus on the sailing aspects, a lot of the book has been lost on me but rather than stopping in at Uruguay on his way home, O’Brien pulled into the Falklands. As he put it: “after all Montevideo was very much like any other large city, and the Falklands very much unlike any other small country, I made an amusement of a necessity and carried on to the north-eastward [from the Cape]”.
Like us, (though other resemblances are scarce) he stayed a little longer than he initially intended but his account offers a wonderfully charming example of how little some things change over time. With that in mind, I thought I’d include some of the noteworthy quotes from an Irish 1920s POV:
“There is very little visible from the anchorage in Port William except stones and wind. There is no soil, no warmth in the sun, no trees will grow, and only the hardiest weeds; though it is true that a few enthusiasts have constructed gardens in the lee of a stout fence and are even reported to have raised potatoes therein”.I make no comment on the Irishman’s concern over potatoes. He goes on to state “the people live pecuniarily on wool and gastronomically on mutton”. O’Brien’s observations of the people here continue on the next page: “In a country with only 2000 inhabitants all told everybody knows everybody else”.
It is interesting that I made my own notes on weather and scenery when arriving here (as have so many travelling to these shores), but they differ somewhat to O’Brien’s: “the wind dies down at night; and it is never very cold, though never at all warm. It would be fine weather with us [Irishmen] but here it was mid-Summer. The only difference between summer and winter is in the length of days”. He continues his similarly mixed feelings on the scenery when he states “the scenery of East Falkland is not impressive, for the hills, though of bold outline, as is always the case with quartzite, are small and scattered, and the whole looks a desolation”. He does concede that “I was forcibly struck by the colouring of it all”.
Like many visitors to these islands, O’Brien admits that he was here to see the seals and penguins. His testimony brings a strange feeling of familiarity for those who have spent time with the colonies here and it is bizarre to consider that he, who is no longer with us, was writing this on board a ship that no longer exists: “I walked, it seemed, a prodigious way up the hill on this side, and a very short way down on the other; I do not know how many feet I was above the sea when I came to the edge of the cliff and found the penguins, of all places…there seemed to me to be here two hard questions: first, why do Rockhopper penguins make their rookery on the top of a cliff, and second, how do they get up there with the enormous weight of food necessary for their children?”. Good questions both.
He collects other species on the ‘big five’: “I saw yet another kind of penguin, the Gentoo, whose rookeries are established on the slopes, or even summits of grassy hills…two files are continually marching, one up, one down; the birds at regular intervals, with their heads in the air and their flippers slightly thrown back for the sake of balance; a fine show indeed, but you must not hustle them or drive them into the rough for their legs are very short and their feet very big and they cannot see where they are going and trip up…and scuttle away on all fours in a most undignified manner”.
As with everything in life, it is always worth at least hearing other people’s opinions and deciding for yourself. As it stands, we don’t always agree with others who have been here (Darwin’s bleak opinion doesn’t ring true for us) but their thoughts are often still valid today. O’Brien’s adventure is inspiring in so many ways, as with so many who have visited this place. Here’s hoping our own written record is accurate and stands the test of time like his does.