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world wide wednesdays meets throw-back thursday :: you again?

i was more than a little surprised this week to hear news of brewing troubles in the falkland islands. it seems that tensions are once again surfacing on the tiny archipelago in the south atlantic, with a new player in the mix. i say "again", because the only time i [and probably a lot of others] remembering being alerted to the existence of the falkland islands was over thirty years ago when argentina and great britain very briefly went to war over the them, until bill o'reilly descended from the sky and brought everlasting peace. or something. [ok, o'reilly never claimed to have brought peace to anything, but he did claim that he was a correspondent during the two month conflict, which let him see war up close, something that, on closer inspection, turns out to have been utter bunk. more recently, o'reilly has claimed that he never said he was in the falkland islands, a claim which right-leaning fact-checkers politifact rate as "half-true", since he referred to being in the falklands "war zone", which could be interpreted as meaning a broader area than the islands themselves.]

the current dispute is basically the long-postponed sequel to the original, which saw argentina surrender after just a couple of months, but things are different because this time, argentina has some bigger guns [literally and figuratively] backing them up: russia has publicly questioned britain's claim to the islands and may have started arming argentina in anticipation of a second conflict over ownership of the islands. it also allows russia to thumb their nose at great britain for implying that russia had no claim to the crimea [we talked about this], while continuing to "occupy" the falklands thousands of miles away. it does seem kind of weird that the british would get so wrapped up in a conflict over a tiny community made up chiefly of penguins and sheep, but as we'll see, the falkland islands are kind of a weird place to begin with.

for starters, the islands are the rarest of the rare: a new world location that europeans actually did discover. while it's possible that south american tribes visited the islands, there is no evidence of any permanent inhabitants before european explorers arrived in the seventeenth century. and that would be the french, who could probably assert a claim to the territory themselves if they really wanted to. the french called the islands "les malouînes" after the town of st. malo in brittany [a territory we discussed here]. explorer louis antoine de bougainville [who gave his name to the largest island off the mainland in papua new guinea] established a colony there in 1764, while the british established a colony of their own two years later. before the french and english arrived, there was no one living on the islands and the two settlements were so isolated that it seems they may not have even been aware of each others' existence.

that changed when france ceded the territory to spain, who attacked a british settlement and brought the two countries to the brink of a war in the late eighteenth century. but eventually, the two made up and decided to just live like ebony and ivory, side by side in perfect harmony. that colonialist ambivalence towards asserting a claim to all of the islands is an indicator of how little either cared about the archipelago. they fought to the death over territories around the world, but happily shared the cramped space available on the falklands. [side note :: the spanish and, later the argentinians know these islands as the islas malvinas, which is just the spanish version of the original french name. today, they're known as the falkland islands to everyone in the non-spanish speaking world, but officially, if you're speaking spanish, it's proper to call them the malvinas. because everything is less complicated when you give a country two completely different names.]

after a few years, the british got bored and decided that there wasn't really any point to having this strange little crop of rocks so far from home with very limited exploitable resources. they left a plaque behind to indicate that george iii still claimed the lands, but it hardly mattered, since, in the 1770s, george had rather more pressing colonial concerns. the spanish were so excited about having the islands all to themselves that they didn't even bother to take over the former british space. it just sat there and the spanish used their section of the islands as a penal colony until the first decade of the nineteenth century, the spanish decided they had way better things to do than babysit penguins. they closed their garrison on the islands in 1811 and for years the islands returned to their uninhabited state.

in 1816, the united provinces of the rìo de la plata [more or less equivalent to modern-day argentina] staked a claim to all of the former spanish territories in the south atlantic, which is significant not because others cared very much about the falklands, but because it is the genesis of the argentinian argument that the islands should belong to them. when current argentinian cristina fernandez de kirchner attempts to stoke nationalist sentiment by claiming that the falklands have always been part of argentina, she's being disingenuous. the argentinian case is one of geography, not history. that's fine, because national borders are generally based on geography, but de kirchner hurts her own cause by appearing to make claims that are easily debunked.

argentina's only period of sovereignty over the islands came in the wake of the spanish departure, before argentina existed. the government in buenos aires allowed a german immigrant to set up shop on the empty islands and to try to control some of the mercantile activities around them. this worked reasonably well for a few years, until he came up on the wrong side of a dispute with the americans, which is just never a good idea for a small country. the americans were adamant that they didn't want the united provinces governing the islands and so the british returned, mostly just to get rid of the argentinian nationals who had moved in. their argument at that point was that they'd never said definitively that they didn't want the falklands and after all, they'd left a damned plaque. nonetheless, once they had vanquished the argentinian foe, the british didn't seem thrilled that they had their precious south atlantic rock collection back and it wasn't until the middle of the century that there was a move to really, seriously colonise the place. at that point, a number of scots- people the crown were trying to drive out of the country anyway- were wooed to the land with promises of year-round damp weather and plentiful sheep. [side note :: argentina makes the case that the british did absolutely renounce their claim to the islands in the nootka sound convention of 1790 and that they agreed that spain could have them, a claim which argentina contends devolved to them after the spanish left. for their part, the british said that they never relinquished their claim to the falklands, because plaque and that the agreement at nootka only referred to who could start new settlements, not existing ones. furthermore, the british point out that argentina's own national maps, printed twenty years after the arrival of permanent british settlers, didn't include the falkland islands, which indicates that the country wasn't attempting to claim them until much later than they now say.] 

the current population of the falkland islands is almost entirely descended from scottish and welsh settlers who arrived in that wave of immigration and as far as anyone can tell, these people are the only long-term residents of the islands in history. in 2013, the islanders held a referendum on the question of whether or not they wanted to stay part of the british crown and the result was a nearly unanimous "yes". president kirchner dismissed the result as squatters voting to continue occupying a building, but it does raise some interesting questions: is the british claim to the islands wholly colonial? there's no doubt that they first came to the islands as part of colonial expansion, but for once they didn't displace anyone or come into conflict with existing claims, except for those of other colonial governments. since the islands weren't inhabited, are the argentinians any less colonial simply because of their geographical proximity? how long does one have to live in an empty space before one can be considered a "legitimate" occupant?

the problem is, of course, that the heated rhetoric around the falklands has very little to do with the plight of  her three thousand citizens. the falklands have given britain a seat at the table in discussions surrounding antarctica, which could never have been justified otherwise. there has also been a disproportionately vocal lobby on behalf of the falkland islanders in the british parliament, which has perhaps resulted in britain holding onto the dependency a little tighter and a lot longer than they might have wanted to. the presence of a british military outpost so close to the argentinian mainland clearly has the potential to inflame nationalist outrage and both in the early eighties and presently, the argentinian government may have been guilty of using the issue to distract from the country's economic problems. most recently, there is the very tantalizing possibility that there is oil to be extracted from the ocean floor near the falklands, which means that things are likely to get worse before they get better.

the falklands occupy a peculiar spot in geography and history: a territory that is simultaneously wanted and not wanted and one that could be claimed by any number of countries based on history. parts of bolivia, uruguay and brazil were included in the united provinces that originally claimed the falklands when the europeans had left, so in theory, any of those countries has a reasonable argument that the islands belong to them. fortunately, none of them have yet waded into the discussions. spain could argue that they never ceded the islands to anyone, despite having left and since the british case hinges on their claim that leaving a plaque behind in their absence was sufficient to guarantee their continued ownership of at least part of the islands and since the argentinian case hinges on spain never having relinquished control, but simply allowed their claim to fall to their former colony, spain as a plausible argument that the islands have never belonged to anyone but them. ultimately, though, it comes down to a question of people versus placement: do the british win because the people who live on the falklands are overwhelmingly of british decent and continue to identify with great britain? or do the argentinians triumph because the islands sit on their back porch?

if you want to talk about who has the most legitimate claim, of course, it's not the humans you should be asking...

i don't know if we'll get any answers, but i do sense that the questions are going to be asked louder and louder in the coming months.

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