I believe that, given the right forum, history may speak for itself. What follows is hopefully an opportunity for it do so – using the words of those people who were there, and those of the commentators that came after – in a contextual history of the Falkland Islands, with emphasis particularly on the ownership disputes with both Spain and Argentina.
That said, this research is detailed and very long. It took 10 years to compile and I acknowledge that in this busy world of ours few will have the time to read it fully. So here, for those who prefer an executive summary, are some of my conclusions.
In my opinion, and based upon my extensive research, history tells us:-
That while the Papal Bulls issued after 1481 may have had some bearing on the actions of Spain and Portugal, they had no effect, nor legal authority, over the other European nations who were looking west. Portugal challenged the Pope’s edict, resulting in the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 wherein Portugal and Spain agreed where their own spheres of influence in the New World should lie. That treaty bound the parties that signed it, no-one else.
That the first European to discover the Falklands archipelago will never be known with any certainty. Possibly it was by Portuguese explorers who were reputed to know those seas long before Magellan ever left Spain. Perhaps a Spanish sighting by Rodrigo de Acuña in 1526. An Englishman, John Davis, certainly saw the Islands in 1592; followed by Richard Hawkins in 1594 who named the archipelago for Elizabeth I. Cartographic evidence is unreliable, but were the Sanson Islands depicted on maps after 1527 the Falklands, or an inshore group to the south of Puerto Deseado? The evidence is unclear.
That the first settlement was built by the French on East Falkland Island in 1764 in an apparent act of small revenge against Britain for their losses in Canada. Any hope of gaining an advantage over the English was quickly overcome however when France was surprisingly ambushed by its ally Spain; presenting its own claim. Under pressure, and subject to conditions, France agreed to abandon their settlement but without formal cession. France left in 1767 two years after England, hardly noticed, had arrived on West Falkland. So it was the French (1764), the English (1765) and then, in third place, the Spanish (1767) who took possession of islands within the archipelago. French demands in 1801 that Britain (not Spain) give it an establishment in the islands were rebuffed. France never returned.
That the opening move in the sovereignty tussle was made by Spain with their ejection of the British garrison from West Falkland in 1770, bringing the two countries close to a bloody war. Having itself been pushed off the archipelago, however, the French King was in no mood to go to war in support of his cousin – a war not viewed with any great enthusiasm by the rest of Europe either. Alone, Spain could not win so the conflict was conducted through diplomatic channels resulting, as diplomacy so often does, in an inconclusive agreement returning the islands to the status quo that had existed in 1769. England in the west and Spain in the east. No secret deals, no secret promises. An inconclusive agreement that became the status quo until 1833.
That the British did not abandon their rights in 1774. Sovereignty was still claimed by the English Crown, a fact stated clearly on the plaque the British garrison’s last commander nailed to the blockhouse door; under a flying Union Jack. A claim conforming to the agreement of 1771. An evacuation as part of a general disarmament discussed for three years. England had always maintained that it would evacuate first and Spain was to follow. Yet Spain was tardy, maintaining its own little fort on East Falkland until 1811, but never having the temerity to attempt to raise its flag over the western isles. On leaving, Spain also nailed its claim to a door, the church door; a claim to the Island of Soledad only. Spain had never shown any great willingness to exert effective control over the whole archipelago but then Spain’s power was waning; a reality marked by the diplomatic defeat of the Nootka Convention in 1790 when, yet again, France refused to support its neighbour.
That there was no 55 year gap without any assertion of British rights; the Government assessing its position in 1789 and publicly acting to protect its sovereignty over Falkland’s Island (West Falkland) during the Amiens peace negotiation in 1801/02.
That Argentina did not inherit in 1810. There was no Argentina in 1810, when Buenos Aires declared for King Ferdinand – nor indeed in 1816 when the United Provinces de la Rio de la Plata announced their independence. Nationhood does not come that easily. Declarations of independence are merely the start of a long and uncertain process. The moment of attainment is a moot point in Argentina’s case, as Spain maintained its claims to that old colony beyond 1836 and refused to recognise an independent Republic of Argentina (including Buenos Aires) until 1863. The theory of an inheritance of borders – uti possidetis juris – arose as a political agreement between some of the new South American States forged at the Congress of Lima in 1848. Argentina did not sign and its borders were not fully established until the 1880’s with the colonization of Patagonia. Revolutionaries emancipate themselves, they do not inherit.
That Buenos Aires failed to announce any formal claim to the islands before 1829. In 1820, David Jewett, a privateer without any known mandate, took possession of the islands for the United Provinces of South America; an indeterminate (fantasy?) nation whose name would later be adopted by Argentina. The 1820 United Provinces of the Rio de la Plata was merely a fledgling nation in disarray, without central authority and at war with itself; unrecognised by any established nation it remained merely a revolted colony of Spain. German businessman Luis Vernet’s attempts to profit from the wild cattle of East Falkland Island were ineffective before his settlement of 1826, and remained uncertain after. It was only in 1829 that Buenos Aires made its first public attempt to change the sovereignty status of the archipelago; an action threatening the 1771 Anglo-Spanish status quo and an act challenged by the British Crown with protests in 1829 and 1832. Britain had an accord with Spain, not Buenos Aires. Deemed piratical, Vernet’s settlement was broken-up by the USA in 1831 and an attempt by Buenos Aires (not Argentina) to attain effective sovereign control over the island of Soledad in 1832 failed. Its trespassing garrison ejected in a bloodless police action led by Capt. Onslow and the crew of Clio in January, 1833. Spain, which confirmed its claims to the USA in October of 1833, did not complain to Great Britain or attempt to assert its rights; recognising British sovereignty in 1863.
That those genuine settlers encouraged by Vernet – those few that had remained following the Lexington Raid in December, 1831 – were encouraged to remain in 1833. They would form the the nucleus of what became, after 1842, a successful British colony.
That Argentina’s Chamber of Deputies (1879) and Senate (1882) recognised the ill founded nature of the country’s Falklands claims in little-known debates from which much of the documentary evidence is now unavailable.
That Argentina’s Antarctic pretensions are hard to make sense of, being founded primarily upon geology and geography and thereby appearing to lack merit.
That 1945 changed everything with the founding of the United Nations; its Charter recognising a right of self-determination for all; and very specifically for the peoples of the old colonies – the non-self governing territories (NSGTs). The Falklands were listed as a decolonization case by the UN in 1946; with the Islanders recognised as its ‘people’ in 1952 since when it has been for the Falkland Islanders to decide upon their future. Their desires were made clear in a 2013 referendum when the Islanders opted to retain their links with the UK as a British Overseas Territory; a referendum decision reached in accordance with UN resolution 637 (VII) of 1953.
That the invasion of 1982 destroyed any chance that the people of the Falkland islands could be persuaded to allow their territory to come under the sovereignty of Argentina. An act of self-harm by the military dictatorship then running the country. Trial by Combat, lost.
That, despite Argentina’s assertions to the contrary, the matter is now effectively settled. Only the islanders can decide their future and no nation or organisation is capable, or willing, to foist upon them something that they do not want.