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Icon of the month: The Falklands

Sarah Dean

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Almost nothing has happened here except war. For every human there are six landmines (and 150 sheep).  It is cold, but snow does not accumulate because it rains, on average, on three or four days in every week. If you work on the Falklands you are a soldier, a farmer or a fishermen (catch per year: 220,000 tons, 200,000 of which is squid).

The islands were first spotted by Europeans in 1592. No one thought it worth stopping. Not until 1690, when a landing lasted just long enough to establish that there were no indigenous inhabitants. In 1765 the British arrived and claimed the islands for George III. A Captain John MacBride established a settlement on West Falkland without noticing that the French had moved onto East Falkland a year earlier. Neither of them stayed long. In 1776 the British left, leaving only a plaque claiming sovereignty. By then the French had handed over to the Spanish, but they too left only a plaque when withdrawing home to fight Napoleon.

For decades the only visitors were whalers, pirates, and hiders from South Atlantic storms.

In the 1820s Argentina (or the United Provinces of the Río de la Plata as it was then) encouraged the creation of a colony under its rule. The 'success' of the new settlement - Charles Darwin called conditions 'miserable' when passing through - led to a new declaration of sovereignty.  In response Britain sent - oh precedent - a naval task force, though no fighting was necessary. 'It is my intention to hoist tomorrow the national flag of Great Britain' declared Captain Onslow of HMS Clio. ' I request you will be pleased to haul down your flag on shore and withdraw your force.' It was enough, but not the end.

The Islands' more recent history needs less elucidation - save to say that, as is always the case, we have probably made too much of the heroism and too little of the horror. By the end of the 1970s, Britain had become a sad and chastened place. But in Margeret Thatcher it had found a winner, with a conquering attitude she took to the miners ('the enemy within'), the IRA, the GLC and socialism of all kinds.

Victory, though, has made the last 30 years awkward ones. Although Islanders - 'belongers', they call themselves - are entitled to protection from dictatorial junta, there is no disguising the fact that their status is an anachronism. And an expensive one too. It cannot be beyond the wit of man or tank-driving woman to devise a settlement that allows Falklanders their British citizenship without granting them the exploration and fishing rights that by most standards of geography, history and (dare I say it) morality are South American.

And now there is oil. 'When the islands were unimportant, their fate would have been easy to settle' wrote the historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto. 'The magnitude of the problem has grown with the magnitude of the stakes.' By refusing to share natural resources for fear of legitimating British claims, President Nestor Kirchner ensured that Argentina does not profit from oil exploration. All this because of a rock in the sea with nothing on it but penguins. Truly God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty.

No solution looks imminent, but Britain will eventually cede to the changing demands of global politics. Brazil, whose economy recently overtook the UK's, supports Argentina's claim, as does the rest of burgeoning South America. It is unlikely that Britain will forever choose the claims of a tiny number of island settlers over the benefits of world trade. As ever, one wonders what it was all for.

'And everybody praised the Duke
Who this great fight did win
But what good came of it at last?'    
Quoth little Peterkin.    
'Why that I cannot tell,' said he,
'But 'twas a famous victory.'

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