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The Egmont overture

or; Acts of settlement

A brief investigation of the first few Falklands conflicts

A few months back, my family and I took advantage of the Falkland Islands Government’s TRIP scheme (a Covid-era measure to help stimulate internal tourism) and booked a flight to Saunders Island, one of the largest of the 770-odd ‘other’ islands – i.e. not East or West Falkland – approximately 90 miles to the West-North-West of Stanley. 

Internationally recognised as both an Important Bird Area and an Important Plant Area, Saunders is home to the Pole-Evans family, about 6,500 sheep, some horses, cows, one pig plainly being fattened up for Christmas, numerous dogs (pet/working status variable), albatross colonies, Johnny Rooks, a bazillion penguins of various sub-species, the occasional dead whale, and the site of the oldest British settlement in the Falkland Islands. 

Thanks to the infamously changeable Falklands weather, our little red FIGAS air taxi had been delayed for basically the entire morning, so once David Pole-Evans and his wife and daughter (see also: the fire service) had collected us from the airstrip, and we’d driven the few hundred metres over to ‘the Settlement’, and had a cup of tea, there was only really a couple of hours of mid-autumnal light left in the day. And then my eye was caught by an abandoned worksheet from the national museum’s kid’s Past Finders group. 

“How far is it to Port Egmont?” I asked. “Oh, maybe 20 minutes,” said our hosts, not glancing at the three-year-old.  

The Pole-Evanses, I think, mainly commute by quad bike; but my wife had said we would not need the ‘baby’-carrier… so under a chilly, clear sky, we tramped out of the settlement, child on our backs, along the coastal path, between the black mud of the water’s edge and the Eastern slopes of Mount Egmont (259m), up a gentle valley, through long moorland paddocks of befuddled-looking sheep and hairy cows, until, as the sun began to disappear precipitously behind the hill, we reached a newish-looking gate, beyond which a Union Jack could clearly be made out flapping vigorously at full mast, amid the ruins of some low stone buildings.  

The kid, of course, was now asleep. So we lay her down among the diddle-dee and ferns, and took turns to explore the territory.

Port Egmont 

Strictly speaking – as David P-E points out – Port Egmont is in fact the watery, calm, thoroughfare between West Falkland, Saunders, Keppel Island, and a handful of other tiny land ‘masses’. 

Before the second half of the C18th, most sightings of the Falklands were by lost mariners, blown off course from the coast of Patagonia, before or after efforts to make their way around Cape Horn. All ships approached the islands from the West, not least because of the prevailing, often very forceful, winds. For this reason – and in the continued absence of a North West passage (and/or a Panama Canal) – the Falklands was about to become an important staging post for European ships either preparing for or recovering from voyages to the Pacific, and a potential strategic position against, specifically, the Spanish, in the eventuality of war.  

Regardless of who may first have seen/found/mapped what we now call the Falkland Islands, and when (the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and British all make claims. There is, importantly, no evidence whatever of any indigenous, pre-European, population), on January 15th/21st/23rd/25th 1765 (the sources vary), Commodore the Hon. John Byron of HM frigate Dolphin landed at Port Egmont, and formally took possession of the Falkland Islands. ‘The Union Jack was erected on a high staff and being spread I named the whole of His Majesty [George III]’s isles which I claimed for the Crown for Great Britain, his heirs and successors.’ 

The Port Egmont settlement (sometimes called ‘Jason’s Town’) and the body of water in front of it, are crucially sheltered, by Mount Egmont, from the westerly winds, which in the age of sail could often make it impossible to get out of a harbour in that general direction. (The next day, at the opposite end of Saunders Island, I found myself walking at almost 45 degrees – both left and forwards – just to stay ‘upright’.) On top of good water, good (if shallow) soil, ‘antiscorbutick’ plants and plentiful edible wildlife – everything, in fact, except wood – Byron proclaimed the place ‘one of the finest natural harbours in the world… All the Navy of England might ride here together very safely.’ He named it for the Earl of Egmont, then First Lord of the Admiralty (Admiralty office-holders and ships between them accounting for much if not most of the coastal nomenclature down here). And he wrote: ‘I am almost certain that We are the first Ships that ever have been there since the Creation, & I coasted the Island above 70 Leagues afterwards, but saw no Smokes nor Signs of any Bodys being there…’  

This last bit was not merely tempting fate.  

Nine months before, the French had secretly set up shop around the corner (a lot of corners, admittedly) on East Falkland. This was Port Louis, established on the 17th February (or the 5th of April) 1764, by Louis de Bougainville, with a population of 74 mainly Nova Scotian refugees (one of whose children, Sebastien Benoit, may well have been the first man ever to be born in the Falkland Islands), his expedition having set out from St Malo – whence ‘Malouines’, and, latterly, ‘Malvinas’. 

News of this settlement had become public in August, while Byron was at sea; but it had been passed on to him by a British supply ship off the coast of South America. Byron had also encountered Bougainville’s ships there, and guessed their business. It is presumably indicative of some basic political savvy that Byron hastily wrote to Egmont highlighting the British claim of Richard Hawkins (1594) to have discovered the islands; but it is also illustrative of the geography of the Falklands that the rival settlements spent almost two years failing to find each other (and when they did they exchanged officerly hospitality). 

In 1766, a Captain John Macbride returned to Port Egmont with HMSs JasonCarcass and Experiment. They secured possession, constructing buildings, installing a garrison, and leaving a ship on permanent stand-by. Over the following years, as the settlement developed, its composition and layout took on forms familiar to anyone who’s ever read an C17th/18th sea-faring yarn, or indeed played with pirate Lego.  

Although most of the ‘settlers’ slept aboard their ships, an archaeological survey carried out in 1992 identified some 50 distinct man-made features, from the harbour complex to the Governor’s residence, and one can still see significant remains of a large store/barracks building, houses, and gun emplacements, as well as numerous low, gorse-topped banks that denote more former structures, long since abandoned and/or trampled by the grazing animals. Alas for tourism (perhaps), much of the locally-available building material, like peat blocks, tussac grass and whale ribs, was biodegradable – and what was not was ultimately removed or ‘upcycled’ by one party or another. But bits of brick, sea-smoothed glass, and fragments of tile are visible along the seashore; chinaware, penguin-boilers and other evidence of daily life have also been found. 

Those with a good imagination will not struggle to imagine that ‘an appointment so remote, and so unfavourable’ – in the words of ship’s surgeon Bernard Penrose – was hardly thought of as a cushy posting. He too complains of the weather: that the ice was two feet thick on the ponds in winter, and in mid-summer hailstorms destroyed their vegetables. When not on board ship, they often lived in makeshift buildings that ‘in England would not have been used even as kennels for dogs.’ Resourceful, but hardly over-resourced, these men (I find no mention of women or children, NB) certainly had to be industrious: Penrose recounts them bending the edges of a spade as a replacement for their frying pan. In all, he found, the South Atlantic experience ‘distinguishes the man of perseverance.’ Both officers and men were unabashed in their enthusiasm when they were relieved. 

Above the settlement, a small cemetery, containing half a dozen graves, stands on the side of Mt Egmont, surrounded by a well-tended white paling fence: testament to an age when spending time on Saunders Island – let alone getting to and from the Falklands – was a lot less of a jolly than it is today. One man died after losing half a leg to a sea-lion. On another occasion, a grassfire nearly burned the entire settlement to the ground. 

On his arrival, Macbride’s first actions were to lay out several gardens and erect a blockhouse for artillery. The gardens were self-evidently important (fresh fruit and veg remain a problem in the Falklands, even now). The blockhouse, though, was more-or-less totally symbolic (one report referring to it as ‘a pigeon-loft’); if even a small armada sailed into the bay, Port Egmont was clearly indefensible. 

And of course this is exactly what happened.  

In 1767, the Port Louis settlement was ceded to Spain (who had made, hitherto, no physical impression on the islands) and who now invoked the notorious C15th Papal contrivance of the Treaty of Tordesillas. Bougainville was personally remunerated, and the French settlers all left. The name was changed to Puerto Soledad (and sometimes also ‘Puerto Luis’, the maps forever being rendered out of date), and under the Spanish the population hovered around the hundred mark, half of them convicts. The transfer ceremony took place on – ahem – April 1st (see 1982), the French essentially insisting that the Spanish maintain the settlement to ward off British claims. 

Having finally discovered where the British were, in June 1770 a Spanish commander arrived at Port Egmont with five armed ships and 1400 soldiers. The tiny British garrison fired their guns once, for honour’s sake, and then capitulated.  

Penrose noted five years later ‘what considerable share [the Falklands] lately had in the politics of the times.’ Lord Nelson wrote that the expulsion from Egmont was what inspired him to join the Navy. The estimable Dr Johnson was considerably less excited by the idea of ‘a colony which could never become independent, for it could never be able to maintain itself.’ But amid threats of open war, the British and the Spanish settled, as it were, out of court, and Port Egmont was fairly cordially handed back, inventory and all, in 1771. But less than three years later, a Royal Navy strategic review (spurred by the impending American Revolution) resulted in the garrison’s withdrawal. (Veterans of, say, the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may feel a twinge of recognition here.) 

The departing CO, Lt Clayton, affixed a lead plaque to the blockhouse door, inscribed thus: 

Be it known to all Nations That Falkland’s Ifland, with this Fort, the Storehoufes, Wharfs, Harbours, Bays and Creeks thereunto belonging, are the Sole Right and Property of his Moft Sacred Majefty George the third, King of Great Britain, France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith. In Witnefs whereof this Plate is fet up and his Britanick Majefty’s Colours left flying as a mark of Poffeffion… 

Sealers soon re-occupied the settlement, until the Spanish burned the buildings down in 1780. Clayton’s lead plaque was taken away to Buenos Aires, and later to the Tower of London, where it was, somewhat ironically, lost in a fire in 1841.

Port Louis/Puerto Soledad 

Port Louis/Puerto Soledad hung on after the Brits decamped, until the Spanish – now struggling to control their own rebellious colonies – removed their Governor in 1806, and evacuated the place altogether in 1811. A lead plaque was left here, too, claiming possession for Fernando VII of Spain; but in reality the Falklands was abandoned to the needs of American and British sealing and/or whaling vessels. 

For a decade or two, the various claims now became quite chaotic. In 1820 an American privateer, Colonel David Jewett, in the service of the United Provinces of the River Plate (proto-Argentina) – fighting against the Spanish, that is – arrived in Puerto Soledad, and pluckily claimed the settlement, and the 50 or so civilian ships floating off shore, for the ‘Argentinians’. The British Antarctic explorer Weddell – he of the ‘Sea’ – recorded these swashbuckling theatrics. But Jewett was a pirate; no documents ever suggested he was operating under orders; and the optimistic ‘claim’ was reported in London and indeed in Salem, Massachusetts, before it was noted (under ‘foreign news’) in Buenos Aires. For what it’s worth, that year in Argentina there were apparently 24 governments, including three in just a single day. But Jewett’s own letter of resignation (mid mutiny) in February the following year, makes no mention of any claim or occupation. The Colonel was last seen switching sides, to the Brazilian navy. 

Jewett was followed by the German-born French Huguenot Louis Vernet (keep up, keep up!), employed by Argentina as a combination of businessman and consular officer, with some astutely-engineered acceptance/awareness from the British consul in BA, the unimprovably-named Sir Woodbine Parish. 

Vernet had some on-off luck with his concession for killing wild cows on East Falkland; but then he allowed himself to be named ‘Political and Military Commandant’ by Buenos Aires, and started seizing American sealing ships for his own business purposes – at which both the British and Americans predictably reacted. The USS Lexington swiftly ended Vernet’s piratical career, destroying the guns at Puerto Soledad in 1832, and removing the settlers, most of the slaves, and anyone else who wanted to leave.  

Perhaps concerned that the Americans themselves were now getting in on the colonial act, at the end of 1832 a small Argentine garrison arrived, under the command of Major Esteban Mestivier… whom they promptly murdered. Within weeks, a detachment of Royal Marines under Captain Onslow arrived aboard HMS Clio, and expelled the Argentinians. They left unmolested a civilian population of about two dozen, which Charles Darwin shortly afterwards characterised, accurately enough, as ‘more than half… runaway rebels and murderers.’ A few months after Darwin’s visit, the settlement manager, former Antarctic explorer Matthew Brisbane, was killed by gauchos. Quite incidentally, the Royal Navy (now also thoughtful about American naval activity in the region), despatched HMS Challenger to raise the flag once more and reassert their sovereignty over the islands. 

For a while, the Brits called the place ‘Anson’s Harbour’, before reverting to the former French nomenclature. But a report from Admiral George Grey in 1836 likened the ‘little Colony’ to ‘a preventative station on the coast of Northumberland’ – and though a few outlines of these old settlement buildings are still visible, Port Louis soon became, and is today, a modest sheep farm.

Port Stanley 

In 1841, at the tender age of 28, a Lieutenant in the Royal Engineers, Richard Clement Moody, was appointed Lieutenant Governor of the Falkland Islands. He was tasked with recce-ing the best available ports and the viability of ‘establishing a regular authority’ – in short, whether to proceed with a full colonisation. 

Moody arrived at Port Louis in 1842, along with 26 volunteers from the Royal Corps of Sappers and Miners, and their families (the total population of the islands at this point numbering just 62). He soon discovered his first priority would be the founding of a new colonial capital, and Port William (less than 20 miles to the South East, as the crow flies) seemed, from both a naval and commercial perspective, the leading candidate.  

Moody had his reservations about Port William – namely that it was ‘very wet and swampy’ (it’s snowing right now, and when it melts there will be peaty puddles in our garden for some days) – but on the personal recommendation of the renowned polar explorer James Clark Ross – he of HMS Erebus and Terror (cf. the recent, and pointlessly-supernatural, TV series) – Port Jackson in particular (pretty much every inlet in the Falklands is a ‘port’) was identified as the safest and best harbour, in particular because it lets out almost immediately onto the ocean to the East. 

Of course, Ross wasn’t going to do any of the actual work – and the relocation, it must be said, was not universally popular. The move itself was pretty tough, and Moody wasn’t wrong about the new site. The Governor and his men lived in tents and, later, turf huts while they surveyed the ground. One of their first projects in the prospective town was, unremarkably, the construction of Store House No. 1 – these days the Historic Dockyard Museum, inside which hangs a rather lovely A4-ish watercolour of the settlement (1849; Edward Gennys Fanshawe), above the following caption:  

“Of all the miserable bog-holes in the Falkland Islands, I believe Mr Moody has selected one of the worst for the site of the town.” – JB Whitington, Settler 

The Governor – for once, not being a Navy man – renamed the town Port Stanley, in honour of the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, and on 16th August 1844 the first letter marked ‘Stanley’ was posted, requesting the official name-change. (One cannot help thinking it would have been funny if, at that point, Lord Stanley had responded saying ‘No.’)

Port Stanley remains there to this day, of course – though simply called ‘Stanley’ now – and continues to thrive. We only arrived six months ago, and already there’s a whole new road (named for Prince Philip) and a new housing area. Housing is at a serious premium here, as the population explodes in a way that might have pleased (if also surprised?) Port Egmont’s settlers.

When Richard Moody stepped down as the Governor, three of his men chose to remain, including Pte James Biggs, whose descendants substantially contribute to the demographic now. One of them is a colleague of mine in two separate jobs; another is the owner of the big stone building (a rarity) I spotted from the air just as we cleared West Falkland. The names of many others, and the boats they sailed in, live on in landmarks, businesses and street names to this day. 

On Saunders Island, David Pole-Evans and his family remain the only occupants, apart from tourists – and most of those, I suspect, come for the penguins. But at Port Egmont, the Union Jack still flutters valiantly. As he drove us back down to the airstrip, David said he thinks it’s time the Falkland Islands celebrate a Founders Day, each 23rd of January. 

For The Critic, in a different edit

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