THE FALKLAND ISLANDS, a British dependency contested by ARGENTINA, which calls them the Islas Malvinas, are located in the South ATLANTIC OCEAN near South America, approximately 300 mi (483 km) east of Argentina. The Falkland Islands consist of two main islands (East and West Falklands), which are divided by the Falkland Sound. There are more than 100 smaller islands that are part of the Falklands. The island of South Georgia, which is southeast of the Falklands, is a territory of the Falkland Islands. The islands have a population of 2,379, with most living near the capital, Stanley. Occupying 4,700 square mi (12,173 square km), the territory’s highest point is Mt. Usborne at 2,312 ft or 705 m.
The Falkland Islands were discovered by the British in 1592 but not claimed by the British until 1690, when a detachment landed for the first time and named it after the first lord of the Admiralty of the time. In the 18th century, French settlers stayed for a short period, and SPAIN also claimed sovereignty. The emerging Argentine state called for the succession of the Spanish, but the British took over the islands in 1833. British settlers since then stayed continuously, although the sheep production made it an economically difficult enterprise in problematic weather conditions (not too far from ANTARCTICA).
The strategic importance of the Falkland Islands is due to their proximity to the southern parts of South America and Antarctica. The islands came twice to global awareness, both in the setting of armed conflict. In 1914, the British navy smashed the East Asian Squadron of the German navy in the Battles of Coronel and the Falklands. In 1982, the Argentine military government occupied the islands but was defeated by the British when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher decided to resist this military assault. The inhabitants of the Falklands are nearly all of British descent and they never embraced Argentine rule. The British campaign in the Falklands was formidable and outstanding in all its major elements (navy, air force and ground force), as the British won under arctic conditions on islands literally “on the other side of the earth” (from Britain), whereas the Argentine mainland was in close proximity to the battleground. The British victory in the Falklands War led to an overthrow of the military dictatorship because of popular unrest within Argentina, whereby this was a first step for reestablishing democratic regimes in the whole of South America.
Before 1982, the British government was probably not really interested in keeping the economically deficient islands, but this changed dramatically when the Argentines took it by force. The economy of the Falkland Islands was changed forever after the liberation from Argentine occupation, as the now necessary military presence of British troops needed heavy investment (especially a large airport). Traditionally a coaling and whaling harbor, the Falkland Islands undertook an economic development program for exploiting oil fields within the territorial waters of the islands and for expanding tourism. The role of the Falkland Islands and of South Georgia as a springboard for missions in Antarctica should not be underestimated.
The relations with Argentina are still tense, as the Falkland Islanders suspect a new Argentine attempt to take over the islands. Although the British government is unambiguous about not changing the sovereignty of the islands against the will of the inhabitants, the defense of the islands since the 1982 war has cost an enormous amount of British taxpayers’ money.