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Thatcher and the Falklands

BritainMedia IndustryMargaret Thatcher

Regarding the recent article, "Argentine leader not on list for Thatcher funeral" (April 12), it seems logical that to me Great Britain did not invite Cristina Fernandez, the president of Argentina to Margaret Thatcher's funeral. The news item, however, labels this "a snub likely to deepen a diplomatic dispute over the Falkland Islands." This is a perfect example of how the daily news media misleads the public.

In fact, President Fernandez is actively encouraging the newly appointed Pope Francis, a fellow countrymen and ironically her former political enemy, to stir up the whole Falkland Islands dispute with the United Kingdom all over again. Can you believe that the pope should begin his reign by getting entangled in this divisive issue? As if the 1982 war was not enough to put an end to that dispute.

In 1977, I worked in a restaurant on Nantucket Island owned by Robert Ponton, a former official in the Argentine government that was overthrown in 1976. Mr. Ponton was granted political asylum in the U.S. I remembered him because he cheated me of my final paycheck. I spent two more summers on the island and learned of his notorious behavior in not to paying people for their work. So when the Falklands War developed in 1982, I had an interest in learning what it was all about. I was surprised that so many Americans believed Argentina was in the right! Their views were based on watching the news on television. A little homework is all that's required to set things straight.

Named by an English captain who first landed on this group of uninhabited islands in 1690, the claim to the Falkland Islands has been pursued by and abandoned by several nations. In 1764, France planted a small settlement on East Falkland followed by an English settlement on West Falkland in 1765. At first, neither colony was aware of the other. France is credited with renaming the island group Îles Malouines from which the Spanish name, Las Islas Malvinas, is derived. In 1767, France turned her colony on East Falkland over to Spain which attacked and expelled the British from West Falkland in 1770. This act almost resulted in war between Spain and England but a peace treaty ensued and the British returned to West Falkland. In 1774, the British departed the islands due to the pressures in their North American colonies but left behind a plaque asserting Britain's continued claim. Spain's governor left in 1806 and likewise, left behind a plaque asserting Spain's claim. The remaining settlers left in 1811.

To put these events into the context of the times, it is helpful to know that the British Invaded Buenos Aires in 1806 as part of the Napoleonic Wars, when Spain was an ally of France. The British were unsuccessful but gave great a scare to the populace who feared an uprising of black slaves encouraged by the rise of abolitionism of slavery in England.

Now the story gets even more complicated.

David Jewett, an American from Connecticut who served in the War of 1812 as a privateer captain offered his services to the newly-independent United Provinces of the Río de la Plata (later Argentina) whose government was located in Buenos Aires. They authorized him as a privateer against the Spanish. In 1820, he was given command of the frigate Heroína and set out on a mission against Portuguese and American ships. Having survived a severe storm and an attempted mutiny, he took refuge in the Falkland Islands to rest, repair his ship and replenish supplies. At anchor there were some 50 British and American sealing ships. Now employed as an enemy of the United States and Portugal, Mr. Jewett was a mercenary with an opportunistic inclination. Before leaving the islands he decided to claim them for his current employer. Strange that he did not mention his proclamation in his 13-page report to the government in Buenos Aires. He did, however, manage to inform connections at home who had the proclamation published in the Salem Gazette. It was not until a full year later that the government in Buenos Aires learned of his proclamation. James Weddell, a British explorer whose ship was in the harbor at the time and from whom Mr. Jewett had sought the assistance, did not believe that Mr. Jewett was acting with the interests of Buenos Aires but for the purpose of securing a claim to the wreck of a French ship. Mr. Jewett later served in the Brazilian navy and ended up fighting against his former employer in Buenos Aires.

Next came Luis Vernet, a European merchant from Hamburg who established a settlement on East Falkland in 1828 after first seeking approval from both the British and Argentine authorities. Argentina claims that it gained the islands from Spain, upon becoming independent from that country in 1816 and celebrated Mr. Vernet as a hero while ignoring the fact that he had also asked for and received approval by Britain. In 1832, Argentina placed a military garrison on the islands in an attempt to found a penal settlement but failed. In January 1833, the British returned and requested that the Argentine garrison leave. They protested but ultimately complied.

It was not until 1840 that the British decided to establish a permanent colony on the islands. The descendants of those colonists live there today making a good living at fishing and raising sheep.

In 1976, a military junta seized control of Argentina. By 1982, public favor toward its military government had evaporated due to high inflation, unemployment and the ruthless rule of the dictatorship. In order to ignite public passions and regain popularity, the junta mounted a propaganda campaign to reclaim Las Islas Malvinas (the Falkland Islands) from Great Britain culminating in a massive attack on the islands by Argentina's armed forces. In the end, several hundred Argentines died and Britain remained in control of the islands.

Today, the Falkland Islands are inhabited by a self-governing population of just under 3,000 souls who believe they have a right to self-determination, including their right to remain British if they wish. Last month, all but three of the 1,518 islanders who voted in a referendum endorsed the prospect of the islands keeping their status as a UK overseas territory. Not surprising since they have been continuously living there since 1833.

Argentina has made fantastic progress since the military coup of the 1970's. It has great cities, universities, and great architecture. Why should its president jeopardize the well-being of its economy and good people with this selfish pursuit?

Since the Falkland Islands are located more than 300 miles of Argentina's coast, it makes about as much sense as the United States launching an invasion armada to take Bermuda based upon the fact that it was a British Colony when we gained our independence in 1783 and is only 600 miles off the coast of North Carolina.

Peter Schwab, Parkton

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