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Behind a Quilt of Mist

Civilization and barbarism in the South Atlantic.

By From the June 2013 issue

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On a mid-November day in 1840, the Argentine intellectual Domingo Faustino Sarmiento found himself in the Zonda Valley, on the eastern slope of the Andes Mountains, amidst the evergreen scrub and dusty, snow-eating wind of that desolate land. Still smarting from the blows he had received the day before from a band of mazorqueros, the dreaded secret police of the dictatorial caudillo Juan Manuel de Rosas, Sarmiento was only a border-crossing away from official exile in Chile. There was enough time, however, to let loose an ideological Parthian shot. Sarmiento’s eyes alighted on a suitable target, a mural of Argentina’s coat of arms, with its peculiar depiction of clasped hands raising a pike topped by a Phrygian cap. Taking a piece of charcoal, he scratched out a line of now-famous oracular graffito, a bold caption for the symbol of a nation. Some days later, government agents would find Sarmiento’s pitch-black scribbling in a language they did not understand: “On ne tue point les idées.” 

The liberal statesman’s defiant message to his pursuers—that ideas, unlike idealists, cannot be killed—was one Sarmiento thought he had borrowed from the French historian Hippolyte Fortoul. Without access to Le Roux’s Livre des proverbes or a good search engine, he did not realize that his hieroglyph was a pithy misquotation of Denis Diderot’s maxim “On ne tue pas de coups de fusils aux idées.” But the meaning was clear enough. As Ilan Stavans later observed: 

Even in exile, Sarmiento, like his fellow Argentine émigrés, is at the mercy of Rosas’ forces, but he carries with himself his most enviable weapon: human reason. His corrupt enemy may have weapons more dangerous and deadly, but his is unconquerable; he may get killed, but his dream for the liberation of his homeland, for the establishment of democracy, will never perish.

It is little wonder that this succinct taunt has lived on in the Argentine popular imagination, committed, as it has been, to memory by generations of schoolchildren.

Sarmiento could hardly have selected a better site for his charcoal message. There, deep in the hinterlands, was a painting of the Argentine crest, designed in 1813 by the Constituent General Assembly in the aftermath of the failed British invasion of the Río de la Plata and the subsequent May Revolution against the Spaniards. It was the embodiment of Sarmiento’s New World vision, its joined hands representing the indivisible provinces, its pike the necessary instrument of popular revolution, its Phrygian cap the French-inspired goal of liberté, égalité, fraternité, and its Sun of May, breaking through the clouds, a touching portent of a better tomorrow. Its triumphant laurel leaves were perhaps added prematurely, as much in hope as in expectation, but the potent symbolism of the young nation’s seal was part and parcel of Sarmiento’s grand vision for Argentina. 

Some might scoff at his country’s prospects, as did Sir Walter Scott, perhaps bitter at England’s defeat in the La Plata Basin, who dismissed the “Christian savages known as Guachos”—he meant the gauchos—“whose furniture is chiefly composed of horses’ skulls, whose food is raw beef and water, and whose favorite pastime is running horses to death. Unfortunately, they prefer their national independence to our cottons and muslins.” Even Sarmiento acknowledged that two centuries might not suffice to raise all of Argentina to a state of heightened civilization, but he patriotically responded to Scott’s barb: “It would be well to ask England to say at a venture how many yards of linen and pieces of muslin she would give to own these plains of Buenos Aires!” For Sarmiento, the imperishable notions of Argentine independence, territorial integrity, and socioeconomic development were not for sale, and could survive threats both domestic and foreign. 

Over time, as liberals, radicals, and juntas came and went, a related but more specific idée fixe would come to prominence: a longing for dominion over the South Atlantic archipelago variously called the Îles Malouines, the Islas Malvinas, and, in the English tongue, the Falkland Islands. These revanchist tendencies, tenaciously held by generation after generation and pursued by Argentine government after government, have given rise to decades of diplomatic wrangling, not to mention a vicious 1982 conflict between Argentina and the United Kingdom. Recent months have seen the issue return to the forefront of international affairs. Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner used the 31st anniversary of the Falklands War to commemorate the “global fight against colonialism.” The newly elected Pope Francis’ year-old allegation of British “usurpation” made headlines anew. And in March, Falklanders voted to remain a British overseas territory—by a margin of 1,513 to 3, no less. The passing of Margaret Thatcher brought further reflection. 

From its origins in the 18th century up to the present day, the idea of Argentine sovereignty over the Falklands has yet to be killed off. Indeed it serves as something of a counterfactual for Søren Kierkegaard’s suggestion that “Idées fixes are like cramp in the foot—the best cure is to stamp on it.” Bound up as the affair is in Argentina’s very identity, the advancement of a policy of reclamation is nonetheless typically dismissed in the Anglo-Saxon world as misdirection, and revanchist rhetoric is cast as a “pathetic rant that will only further lower the standing of her government in the eyes of the world,” as the British journalist Nile Gardiner recently put it. A British patriot can hardly be criticized for placing the issue in such a light. But the ongoing, seemingly perdurable Falklands embroilment is a matter of considerable consequence in the realms of international politics and law, and is worthy of attention and understanding. Empathy, if not necessarily sympathy, can help to provide a sense of what has passed and what is to come for the lonely Falklands.

THE ISLANDS HAVE, from time immemorial, been assessed in both geostrategic and symbolic terms, their rocky outcroppings quite literally a blank sedimentary slate upon which imperial ambitions could be written. When Captain John McBride of the HMS Jason was dispatched to the South Atlantic in January of 1766, he brought with him a prefabricated fortress, a coterie of settlers bound for Port Egmont, and a broader goal of vitiating the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, which had apportioned Latin America to the Spanish and Portuguese. A foothold in this tempest-tossed region, coupled with simultaneous territorial gains in the Pacific, would allow the British fleet to wind its serpentine coil around the profitable South American colonies. What Captain McBride had not counted on, however, was that the Falklands were not quite the terra nullius they had been assured awaited them. The French, led by the explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville, had already set up shop two years earlier at the head of Berkeley Sound, much to the British Admiralty’s chagrin. In due course, Bougainville would cede the islands to Spain, in a spirit of amity engendered by the Franco-Spanish Bourbon Pacto de Familia

Yet Port Egmont had been established all the same, and the Spanish knew from their experience in Gibraltar that a nemesis such as Britain could be devilishly difficult to uproot. By 1770, strategists inside the Admiralty House were preparing for war. Meanwhile, Horace Walpole chortled over a state of affairs in which:

England that lives in the north of Europe, and Spain that dwells in the South, are vehemently angry with one another about a morsel of rock that lies somewhere at the very bottom of America—for modern nations are too neighbourly to quarrel about anything that lies so near them as in the same quarter of the globe…By next century, I suppose, we shall fight for the Dog Star and the Great Bear.

Raillery aside, the Spanish governor in Buenos Aires, Francisco de Paula Bucareli y Ursua, had five frigates and a host of marines with which to invade, and the British fleet was in no position to prevent the eviction of the Port Egmont garrison. Eager to avoid a wider war, the Spanish restored the port—and only the port, crucially—to British control, with the rest of the archipelago implicitly acknowledged by all parties to be Bourbon territory. The costly Port Egmont garrison was reduced, and its warship guard replaced by a humble shallop. Madrid and Buenos Aires received word of the gradual abandonment with satisfaction, and had cause to revel in rumors of a secret Anglo-French agreement on colonial abnegation. The troubled diplomatic waters had been stilled, but Samuel Johnson shrewdly warned of the ramifications of the 1770 crisis: 

The Spaniards, by yielding Falkland’s Island, have admitted a precedent of what they think encroachment; have suffered a breach to be made in the outworks of their empire; and notwithstanding the reserve of prior right, have suffered a dangerous exception to the prescriptive tenure of their American territories. 

The exigencies of the American and French revolutions, the Napoleonic wars, and the Latin American wars of independence would sidetrack the issue for the next half century, though Britain remained interested in South America. Having long coveted Buenos Aires and Montevideo, the Admiralty took advantage of its post-Trafalgar strategic dominance by lashing out at the Spanish colonies. The viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata, left to its own devices by the debilitated kingdom of Spain, was obliged to hold back the 1806 and 1807 British invasions on its own. The formation of Argentine local militias, including the elite Regiment of Patricians, would yield the May Revolution and the forging of national independence. The movement was led by a generation whose baptism of fire had been provided by British artillery. 

While Argentina writhed in the grip of revolution, title to the Falkland Islands would lapse, be taken up, and be dropped again, all in rapid succession. By 1810, the Spanish had left the archipelago, and six years later the United Provinces Government in Buenos Aires declared its sovereignty, though it did not formally take possession of the islands until 1820. It was not until 1829 that the Argentine government appointed Luis Vernet, a Hamburg-born Huguenot merchant, the military and civil commander of Puerto Luis. The British Buenos Aires consulate’s protests against these developments went unheeded. Curiously enough, it was Vernet’s attempt at enforcing his state monopoly on seal hunting that led to wrack and ruin. An 1831 seizure of the American sealing ships Breakwater, Harriet, and Superior resulted in a devastating retaliatory raid by the sloop-of-war USS Lexington, and in early January 1833, in the chaotic aftermath, a British task force led by Captain John James Onslow arrived offshore. “It is my intention to hoist to-morrow the national flag of Great Britain on shore when I request you will be pleased to haul down your flag on shore and withdraw your force, taking all stores belonging to your Government,” Captain Onslow tersely informed José María Pinedo, the Argentine governor of the smoldering colony. Of the 33 civilians residing on the islands, 11 opted to leave. 

Arriving a year after the British land-grab, the naturalist Charles Darwin summarized the events to date rather well:

After the possession of these miserable islands had been contested by France, Spain, and England, they were left uninhabited. The government of Buenos Aires then sold them to a private individual, but likewise used them, as old Spain had done before, for a penal settlement. England claimed her right and seized them. The Englishman who was left in charge of the flag was consequently murdered. A British officer was next sent, unsupported by any power: and when we arrived, we found him in charge of a population, of which rather more than half were runaway rebels and murderers.


The controversy over those “miserable islands” had actually only just begun. In the years after Argentine independence, it became fashionable to bemoan the three British invasions of the Río de la Plata, the first two conducted by force of arms, the third by the pound sterling. It did not take long for European interests, mainly British, to take control of the lion’s share of Buenos Aires warehouses and mercantile establishments. The occupation of the Falklands constituted an even more concrete, more viscerally experienced invasion of what had theretofore been perceived as Argentine territory. American and French diplomatic protests concerning the British gambit had come to naught, and Argentina was once again on its own. Grievances were voiced, and resentment festered.

Year after year, from 1833 to 1849, the Argentine congress issued a slew of formal protests, as expected, to no effect. Though a 35-year gap in complaints followed, in part due to internal instability, the Falklands had been permanently lodged in the tissue of the Argentine body politic. José Hernández, author of the epic gauchesque poem Martín Fierro, turned to the matter in 1869, when he stressed the importance of “ensuring the integrity of the territory and the interests of Argentina,” adding that “the usurpation of a single inch of our land threatens our future existence, just as if a piece of flesh were torn from us.” 

A waxing British Empire had little reason to take up repeated Argentine offers of international arbitration, but Buenos Aires continued to seek succor in the welcoming bosom of international law. Argentine jurists strenuously maintained that there were only four paths to sovereignty, none of which the British had taken in 1833 or at any other time. The occupation of terra nullius, or previously unsettled territory, could not be invoked, nor could the principle of accretion, whereby the forces of nature alter geography in a nation’s favor. No evidence of Argentine cession of the Falklands, within the four corners of any treaty, were to be found. A claim based on prescription—whereby possession, control, and acquiescence produce a change in title—could likewise be disproved by the endless squawking on the part of the Argentine Ministry of Foreign Affairs. On the other hand, the international legal principle of uti possidetis (“as you possess”), which gave newborn Latin American states jurisdiction over former Spanish holdings, presumably militated in favor of Argentine sovereignty.

SURPRISINGLY, the persistent legal and diplomatic campaign started to wear Britain down. A 1910 British Foreign Office document, the 17,000-word-long Gaston de Bernhardt Memorandum, seriously undermined British confidence in their title to the archipelago. Earlier that year, the head of the Foreign Office’s American department, Gerald Spicer, had held that British sovereignty “cannot be seriously contested,” but five days after the report was issued he found it “difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Argentine Government’s attitude is not altogether unjustified.” Seventeen years later, the British ambassador in Argentina, Sir Malcolm Robertson, finally got around to reading the Bernhardt Memorandum. “I must confess that, until I received that memorandum myself a few weeks ago, I had no idea of the strength of the Argentine case nor of the weakness of ours,” the ambassador conceded.

All the while, politicians, public intellectuals, and organizations like the Junta de Recuperación de las Malvinas (Malvinas Recovery Commission) were hard at work fomenting revanchism. On the eve of the Second World War, the nationalist poet Carlos Obligado produced the “Marcha de las Malvinas,” a poem, later set to music, that waxed lyrical over the “lost southern pearl” and promised that: 

Behind their quilt of mist
We will not forget them!
The Argentine Malvinas!
Wailing in the wind and roar of the sea.

More than a century after the British takeover, the issue had evidently lost none of its staying power. 

In September 1946, in the midst of postwar exhaustion, the Foreign Office returned to the Falklands issue, examining the various bases of sovereignty. “The evidence substantiating British priority of discovery is not only insufficient, but irrelevant,” the report acknowledged, while the case for priority occupation was described as “untenable.” The secret 1770 understanding regarding abandonment, if real, would “demolish the British case,” while the invasion of 1833 was called “an act of unjustifiable aggression.” 

Whitehall could sense the tide turning. The principle of decolonization had taken hold in Turtle Bay, as evidenced by the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 1514 of 1960, which stated that “any attempt aimed at the partial or total disruption of the national unity and the territorial integrity of a country is incompatible with the purposes and the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.” Such language may not have been written with only the Falklands in mind, but the overall zeitgeist was cause for real concern in London halls of power.

In late 1966, the British began negotiations with the Argentine government of Juan Carlos Onganía, who had recently orchestrated a military coup d’état. The British representatives had hit upon a new, far more fashionable legal argument, the one to which they continue to cling: self-determination. According to the 1983 Franks Report, George Brown, the secretary of state for foreign affairs, was under the impression that the military junta could easily seize the Falklands, and was therefore prepared to offer “a sovereignty freeze for a minimum of 30 years,” after which “the Islanders would be free to choose between British and Argentine rule.” Argentina’s foreign minister, Nicanor Costa Méndez, would have none of it. Over the course of the coming decade, Britain would explore the options of a sale-and-leaseback arrangement, or some type of joint sovereignty. Cooperation with the mainland was seen as a selling point. “Rape of the Falklands, no; seduction, by all means,” as one British diplomat put it. Few islanders were convinced, particularly at a time when the bureaucratic-authoritarian Argentine government was eviscerating its own civil society. (“On a per capita basis, for every person who disappeared or died in official custody in Brazil, 10 died in Uruguay, and over 300 died in Argentina,” according to Columbia professor Alfred Stepan.) State-sponsored terror was the order of the day, making the motto “Las Malvinas son Argentinas” not at all enticing to the island-dwellers. Negotiations inevitably broke down.

At the time, the 1982 war was described in Time as a “coup de théâtre designed to line up Argentine public opinion behind a faltering government,” and similarly in Newsweek as “a pretext to divert attention from 13 percent unemployment, 120 percent inflation, and growing civil unrest.” And yet, as John Arquilla and Maria Moyano Rasmussen have noted, “The popular support given the junta after the invasion went far beyond what anybody could have expected or anticipated,” with Labor leader Saúl Ubaldini, who had recently been imprisoned, offering “to head the union delegation travelling to the islands for the inaugural of the new military governor.” Even Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, a re-appeared desaparecido and the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize winner, as well as the human rights organization Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, all “went in for flag-waving.” Ultimately, decades of acquiescent British negotiators and the relative soundness of the case at law had combined to convince the Argentine people that the return of the Islas Malvinas was a fait accompli. As the fleet prepared to sail from the Puerto Belgrano naval base, Vice Admiral Juan Lombardo addressed his sailors with assurance: “I hope that while you are at sea, we will have reached an agreement because that is the only solution, let us not kid ourselves…at this point we theoretically have everything. We have sovereignty and we have the government.” 

“Theoretically” indeed, for Margaret Thatcher had other ideas. In a BBC appearance on April 26, 1982, the prime minister declared: “The Falklanders’ loyalty to Britain is fantastic. If they wish to stay British we must stand by them. Democratic nations believe in the right of self-determination…The people who live there are of British stock. They have been for generations, and their wishes are the most important thing of all.” Thatcher’s Britain, as the columnist Peter Hitchens recently put it, still maintained some vestiges of its ancestral status of “disciplined Protestant superpower,” as opposed to the “multicultural secular Babylon” of the present day, and the Falklands War was prosecuted as such. While some Tory MPs fretted, in the end the Argentine forces were unceremoniously hurled back to Patagonia. At a victory parade in London, Thatcher proclaimed that the “secret fears” of British decline had been dispelled. It was a line of reasoning Piers Brendon later thought “boded ill,” for in it “illusion outlived reality and the past governed the present,” but few could deny that the resounding victory provided solace at a time of imperial decay.

Humiliated in battle and isolated internationally, Argentina returned to its age-old diplomatic campaign. But President Carlos Menem admitted: “How can I not mention my dream of sovereignty over the Malvinas? We pursue this dream on peaceful terms in the diplomatic field, which is just another way of waging war.” Writing in the shadow of the conflict, Jean Houbert opined: “Argentina has lost a battle in the Falklands, it has not lost the war for the islands…Distance and time are on the side of Argentina.” 

And so the ingrained idée fixe persists. To this day, road signs with the “Las Malvinas son Argentinas” slogan dot the countryside, President Kirchner routinely denounces the Falklanders as “a bunch of squatters,” and politicians like Buenos Aires senator Daniel Filmus deride the recent Falklands sovereignty referendum as a “publicity stunt.” The Anglo-Saxon mind may reel at the extent to which Falklands revanchism is de rigueur in Argentine circles, but the warning signs that a war like that of 1982 would not put the matter to rest were evident throughout the last several centuries.

On April 30, 2012, at a Lancaster House ceremony in London, the Argentine ambassador to the United Kingdom, Alicia Castro, took the opportunity of a question-and-answer segment with British foreign secretary William Hague to unleash a Falkland-related bit of histrionics, demanding a dialogue and asking him to “give peace a chance.” A visibly flustered Hague managed to sputter, “Thank you, that’s enough, stop,” before gathering his wits and holding to the well-established line that “self-determination is a basic political right of the people of the Falkland Islands.” The foreign minister’s initial response, indicating as it did a certain weary incomprehension that this age-old issue will not just recede into the South Atlantic Ocean, was a telling one. 

Equally telling was a 2011 assessment by British admiral Sir John Woodward, a commander during the 1982 conflict, who wrote to the Telegraph:

The islands are already being called the Malvinas by the United States. This tells us which way the wind is blowing. As in 1982, the State Department is pro-Argentina, but this time I suspect that we can no longer rely on the Pentagon to support us in helping the islanders in their wish to remain essentially British sovereign territory.

With our land and air forces already over-committed in Afghanistan and Libya, with the defence budget still shrinking, our submarine force more than halved, our destroyer and frigate force halved, our carrier force more than halved in terms of deck availability and completely discarded in terms of fixed-wing assets– the answer appears to be that we can do precisely nothing other than accede to U.S. pressure.

A Ministry of Defense spokesperson responded that “Claims that the Falkland Islands could be taken without a fight are completely without substance”—though that was not precisely what Woodward was suggesting. Yet pervasive economic dysfunction and resultant military degradation are at work in Argentina. It would appear that neither party is in a position to seize or defend the islands. This ensures the repose of the South Atlantic theater, but the powerful symbolism of the Falklands, as well as the 60 billion barrels of oil thought to be secreted in the region’s basin, will keep the issue alive for years to come.

It was in a provocative November 28, 1842, article, “Navigation and Colonization in the Strait of Magellan,” that Domingo Sarmiento presented something of a counter-intuitive argument in favor of British control. “Let us be frank,” he wrote, “their invasion is useful to civilization and progress.” Argentina would have to earn the right to the Islas Malvinas. This argument was grounded in his personal disappointment with the pace of Argentine progress, as well as in colonial-era mentalities. Britain once held itself out as a harbinger of civilization, with its considerable might making its own kind of right. In a more confident time, a figure like the Duke of Wellington could acknowledge, as he did in 1829, that “it is not at all clear to me that we have ever possessed the sovereignty of these islands,” only for the succeeding Earl Grey administration to gobble them up four years later just the same. A South Atlantic depot might come in handy, after all.

That was then. Now, in a different and less promising era of decadence and decline, Britain is left making the international legal arguments of self-determination it once rejected as an imperial power, while hoping that the long war that the Argentines have waged for 180 years, on paper and on the high seas, will eventually snuff itself out. It cannot and it will not. The Argentines have proven content to play the long game, secure in the knowledge that one cannot kill an idea as compelling, and as useful, as that of the Islas Malvinas. What is less clear is how long Britain will have the capacity to maintain its long-standing supremacy over that craggy archipelago 8,000 miles from its shores. There was a day when the questions arising from this predicament could have been readily answered. By all appearances, that day is dropping into eventide, though to British eyes the Falklands Islands are still visible in the midst of their Atlantic quilt of mist. And to the rest of the world’s occasional bewilderment, that “too famous” archipelago figures to remain, in symbolic and strategic terms, a coveted southern pearl, an early indicator of Britain’s geopolitical decline or resurgence, and a haunting manifestation of very real Argentine hopes and fears, misdirected or otherwise. 

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About the Author

Matthew Omolesky specialized in European affairs at the Whitehead School of Diplomacy's graduate program, and received his juris doctor from The Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law. Formerly a researcher-in-residence at the Institut za Civilizacijo in Kulturo (Ljubljana), he is presently a researcher for the Laboratoire Europeen d'Anticipation Politique (Paris) and a specialist in international human rights law.