The United Kingdom sent two naval vessels to reassert British sovereignty over the Falkland Islands in December 1832, after the United Provinces of the Río de la Plata (part of which later became Argentina) ignored British diplomatic protests over the appointment of Luis Vernet as governor of the Falkland Islands and a dispute over fishing rights.
In 1765, Captain John Byron, unaware of the French presence on East Falkland, explored Saunders Island, on West Falkland, named the harbour Port Egmont, and claimed this and other islands for Britain on the grounds of prior discovery. The next year Captain John MacBride established a British settlement at Port Egmont. The British presence in the west continued, until interrupted by Spain (who had acquired the French colony), during the Falkland Crisis from 10 July 1770 to 22 January 1771. Economic pressures led Britain to unilaterally withdraw from many overseas settlements in 1774.
On 20 May 1776 the British forces under the command of Lieutenant Clayton formally took their leave of Port Egmont, leaving a plaque asserting Britain’s continuing sovereignty over the islands. The Falkland Islands remained an important outpost for whalers and sealers who used the islands to shelter from the worst of the South Atlantic weather. By merit of their location, the Falkland Islands have often been the last refuge for ships damaged at sea. Most numerous among those using the islands were British and American sealers, where typically between 40 and 50 ships were engaged in hunting fur seals.
In 1823, after its war of independence against Spain, the United Provinces granted land on East Falkland to Luis Vernet, who first travelled to the islands the following year. That first expedition failed almost as soon as it landed, and a second attempt, in 1826, sanctioned by the British (but delayed until winter by a Brazilian blockade), also failed after arrival in the islands. In 1828, the United Provinces government granted Vernet all of East Falkland, including all its resources, with exemption from taxation if a colony could be established within three years. He took settlers, some of them British, and before leaving once again sought permission first from the British Consulate in Buenos Aires. After receiving consent, Vernet agreed to provide regular reports to the British consul and expressed the desire for British protection for his settlement should they decide to re-establish their presence in the islands.
On Vernet’s return to the Falklands, Puerto Soledad was renamed Puerto Luis. The United Provinces proclaimed Luis Vernet as governor of the islands in 1829. British diplomatic protests at the appointment and declarations of sovereignty were ignored. The United Provinces also granted Vernet exclusive rights to seal hunting in the islands. This too was disputed by the British and US consulates at Buenos Aires but once again the diplomatic protests were ignored. Vernet continued to provide regular reports to the British consul throughout this period.
In 1831, Luis Vernet seized three US vessels (Breakwater, Superior and Harriet) hunting seals in Falklands waters, confiscating their catch and arresting their crews. Vernet returned to the mainland, bringing senior officers of the US vessels to stand trial for violating restrictions on seal hunting. The US consul protested violently against the seizure of US ships and the USS Lexington sailed to the Falklands. The log of the Lexington reports only the destruction of arms and a powder store, though in his claim against the US government for compensation (rejected by the US government of President Grover Cleveland in 1885) Vernet stated that the settlement was destroyed. The Islands were declared free from all government, the seven senior members of the settlement were arrested for piracy and taken to Montevideo, where they were released without charge on the orders of Commodore Rogers.
This latter incident finally convinced the British Foreign Office to reassert its sovereignty claim over the islands. Throughout much of 1832, the United Provinces did not have a government representative in the islands. The Buenos Aires government commissioned Major Esteban Mestivier as the new governor of the islands, to set up a penal colony, but when he arrived at the settlement on 15 November 1832 his soldiers mutinied and killed him. The mutiny was put down by Lieutenant Colonel José María Pinedo, commander of the United Provinces schooner Sarandí, with aid from a French ship Jean-Jacques, which had arrived by chance, and by some loyal gauchos. Order was restored just before the British arrived.
Arrival of the Squadron
Under the command of Captain John James Onslow, the brig-sloop HMS Clio, previously stationed at Rio de Janeiro, reached Port Egmont on 20 December 1832. It was later joined by HMS Tyne. Their first actions were to repair the fort at Port Egmont and affix a notice of possession.
Onslow arrived at Puerto Louis on 2 January 1833. Pinedo sent an officer to the British ship, where he was presented with the following written request to replace the Argentine flag with the British one, and leave the location.
I have to direct you that I have received directions from His Excellency and Commander-in-Chief of His Britannic Majesty’s ships and vessels of war, South America station, in the name of His Britannic Majesty, to exercise the rights of sovereignty over these Islands.
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.
Pinedo entertained plans for resisting, but finally desisted because of his obvious numerical inferiority and the want of enough nationals among his crew, approximately 80% of his forces were British mercenaries who refused to fight their countrymen. The British forces disembarked on 3 January and switched the flags, delivering the Argentine one to Pinedo, who left on 5 January.
Recognising Vernet’s settlement had British permission, Onslow set about ensuring the continuation of that settlement for the replenishment of passing ships. The gauchos had not been paid since Vernet’s departure and were anxious to return to the mainland. Onslow persuaded them to stay by paying them in silver for provisions and promising that in the absence of Vernet’s authority they could earn their living from the feral cattle on the islands.
The British vessels did not stay long and departed two days later, leaving William Dixon (Vernet’s storekeeper) in charge of the settlement. Dixon was provided with a flagpole and instructed to fly the British flag whenever a vessel was in harbour.
Argentina claims that the population of the islands was expelled in 1833; however, both British and Argentine sources from the time, including the log of the ARA Sarandí, suggest that the colonists were encouraged to remain under Vernet’s deputy, Matthew Brisbane.
Captain Onslow’s report reveals that he obeyed his instructions scrupulously. In fact he went to great lengths to persuade the inhabitants, some of whom were dissatisfied with their life in the islands, to remain. Captain Pinedo of the Sarandí confirmed this in his statement to Port Captain Patricio Linch on his return to Buenos Aires – he said Onslow had told him that:
… those inhabitants who freely wished it should remain and both they and their property would be respected as before…
When the Clio arrived, there were 33 genuine resident civilian settlers. Captain Onslow gave them a free choice of staying or leaving; he applied no pressure on them to leave and indeed encouraged some to stay. Only four of them chose to leave and they are named by the prominent Argentine historians Ernesto J. Fitte and Mario Tesler as:
Acuña and his wife
González and his wife
Acuña and González were gauchos who worked for Vernet. Three single men also left, described as “foreigners”: José Viel, Juan Quedy and Francisco Ferreyra. They cannot have been genuine residents, as not one of them appears in Vernet’s accounts; they probably arrived on the Sarandí, as did Máximo Warnes, who is described as a “prisoner” and was probably the first inmate for a proposed penal settlement in the Falklands. In addition, a British seaman, Charles Brasier, and an American seaman, William Drake, were taken aboard the Clio. Vernet’s American settlement manager, Henry Metcalf, left in the Rapid; he is known to have wanted to leave, and he claimed Vernet owed him money.
Only 11 civilians left, most of whom were not genuine residents. They were not expelled; they made a free choice. Of the civilian residents, 22 remained at Port Louis: 12 from Argentina (8 gauchos, 3 women and 1 child); 4 were Charrúa Indians from Uruguay; 2 were British, 2 German, one French and one from Jamaica. Over half the population who stayed were Argentinian. Before he left, Captain Pinedo told the Frenchman who stayed, the illiterate head gaucho Jean Simon, that he was to be “Comandante Político y Militar.”
Whether Simon agreed to this or not, he certainly never attempted to act as such. But he was loyal to his employer. He defended Vernet’s property against other gauchos who wanted to share it among themselves, and maintained Vernet’s business, which later cost him his life.
HMS Beagle arrived on 15 March 1833. Vernet dispatched his deputy Matthew Brisbane to the islands to take charge of his settlement March 1833. Meeting with Captain Fitzroy of the Beagle, he was encouraged to continue with Vernet’s enterprise provided there was no attempt to further the ambitions of the United Provinces. Like Onslow before him, Fitzroy was forced to use his powers of persuasion to encourage the gauchos to continue working in Vernet’s establishment:
During the month we remained in Berkeley Sound, I had much trouble with the crews of whaling or small sealing vessels, as well as with the settlers, who all seemed to fancy that because the British flag was re-hoisted on the Falklands, they were at liberty to do what they pleased with Mr. Vernet’s private property, as well as with the wild cattle and horses. The gauchos wished to leave the place, and return to the Plata, but as they were the only useful labourers on the islands, in fact, the only people on whom any dependance could be placed for a regular supply of fresh beef, I interested myself as much as possible to induce them to remain, and with partial success, for seven staid out of twelve.
Arriving in the Falklands, Fitzroy expected to find the thriving settlement reported by another British officer. Instead, he found the settlement in a derelict state, which Brisbane blamed upon the Lexington’s raid. Fitzroy questioned several members of the settlement who corroborated Brisbane’s account:
Next morning Brisbane came on board with his papers, and I was quite satisfied with their tenor, and the explanation which he gave me of his business. Some misapprehension having since arisen about his being authorized by Vernet to act in his stead, I may here mention again (though no longer of any material consequence), that Brisbane’s instructions from Vernet authorized him to act as his private agent only, to look after the remains of his private property, and that they had not the slightest reference to civil or military authority. This settled, I went to Port Louis, but was indeed disappointed. Instead of the cheerful little village I once anticipated finding — a few half-ruined stone cottages; some straggling huts built of turf; two or three stove boats; some broken ground where gardens had been, and where a few cabbages or potatoes still grew; some sheep and goats; a few long-legged pigs; some horses and cows; with here and there a miserable-looking human being — were scattered over the fore-ground of a view which had dark clouds, ragged-topped hills, and a wild waste of moorland to fill up the distance.
How is this?” said I, in astonishment, to Mr. Brisbane; “I thought Mr. Vernet’s colony was a thriving and happy settlement. Where are the inhabitants? the place seems deserted as well as ruined.” “Indeed, Sir, it was flourishing,” said he, “but the Lexington ruined it: Captain Duncan’s men did such harm to the houses and gardens. I was myself treated as a pirate—rowed stern foremost on board the Lexington — abused on her quarter-deck most violently by Captain Duncan — treated by him more like a wild beast than a human being — and from that time guarded as a felon, until I was released by order of Commodore Rogers.” “But,” I said, “where are the rest of the settlers? I see but half a dozen, of whom two are old black women; where are the gauchos who kill the cattle?” “Sir, they are all in the country. They have been so much alarmed by what has occurred, and they dread the appearance of a ship of war so much, that they keep out of the way till they know what she is going to do.” I afterwards interrogated an old German, while Brisbane was out of sight, and after him a young native of Buenos Ayres, who both corroborated Brisbane’s account.
On departing from the islands Fitzroy expressed his concern for the settlement with its lack of regular authority in a virtually lawless group of islands.
In August 1833, eight members of the settlement ran amok, killing the five senior members. In part this stemmed from the re-imposition of paying the wages of the gauchos in paper vouchers issued by Vernet.
In 1834 on his second visit Charles Darwin commented that:
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 Voyage of the Beagle.)
Lieutenant Henry Smith was installed as the first British resident in January 1834; he immediately set about establishing British authority, arresting the murderers. The United Kingdom has held the territory ever since but for a two months period after the 1982 invasion, during the Falklands War.
In Buenos Aires, Vernet was effectively bankrupt and attempts to obtain compensation from the US Government for losses from the Lexington raid proved fruitless. The situation in Buenos Aires was chaotic and diplomatic relations with the US remained ruptured till 1839. He made several approaches to the British Government asking for support to re-establish his business at Port Louis, receiving support from Woodbine Parish (British chargé d’affaires in Buenos Aires from 1825 to 1832) as the best qualified person to develop the islands.
Vernet wrote to Lieutenant Smith offering advice, which was gratefully received and acted upon. Smith repeatedly urged Vernet to return to Port Louis but as Vernet became increasingly involved in the territorial dispute with the Government in Buenos Aires all communications ceased and no more accounts were sent. An approach to Lieutenant Lowcay to retrieve his property was rebuffed but later he was requested to remove his property as the Government could not be responsible for it.