Reassertion of British sovereignty over the Falkland Islands (1833)

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In December 1832, two naval vessels were sent by the United Kingdom to re-assert British sovereignty over the Falkland Islands (Spanish: Islas Malvinas), after the United Provinces of the River Plate (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.

Background

In 1765, Captain John Byron explored Saunders Island, which lies 1.5 miles (2.5 km) off the coast of West Falkland. He 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.

Luis Vernet

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.[1] 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.[2]

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.[3] The Islands were declared free from all government, the seven senior members of the settlement were arrested for piracy[4] and taken to Montevideo,[2] where they were released without charge on the orders of Commodore Rogers.[5]

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 Major José María Pinedo, commander of the United Provinces schooner Sarandí. Order was restored just before the British arrived.[2]