By Michael Luongo
About 8,000 miles from London, a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II stares from the wall of the Falkland Islands Legislative Assembly.
Yet there’s a growing question about how long the Union Jack will fly as oil exploration stirs up visions of wealth and independence among a shifting population. The pervasive British presence in the Falkland Islands, an archipelago off the southern tip of Argentina, reflects a history of British rule since 1833, bolstered by a surge in patriotism and a homestead movement after the failed 1982 Argentine invasion. About 90 percent of the 2,500 inhabitants claim birth in Britain or descent from Britons.
Legislative Assemblywoman Jan Cheek, whose family goes back to 1842 on the islands, said her grandmother never left the Falklands and “she still called the UK home”. Cheek sees a new identity forming, however. “I think we’ve reached the stage now where I’m definitely a Falkland Islander first and British second,” she said. I came to the Falklands mostly for its famous wildlife, spread across two main islands, East and West Falkland, and 778 smaller islands in an area roughly the size of Connecticut. Still, I found the reasons why people moved here just as fascinating—and increasingly in recent years those people aren’t Britons.
Pauline Hayward, owner of the Woodbine Cafe, came from Yorkshire in 1983 because she saw a need she could fill: “I was reading in the newspaper one day and they were just saying how they haven’t got a fish-and-chips shop in the Falklands. So I came. I’m just adventurous, I guess.” The cafe was a simple place, with a strong smell of fish and grease. There were just a few chairs and tables, a backward clock on the wall that kept confusing me, and a long line of customers who kept breaking into my chat with Hayward.
At night, loud young men and women spill from Globe Tavern. Around the corner, the Victory Bar flies St. George flags. Opened in 1946, it has been owned since 1984 by native Ally Jacobson and his wife, Cathy, originally from Southampton. She lifted a pint, proclaiming Victory “the most British pub in the Falkland Islands”.
Still, oil worker Pete Taylor of Aberdeen, Scotland, sees the capital city of Stanley “changing and expanding”. I met Taylor, who works on an exploratory offshore oil rig, at the Malvina House Hotel, which recently doubled in size largely to accommodate oil workers. Chef Matt Clarke of Surrey oversees the kitchen and proclaims, “I am the only English person in the hotel.” His wife, Canadian Jasper Gottschalk, manages the restaurant, a space adorned with Victorian cast-iron columns and an enormous window overlooking the harbor. Almost her entire staff is Chilean.
There are more Chileans at the Falklands Brasserie, owned by Santiago native Alex Olmedo. He arrived in 1990, when “there were only 10 Chileans.” Now, almost 250 Chileans live here, accounting for 10 percent of the population and making Spanish the second language.
New Zealander Paul Trowell, general manager of the Falkland Islands Tourist Board, said that with the islands so close to South America, Chileans are “a really good fit for here. It brings cultural diversity to the country”. Yet Trowell feels the biggest change goes beyond demographics. Tourism to the Falklands is rising, but hotel and apartment rental expansion is really about oil, increasing the cost of and strain on accommodation. “That’s what happens when oil is the new force in the town,” he said.
The Falkland Islands economy is almost self-sufficient thanks to commercial fishing-license fees. The revenue makes up the major part of the annual 45.5 million pound budget. One bill that isn’t covered locally is security, seen partly in the 1,400 soldiers stationed on the Falklands military base of Mount Pleasant. The motherland pays, but that could change with major oil discoveries.
Rendell, a Falklands native, said: “We’ve been paying our own way. We’ve been doing that since the fishery was declared back in 1987, so we’ve got control of our economy and how we develop it. We’re not beholden to Britain.” Conscious of the sovereign in her own office smiling down on her, Rendell added, “We’re very patriotic toward the Queen.” But what the 85-year-old monarch represented is changing. “People are very proud to be Falkland Islanders,” Rendell said, “If you ask a Falkland Islander who are you, they will say a Falkland Islander first and British second.”
With oil-exploration maps lying on a table between us, a look of determination came into Rendell’s face as she said: “If we could also pay for defense, that would be, you know, fantastic. That would also be a real bonus.” That brought up an awkward question: If oil paid for defense, could the Falklands stop relying on Britain altogether?
“It’s certainly the direction we intend going,” Rendell said. “Oil revenue would help us to do that, to buy our independence.”
June 28th (Worth repeating – Lord Ton)