“‘My status as a Falkland Islander is my greatest accomplishment,’ my grandfather told me.”
I was on a trip to the Government House in Stanley, on a mission on behalf of Her Majesty’s Diplomatic Service. Penguins riddled the outback, dodging active mines leftover from the war, set by the Argentineans. Twenty-five thousand mines had been left over from the war, and the government begun to remove them only thirty years after the fact. In a perpetually over-warmed Land Rover, I braved winter’s cold. Soon, the R.A.F. base at Mount Pleasant came into sight, and I stopped at an off-road farm for a break. I pulled over, just a few metres short of the door.
- Crashed helicopters, unexploded mines, and sunken ships littered the island’s horizon.
“Hello!,” I said in a course voice affected by the change in climate.
“Good to have you here,” replied the farmer in his Falkland accent.
I paused, looking around his archaic cottage.
For a moment I lacked any words of necessity, so the farmer took the helm of the conversation.
He said he’d be honored to host me, perhaps because he had seen the diplomatic license plate. I had yet to be acquainted with the true will and intentions of the natives, but their loyalty confided in me a sense of trust and belief.
He left me in the foyer as he walked to an expansive window overlooking Choiseul Sound. The farmer pulled a wool cloth over wooden coffee table, and set tea. I was obliged to join, excited for a taste of England in the south. A small garden dotted the outside. The plants were dead from frostbite.
He escorted me to the window-side table, where I sat down and enjoyed views of the arctic ocean below.
We took a sip of tea, then he spoke. “In nineteen eighty-six, following the Chernobyl incident, all of the world’s reindeer herds were infected by the nuclear radiation. The only exception was the desolate island to our south— the South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands.”
Eating reindeer meat, to me, was a new concept, but one of which to be cautious. My mission, on behalf of the government, was to prepare for an upcoming war between Britain and the Argentines. Knowing how to preserve a Falkland delicacy was crucial.
He went on to explain that his great-great grandfather was one of the original settlers in the Islands, and had arrived before any nation held claims or knowledge of the land. Unlike most of the explorers, he decided to stay.
“He proudly believed in the land,” he told me. “Upon returning to England, he convinced some shipmates to bring their families and settle.” Surviving the collapse of the British Empire in other parts of the war, his ancestor’s original land maintained itself. One hundred seventy years later, his descendants still live on his family’s originally settled land.
In the military conflict against Argentina in 1982, he directed his employees to serve the members of the R.A.F. base with farm produce. The British, he thought, would better serve and protect them.
“What incentive would the Argentineans have to facilitate aid and defence?”
I paused again, left without an answer.
“The invasion did us a favor. Before, not many people in the U.K. knew who we were. We felt that Thatcher was about to hand us over to Argentina before they put the last straw on her back. They sent people like you to prepare us for an Argentine handover.”
I was unaware of such history, and now confident that he knew my career track. I thanked him for his hospitality and left a cheque to compensate for the food. Signed: In Her Majesty’s Absence
NOTES FROM RAF MOUNT PLEASANT—
I woke up the next morning with the intimate feeling that something was awry. At breakfast hour, I was reminded that the spirit of Britain that I had departed followed me down south— English pastries and breakfast tea awaited me. The air was moving briskly as uniformed men quickly moved about the lounge. “Is breakfast always like this?” I asked myself. I walked downstairs to the adequately chilled Atlantic zephyr. I noticed then that an attraction had arrived on base. This time, Britain’s second inside in to the throne, Prince William, joined the crew. The enlisted servicemen quietly tried to catch a glimpse of their future King. I backed away, trying to not become too much of a disturbance. For now, he was just another pilot.
As the dust settled, the Royal Navy personnel prepared mess hall for dinner. I picked up a tray, replaced the dust with a warm meal and retreated to my room. I arrived to an invitation to meet with a Navy Captain at the base the next morning for an orientation.
familiarize yourself with the base and discuss the future of the Falklands
07:30 AM ROOM 657
Air Commodore, Royal Air Force
The BBC radio woke me up to calls for further safeguarding of the Falklands. The HMS Dauntless, a commenter said, “would be pressed to arrive too soon.” When I tore into a layer of ennui the night before and watched Newsnight, a young foreign minister vividly express well-founded fears that the pressure on the Argentinean government corresponds with the amount of oil discovered. A new twist to an already disoriented story, I though.
I snapped out of my meditations in thought and switched into clothing from Savile Row. Before my posting, the Foreign Office had given me a generous allowance from clothing. My hope was to not be too overdressed.
Treading like awkwardly in my suit, like a limousine passing amongst taxi cabs, I ran through the narrow corridors of the Mt. Pleasant base. The “Death Star Corridor,” as base personnel dubbed the hallway was the longest in the world: a kilometer of modern catacombs connecting the heart and head of the base.
Soon, I arrived at the door mentioned on my invitation. The office listed was an agreeable change from other room; a chandelier hung from the ceiling, an bold desk framed the back of the room, and a few low-ranking servicemen traversed the sitting area, preparing it for a light breakfast. About a four traditional wooden chairs formed around the desk, none of them yet occupied.
I looked up to the desk and saw an older man working through paperwork. His lapel decorated with various medals, his hairline receding, and amongst the noise in the room his mind closely focused on the present task. I stood back a respectable distance and then introduced myself when he leased his attention. Commodore Simmons, the man whose name was letter-pressed onto my invite. An Eton educated man, in his youth Commodore Simmons studied at Sandhurst and then joined the Air Force. Later, at Oxford his passion for languages landed between us knowledge of French and Arabic. His job, he said, was to monitor the Argentinean military’s approach on the islands.
I stepped back for a moment and let the Commodore tend his business. Soon, a pronounced knock on the door gave way to a new face. This time, a young man with a bald spot on his head. His aging face indicated a higher rank. His shoulder patch showed he was a Sea King pilot. In a few moments, I recognized him as the Prince William, the new pilot who eluded others.
When the commodore and the prince engaged in a quick tête-à-tête, I step back for their privacy. They unbuttoned their uniforms and sat down, as I joined them. The commodore began to introduce us to the base and its history. The prince’s uncle, Andrew, had opened the base in 1984, two years after the Argentine invasion. The idea was to provide a strong foundation for operations of the islanders’ defences. Prior to Mount Pleasant’s opening, Simmons explained, the Royal Air Force based its operations out of the rigid, torn up municipal airport in Stanley.
Soon, the commodore arrived at a tangent on the role of Britain in protecting its colonies. He told us a story of Britain’s failure to protect Cyprus, and how it ultimately cost the U.K. a strategic operating base and historically significant colony in the Mediterranean. The prince drew from his father’s experiences in the handover of Hong Kong. While failing to be particularly insightful William Wales extended his frustrations on the matter. I found it odd that two outsiders to the base had been assembled with a high-rank official. Maybe, I thought, the officer wanted this intimate discussion on the colonies, or a favor when his subordinate became his king.
THE GOVERNMENT HOUSE—
I am persuaded that the most important thing that happened in Britain was that this nation chose to win or lose this war under the established rules of parliamentary procedure.It feared Nazism, but did not chose to imitate it. The government was given dictatorial power, but it was used with restraint. The House of Commons was ever vigilant. Do you remember that while London was being bombed in the daylight, the House devoted two days to discussing conditions under which enemy aliens were to be detained in the Isle of Man? Though Britain fell, there were to be no concentration camps here. Do you remember that two days after Italy declared war, an Italian citizen convicted of murder in the lower courts appealed successfully to the highest court in the land and the original verdict was set aside? There was still law in the land, regardless of race, nationality or hatred. Representative government, equality before the law survived. Future generations will bother to read the official record of proceedings in the House of Commons will discover that British armies retreated from many places. But there was no retreat for principles for which your ancestors fought. The record is massive evidence of the flexibility and toughness of the principles you profess. It will, I think, inspire and lift men’s hearts, long after the names of most of the great sea and land engagements have been forgotten. — Edward R. Murrow, 26 Feb. 1946.
In the hours after the 1982 attacks on the archipelago, Edward R. Murrow’s description of Britain’s response during the Second World War captured the essence of the Falklands. From the dispatch box of the House of Commons, Prime Minister Thatcher reassured her nation of Britain’s commitment in winning the war. The islanders were keen to follow the advice of their governor and stayed indoors. Despite almost one thousand deaths throughout the war, only two civilians were killed. The calmness in the land allowed the governor to escape to Uruguay for communication with No. 10 and the Foreign Office. The months and years after the incident lead to restoration of Britain’s relationship with Argentina under the ‘umbrella policy’, and of course, the construction of RAF Mount Pleasant.
Stanley, the islands’ capital, the world’s southernmost city (in terms of having a cathedral), and most populous settlement on the islands has a population of two thousand people. Thirty-four times larger than the next largest ethnic group, British denizens and native islanders constitute of ninety per cent of the population. When I walked across the frosted trail to the Government House, I felt the tremendous English history engrained on the grounds. Here, Sir Ernest Shackleton stayed during his journey to the Antarctic. Here, in the immediate aftermath of the invasion, the Royal Marines protected the house from Argentines while inflicting casualties, but taking none on their side.
For the next several weeks, my role as on Her Majesty’s Diplomatic Service continued as I was posted to work and sleep in the Government House. When I walked into the building for the first time, the lady at the reception desk was quick to greet me. Today, she told me, the Falklands government collects payments from private fishing vessels abusing the South Atlantic waters. College in England, she proudly explains, is free for all secondary students who complete their A-levels.
“A common misconception in the U.K. is that our government is a drain to the British taxpayers. Our independent surplus last year was nineteen million pounds. I think we’re doing better than most countries right now.”
In the past, fishing revenues lead to oil exploration. Now, oil analysts estimate that the reserves surrounding the islands could deliver three billion nine hundred million USD in taxes and royalties in the years ahead.
“The Argentine invasion is the greatest thing that has happened to us since the islands’ settlement. In our transformation from a sluggish economy, once more, the world discovered who we are.”