As soon as you set foot in Ushuaia at the southernmost tip of Argentina (known as El Fin del Mundo), you are immediately aware that feelings about the Falklands still run very high. For a start, the airport is called “Aeropuerto Internacional de Ushuaia Malvinas Argentinas” (literally Ushuaia – Argentine Malvinas International Airport), Las Malvinas being the Argentinian name for the Falklands. Even while waiting for our luggage, I saw the first of what would be many signs declaring that the Falkland Islands are Argentinian. For example in the centre of town down by the coast is a huge banner declaring “Las Malvinas son y seran Argentinas” (The Malvinas are and will be Argentinas) and inside the port, we saw an official rather stern sign declaring that the islands have been under “the illegal occupation of the United Kingdom … since 1833“. Apparently even on utility bills or government notices there are banners repeating this assertion although we didn’t see any of these first hand. It does seem to be a big deal though here in Ushuaia, the self-proclaimed capital of the Falkland Islands.
I can’t now remember if my own knowledge of and interest in the Falkland Islands was sparked by the news coverage of the war in 1982 itself or from subsequently reading about Adrian Mole’s obsession with the Falklands War in the Sue Townsend books that I so enjoyed reading as a child. Either way and especially given it is home to several species of penguins, it was somewhere I had always wanted to visit and had placed it firmly on “The List” for this trip (despite the impracticalities of actually getting there and/or getting around when you arrive and all the corresponding costs). So when our last minute Antarctic cruise deal came up for the belts and braces package including the Falklands, Christmas really had come.
We had 3 “landings” in the Falklands when you transfer from the ship in groups of 10 in inflatable zodiac boats and spend time on shore. In the Falklands, all 199 passengers could be on shore at the same time but in both South Georgia and Antarctica, numbers are restricted to 100 people per landing while the other 100 would go zodiac cruising, everything being weather and sea swells permitting at all times of course.
Our first landing was at West Point Island owned by a Falklands Island couple. And of course within minutes of meeting fellow Brits, to what does the conversation turn? Perhaps somewhat unbelievably given our geographical position, to Brexit of course (!) with the farmer expressing his disappointment that the 3000 or so Falkland Islanders (unlike Gibraltans who have the same status as residents of a UK Overseas Territory) did not have a vote. To be fair whether the Falkland Islanders had been eligible to vote or not was not something I had ever previously considered. He felt that if they had been able to vote, Falkland Islanders would have shored up the remain vote. But maybe that is just in their psyche having voted overwhelmingly (99.8% (3 leave votes) with a 92% turnout) to remain with the UK in their own far more relevant referendum in 2013. Now that is what I call a decisive referendum result.
The Falklands felt very British indeed complete with its red phone boxes and another passenger even reported having seen a Waitrose delivery van too! Wow: home from home. Although they have their own bank notes and coins, they are 1:1 in value with UK currency which is also legal tender there (albeit the reverse is not the case). On our second day in the Islands, we visited the capital, Stanley, which the Argentineans insist on calling Puerto Argentino although there is pretty much zero Southern American influence here: it really is British all the way and we were warned most clearly before leaving the ship that although US dollars would be accepted alongside sterling of course, Argentinian pesos would be firmly rejected! We were also able to send some postcards for only 66p a shot which seemed like quite a bargain given it costs 67 pence to send a domestic letter in the UK (and a horrifying 170 pesos (about £3.50) from Argentina). Whether or not they will actually get to their destination is perhaps beside the point.
L: Government House, Stanley; R: The Iron Lady (in the background the sign says “Thatcher Drive”)
While the exhibition in the interesting Prison Museum in Ushuaia presents one side of the story of the Falklands Conflict (focusing heavily on Margaret Thatcher’s somewhat controversial order to sink the Belgrano), the excellently presented museum in Stanley tells a completely different story focusing on the terror and real life disruption caused by the invasion. And if you are in any doubt as to how the Islanders feel, a walk down to Thatcher Drive with its proud bust of the Iron Lady or a trip to the gents toilet in the Victory Pub where you can find General Galtieri in a toilet seat should leave you in no doubt! On both sides of the South Atlantic Ocean, it is clear that passions on this subject still run high. Fascinating.