Thursday 26 February 2015


Those of us over the age of 40 should remember the 1982 Falklands War aka La Guerra del Atlántico Sur or even La Guerra de las Malvinas when the Argentine government pushed to see just how craven the Brits would be in defense of their much dwindled empire. The 1970s had seen a see-saw between ineffective Labour and ineffective Conservative governments in Britain, one of whose heads of agreement was that the British Empire was something definitely retro and probably shameful. In Argentina, over the same period, democracy had been put on the back-boiler while a succession of Generals filled out their chests with a nugatory bling of self-awarded medals and threw shapes at each other while authorising the midnight dispatch of any real or presumed leftists. In May 1979, Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister and in December 1981 Leopoldo Galtieri toppled a rival general to become El Supremo. With the finances in total shambles, Galtieri opted to divert attention from the economy by assaulting the sheep farmers of the Falkland Islands. Huge patriotic flag waving in Buenos Aires was matched in the UK and 74 days later the status quo ante was restored. It cost a mort of money and 907 people, including 3 friendly fire civilians, were killed; 2432 were wounded; with Argentine sailors and squaddies a disproportionate chunk of the casualties.  Status quo ante included the continuing claims of both nations to sovereignty over the Islands - and by extension its dependencies.

It wasn't always so belligerent between the countries and last week marked an anniversary of territorial accord between the nations.  It concerns the South Orkneys a little [600] archipelago of wind-swept islands about as far South as the original Orkneys are North but with a significantly more brutal climate - bless the Gulf Stream that the Olde Orkneys are not ice-bound for more than half the year. Bob the Island is not a million miles away. The South Orkneys were discovered in 1821 and named and surveyed by  the sealer and explorer James Weddell in 1823.  You can see [maps R] that his attempt at a geographical survey got the count and relative location of the islands more or less correct but with large topological distortion of their perimeters. 80 years later, in 1904 William Bruce explored the South Orkneys, carried out a proper geographical survey and established a weather station on Laurie Island in the East of the archipelago. The polar establishment of the day, including the revered Robert "Deathwish" Scott and a peculiar eccentric called Sir Clements Markham, chair of the Royal Geographical Society, were terribly gentlemanly - provided they got their own way.  Bruce, a Scot, tried to join the club, never fit in and was reviled when he launched the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition without the RGS's permission (cad, bounder).

When Bruce's expedition was forced by end of funds to wrap up the Antarctic weather station he, with the consent of the British Government, sold it as a going concern to the Argentines for 5,000 pesos.  They have occupied it continuously ever since with a small community of meteorologists, seismologists and glacier boffins. They are 1500km South of civilisation at Ushuaia, if you can call a town of 50,000 inhabitants in Tierra del Fuego [previously], 'civilisation'. The Argentine position is shown as a red dot on an isthmus of Laurie Island. The current name of the station "Orcadas" is nothing to do with killer whales Orcinus orca but taken straight from the name of the place in Spanish Islas Orcadas del Sur.  In 1947, after two world wars, the British established their own weather station, marked with a Kelly green blob above [L] at the head of a sheltered bay on Signy Island 50km further West.  I guess there aren't that many options when 90% of the parts above sea level are covered in glaciers. The Falklands War left these outposts untouched.

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