The Falklands War, although relatively recent, does not really figure much in the modern British mind. Ask anyone under the age of 30 about the details of the conflict and they might vaguely know something about a battle in the 80s in which Maggie Thatcher was involved. To the Argentines, the confrontation with the British over the sovereignty of these islands is raw and emotional, a matter of national pride.
In 1994, the Argentine Constitution was amended to include a formal claim on the islands:
“The recovery of these territories and the full exercise of sovereignty, respecting the way of life for its inhabitants and according to the principles of international law, constitute a permanent and unwavering goal of the Argentine people. “.
In 2014, the then President Christina Fernandez de Kirchner, opened up a brand-new museum in order to back up her insistence that the islands belong to Argentina.
Earlier this year, I visited the museum with my partner Chris. It is built on the site of a peace and reconciliation centre… I don’t need to point out the irony.
Unlike the first museum we’d visited on the site, this building had no English translations. We were shown by a member of staff to a timeline painted on the wall, and instructed to look at it until summoned to watch a video.
The timeline was in Spanish, but we could feel the resentment oozing through the words. The Argentine claim revolves around whether the islands formed part of the territory handed over to Argentina by Spain as part of the move to independence, and there is much study of the wording in certain letters to and from various governors in the subsequent years. The islands had been subject to claims by France, Spain and England over a period of over two hundred years, and in the ten years after Argentine independence, several attempts were made by Argentine settlers at establishing colonies. In 1833, the British reasserted sovereignty and requested that the Argentines leave. This they did, without a fight, and the islands stayed under British rule until the Falklands War in 1982.
The Falklands War was started when the Argentine military dictatorship, seeking to boost nationalistic fervour, invaded the islands and took control. They did not realise that the British government, at the time itself facing unpopularity, would seize the opportunity to boost nationalistic fervour in the UK. The war lasted just over seventy days, at the end of which British rule was reinstated. A 2013 referendum asked the people living in the island whether they wanted to remain a part of the UK. 99.8% of those who responded (92% turnout) stated a desire to stay British. This seems a fairly resounding declaration by the residents, but their opinions were nowhere to be seen in this building!
Called to watch the video, we were shown a bucolic vision of tranquility, with gentle waves lapping at penguin-covered beaches and quiet fields. The music changed dramatically to a thunderous war film soundtrack, evocative of cannons and gunfire. Images flashed up on the screen – a red post box! A cul-de-sac street sign in English! A telephone box! A stamp with the Queen’s head! Henry VIII! (Wait, what was he doing there?) All of it splattered with blood, drenching those innocent seeming pictures with heady drama.
Reeling with the knowledge that we were representing the most vile of usurpers, we staggered around the rest of the exhibits, at each point being shown just how dastardly those British were.
Here they are, beating up a gaucho (cowboy). Antonio Rivero is nowadays featured on the new 50-peso note, along with a map of the islands, and is seen as a folk hero rebelling against the British. It seems from other sources that, at the time, he was wanted for the murder of leaders of an Argentine settlement.
One part of the museum that I did find quite interesting was an interactive map of the British Empire – showing the vast numbers of people who had lost their lives to the invading armies and the ways in which violence opened up trade routes for the British.
Now, I’m no fan of the British Empire and the way it was built, but I really feel that this is one situation where the Brits didn’t really do much wrong. The islands were uninhabited except by a few people who had only been there a couple of years, and who left voluntarily. I found the presentation of information in this museum to be more than a little bit biased and to be quite honest, it made me cross. It didn’t help that a school group was being shown around whilst we were there, giving us sharp looks every so often when they overheard us talking in English. The visitor book was full of empassioned statements about the ownership of the territory, and it was quite clear that people had believed every word. Reminiscent of many a museum really, but it’s rare to see it this blatant!
Leaving a sharp rebuke about reconciliation in the visitor book, I felt sad that the Argentine government appears to focus on the islands as an easy way to distract from their other responsibilities. No different to many others in the world!