Without a doubt the most famous thing about the Falkland Islands is not any particular geographic feature, or remnant of a past civilization, or strange and exotic form of life — rather, the Falkland Islands’ claim to fame is simply how contested it has been throughout modern history. Countries have vied for ownership of the Falkland Islands essentially since their discovery by Western powers, and this debate continues into the modern age.
Even when, and by whom, the Falkland Islands were discovered is something of a controversy. The Dutch claim one of their sailors first spied the islands in the year 1600. Some claim the Falkland Islands were first spotted by a Spanish sailor, and that they were present on Spanish maps dating back to the early 1500s.
The islands, which are located about 300 miles (483 km) off the coast of Argentina, and less than 600 miles (965 km) north of Antarctica, were given their name near the end of the 17th century, by an English captain who named them in honor of the financier of the voyage, Anthony Cary, 5th Viscount Falkland. It wasn’t until just after the middle-part of the 18th century that the French finally settled the Falkland Islands — on the site of what is today Port Louis.
Only one year later an English captain claimed a number of the Falkland Islands for England — not even realizing the French settlement existed. The Spanish soon took over the French settlement, and claimed the islands in the name of Spain. The Spanish drove away the British a few years later, but the British soon returned and stayed for three years before departing — leaving behind a plaque stating their ownership of the Falkland Islands. Two decades later the British finally relinquished control of the islands to the Spanish.
The Spanish retained control of the Falkland Islands throughout the rest of the 18th century, and when Argentina achieved independence from Spain they claimed the islands as their own. Argentina warned seal hunters from the United States that they had no right to hunt on their islands, and when the United States continued to hunt on the islands, Argentina seized a number of US ships. In response, the United States destroyed the Argentinian settlement.
Only two years after this action, Britain returned to the Falkland Islands to reaffirm their control. They quickly moved in their own citizens, and fortified a number of bases. The British repeatedly used their naval base in the Falkland Islands as a strategic point for forays around Cape Horn, and it was of vital importance to their naval operations during both World War I and World War II.
Although Argentina did not actively seek to remove the British from the Falkland Islands during this period, they never gave up on their claims to ownership. After World War II, with the creation of the United Nations, they began reaffirming their right to the islands, and brought their case to the United Nations. One issue that came up time and time again over the next fifty years was the fact that by most pertinent UN Resolutions, the inhabitants of the Falkland Islands themselves should be afforded the right to vote on independence, or on whom to ally themselves with. As they were virtually all the descendants of British citizens, it was apparent that they would vote to remain allied with Britain, which of course was not the result desired by Argentina.
In 1982 the fight over control of the Falkland Islands boiled over again for the first time in more than a century, when Argentina invaded the British territory. Britain responded by sending a large force and retaking the islands, afterwards increasing their military presence their substantially.
To this day the status of the Falkland Islands is much contended, and is by far the most famous thing about that remote little chain. While most of the world recognizes Britain’s claim to the islands, Argentina and many Latin American countries continue to refuse to. The name Malvinas is often used to refer to the Falkland Islands by those who assert Argentina’s right to them, although it is considered offensive by most citizens of the islands themselves.