The Falkland Islands is an archipelago in the South Atlantic Ocean on the Patagonian Shelf. The principal islands are about 300 miles (483 kilometers) east of South America‘s southern Patagonian coast and about 752 miles (1,210 kilometers) from the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, at a latitude of about 52°S. The archipelago, with an area of 4,700 square miles (12,000 square kilometers), comprises East Falkland, West Falkland, and 776 smaller islands. As a British overseas territory, the Falklands have internal self-governance, and the United Kingdom takes responsibility for their defense and foreign affairs. The capital and largest settlement is Stanley on East Falkland.
Controversy exists over the Falklands’ discovery and subsequent colonization by Europeans. At various times, the islands have had French, British, Spanish, and Argentine settlements. Britain reasserted its rule in 1833, but Argentina maintains its claim to the islands. In April 1982, Argentine military forces invaded the islands. British administration was restored two months later at the end of the Falklands War. Almost all Falklanders favor the archipelago remaining a UK overseas territory. Its sovereignty status is part of an ongoing dispute between Argentina and the United Kingdom.
The population (3,398 inhabitants in 2016) consists primarily of native-born Falkland Islanders, the majority of British descent. Other ethnicities include French, Gibraltarian, and Scandinavian. Immigration from the United Kingdom, the South Atlantic island of Saint Helena, and Chile has reversed a population decline. The predominant (and official) language is English. Under the British Nationality (Falkland Islands) Act 1983, Falkland Islanders are British citizens.
The islands lie on the boundary of the subantarctic oceanic and tundra climate zones, and both major islands have mountain ranges reaching 2,300 feet (700 m). They are home to large bird populations, although many no longer breed on the main islands due to predation by introduced species. Major economic activities include fishing, tourism and sheep farming, with an emphasis on high-quality wool exports. Oil exploration, licensed by the Falkland Islands Government, remains controversial as a result of maritime disputes with Argentina.
Although Fuegians from Patagonia may have visited the Falkland Islands in prehistoric times, the islands were uninhabited when Europeans first discovered them. Claims of discovery date back to the 16th century, but no consensus exists on whether early explorers discovered the Falklands or other islands in the South Atlantic. The first undisputed landing on the islands is attributed to English captain John Strong, who, en route to Peru and Chile’s littoral in 1690, discovered the Falkland Sound and noted the islands’ water and game.
The Falklands remained uninhabited until the 1764 establishment of Port Louis on East Falkland by French captain Louis Antoine de Bougainville and the 1766 foundation of Port Egmont on Saunders Island by British captain John MacBride. Whether or not the settlements were aware of each other’s existence is debated by historians. In 1766, France surrendered its claim on the Falklands to Spain, which renamed the French colony Puerto Soledad the following year. Problems began when Spain discovered and captured Port Egmont in 1770. War was narrowly avoided by its restitution to Britain in 1771.
Both the British and Spanish settlements coexisted in the archipelago until 1774, when Britain’s new economic and strategic considerations led it to voluntarily withdraw from the islands, leaving a plaque claiming the Falklands for King George III. Spain’s Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata became the only governmental presence in the territory. West Falkland was left abandoned, and Puerto Soledad became mostly a prison camp. Amid the British invasions of the Río de la Plata during the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, the islands’ governor evacuated the archipelago in 1806; Spain’s remaining colonial garrison followed suit in 1811, except for gauchos and fishermen who remained voluntarily.