Reassertion of British sovereignty over the Falkland Islands (1833)

In December 1832, two naval vessels were sent by the United Kingdom to re-assert British sovereignty over the Falkland Islands (Spanish: Islas Malvinas), after the United Provinces of the Rio de la Plata (part of which later became Argentina) ignored British diplomatic protests over the appointment of Luis Vernet as governor of the Falkland Islands and a dispute over fishing rights.

Reassertion of British sovereignty over the Falkland Islands (1833)

Sketch of brig-sloop HMS Clio which reasserted British sovereignty in the Falklands
DateDecember 20, 1832 – January 2, 1833
Result British victory
British control of the Falkland islands
 United Kingdom  United Provinces of the Río de la Plata
Commanders and leaders
John James Onslow José María Pinedo


  • 20 Royal Marines


  • 1 Brig-Sloop
  • 121 man crew


  • 19 soldiers


  • 1 Schooner
  • 80 man crew


Luis Vernet

In 1765, Captain John Byron explored Saunders Island, which lies 1.5 miles (2.5 km) off the coast of West Falkland. He named the harbour Port Egmont, and claimed this and other islands for Britain, on the grounds of prior discovery. The next year Captain John MacBride established a British settlement at Port Egmont. Independently, France had established a colony at Port Louis, which it handed over to Spain in 1767.

The British presence in the west continued, until interrupted by Spain, during the Falkland Crisis from 10 July 1770 to 22 January 1771. Economic pressures led Britain to unilaterally withdraw from many overseas settlements in 1774, and they left Port Egmont on 20 May 1774, leaving a plaque asserting their continuing sovereignty over the islands.[1] A few years later, under orders from Madrid, the Spanish demolished the settlement at Port Egmont and removed the plaque. The Spanish settlement was itself withdrawn in 1811.[2]

The islands remained an important outpost for whalers and sealers who used the islands to shelter from the worst of the South Atlantic weather. By merit of their location, the Falkland Islands have often been the last refuge for ships damaged at sea. Most numerous among those using the islands were British and American sealers, where typically between 40 and 50 ships were engaged in hunting fur seals.

In 1823, after its war of independence against Spain, the United Provinces granted land on East Falkland to Luis Vernet, who first travelled to the islands the following year. That first expedition failed almost as soon as it landed, and a second attempt, in 1826, sanctioned by the British (but delayed until winter by a Brazilian blockade), also failed after arrival in the islands. In 1828, the United Provinces government granted Vernet all of East Falkland, including all its resources, with exemption from taxation if a colony could be established within three years. He took settlers, some of them British, and before leaving once again sought permission first from the British Consulate in Buenos Aires. After receiving consent, Vernet agreed to provide regular reports to the British consul and expressed the desire for British protection for his settlement should they decide to re-establish their presence in the islands.[3][4][5]

On Vernet's return to the Falklands, Puerto Soledad was renamed Puerto Luis. The United Provinces proclaimed Luis Vernet as governor of the islands in 1829. British diplomatic protests at the appointment and declarations of sovereignty were ignored. The United Provinces also granted Vernet exclusive rights to seal hunting in the islands. This too was disputed by the British and US consulates at Buenos Aires but once again the diplomatic protests were ignored. Vernet continued to provide regular reports to the British consul throughout this period.

In 1831, Luis Vernet with his newly created authority, used the services of a Captain Brisbane in the ship Betsy to capture three US vessels (Breakwater, Superior and Harriet) that were hunting seals in Falklands waters. The Breakwater escaped but the catch of the other two ships was confiscated and their crews were arrested.[6] Vernet returned to the mainland, bringing senior officers of the US vessels to stand trial for violating restrictions on seal hunting. The US consul protested violently against the seizure of US ships and the USS Lexington sailed to the Falklands. The log of the Lexington reports only the destruction of arms and a powder store, though in his claim against the US government for compensation (rejected by the US government of President Grover Cleveland in 1885) Vernet stated that the settlement was destroyed.[7] The islands were declared free from all government, the seven senior members of the settlement were arrested for piracy[8] and taken to Montevideo,[3] where they were released without charge on the orders of Commodore Rogers.[9]

This latter incident finally convinced the British Foreign Office to reassert its sovereignty claim over the islands. Throughout much of 1832, the United Provinces did not have a government representative in the islands. The Buenos Aires government commissioned Major Esteban Mestivier as the new governor of the islands, to set up a penal colony, but when he arrived at the settlement on 15 November 1832 his soldiers mutinied and killed him. The mutiny was put down by Major José María Pinedo, commander of the United Provinces schooner Sarandí. Order was restored just before the British arrived.[3]

Arrival of the squadron

Under the command of Captain John James Onslow, the brig-sloop HMS Clio, previously stationed at Rio de Janeiro, reached Port Egmont on 20 December 1832. It was later joined by HMS Tyne. Their first actions were to repair the fort at Port Egmont and affix a notice of possession.

Onslow arrived at Puerto Louis on 2 January 1833. Pinedo sent an officer to the British ship, where he was presented with the following written request to replace the Argentine flag with the British one, and leave the location.

I have to direct you that I have received directions from His Excellency and Commander-in-Chief of His Britannic Majesty's ships and vessels of war, South America station, in the name of His Britannic Majesty, to exercise the rights of sovereignty over these Islands. It is my intention to hoist to-morrow the national flag of Great Britain on shore when I request you will be pleased to haul down your flag on shore and withdraw your force, taking all stores belonging to your Government.[10]

Pinedo entertained plans for resisting, but finally desisted because of his obvious numerical inferiority and the want of enough nationals among his crew (approximately 80% of his forces were British mercenaries who refused to fight their countrymen). The British forces disembarked on 3 January and switched the flags, delivering the Argentine one to Pinedo, who left on 5 January.[3]

Recognising Vernet's settlement had British permission, Onslow set about ensuring the continuation of that settlement for the replenishment of passing ships. The gauchos had not been paid since Vernet's departure and were anxious to return to the mainland. Onslow persuaded them to stay by paying them in silver for provisions and promising that in the absence of Vernet's authority they could earn their living from the feral cattle on the islands.

The British vessels did not stay long and departed two days later, leaving William Dickson (Vernet's storekeeper) in charge of the settlement. Dickson was provided with a flagpole and instructed to fly the British flag whenever a vessel was in harbour.

Argentina claims that the population of the islands was expelled in 1833;[11] however, both British and Argentine sources from the time, including the log of the ARA Sarandí, suggest that the colonists were encouraged to remain under Vernet's deputy, Matthew Brisbane.[3][12]


HMS Beagle

HMS Beagle arrived on 15 March 1833. Vernet dispatched his deputy Matthew Brisbane to the islands to take charge of his settlement March 1833. Meeting with Captain Fitzroy of the Beagle, he was encouraged to continue with Vernet's enterprise provided there was no attempt to further the ambitions of the United Provinces.[12] Like Onslow before him, Fitzroy was forced to use his powers of persuasion to encourage the gauchos to continue working in Vernet's establishment:

During the month we remained in Berkeley Sound, I had much trouble with the crews of whaling or small sealing vessels, as well as with the settlers, who all seemed to fancy that because the British flag was re-hoisted on the Falklands, they were at liberty to do what they pleased with Mr. Vernet's private property, as well as with the wild cattle and horses. The gauchos wished to leave the place, and return to the Plata, but as they were the only useful labourers on the islands, in fact, the only people on whom any dependance could be placed for a regular supply of fresh beef, I interested myself as much as possible to induce them to remain, and with partial success, for seven staid out of twelve.

Arriving in the Falklands, Fitzroy expected to find the thriving settlement reported by another British officer. Instead, he found the settlement in a derelict state, which Brisbane blamed upon the Lexington's raid. Fitzroy questioned several members of the settlement who corroborated Brisbane's account:[13]

Next morning Brisbane came on board with his papers, and I was quite satisfied with their tenor, and the explanation which he gave me of his business. Some misapprehension having since arisen about his being authorized by Vernet to act in his stead, I may here mention again (though no longer of any material consequence), that Brisbane's instructions from Vernet authorized him to act as his private agent only, to look after the remains of his private property, and that they had not the slightest reference to civil or military authority. This settled, I went to Port Louis, but was indeed disappointed. Instead of the cheerful little village I once anticipated finding – a few half-ruined stone cottages; some straggling huts built of turf; two or three stove boats; some broken ground where gardens had been, and where a few cabbages or potatoes still grew; some sheep and goats; a few long-legged pigs; some horses and cows; with here and there a miserable-looking human being – were scattered over the fore-ground of a view which had dark clouds, ragged-topped hills, and a wild waste of moorland to fill up the distance. "How is this?" said I, in astonishment, to Mr. Brisbane; "I thought Mr. Vernet's colony was a thriving and happy settlement. Where are the inhabitants? the place seems deserted as well as ruined." "Indeed, Sir, it was flourishing," said he, "but the Lexington ruined it: Captain Duncan's men did such harm to the houses and gardens. I was myself treated as a pirate—rowed stern foremost on board the Lexington – abused on her quarter-deck most violently by Captain Duncan – treated by him more like a wild beast than a human being – and from that time guarded as a felon, until I was released by order of Commodore Rogers." "But," I said, "where are the rest of the settlers? I see but half a dozen, of whom two are old black women; where are the gauchos who kill the cattle?" "Sir, they are all in the country. They have been so much alarmed by what has occurred, and they dread the appearance of a ship of war so much, that they keep out of the way till they know what she is going to do." I afterwards interrogated an old German, while Brisbane was out of sight, and after him a young native of Buenos Ayres, who both corroborated Brisbane's account.

On departing from the islands Fitzroy expressed his concern for the settlement with its lack of regular authority in a virtually lawless group of islands.

On 26 August 1833, eight members of the settlement led by Antonio Rivero ran amok, killing the five senior members.[3] In part this stemmed from the re-imposition of paying the wages of the gauchos in paper vouchers issued by Vernet.

In 1834 on his second visit Charles Darwin commented that:

After the possession of these miserable islands had been contested by France, Spain, and England, they were left uninhabited. The government of Buenos Aires then sold them to a private individual, but likewise used them, as old Spain had done before, for a penal settlement. England claimed her right and seized them. The Englishman who was left in charge of the flag was consequently murdered. A British officer was next sent, unsupported by any power: and when we arrived, we found him in charge of a population, of which rather more than half were runaway rebels and murderers.

Lieutenant Henry Smith was installed as the first British resident in January 1834; he immediately set about establishing British authority, arresting the murderers. The United Kingdom has held the territory ever since but for a two-month period after the 1982 invasion, during the Falklands War.

In Buenos Aires, Vernet was effectively bankrupt and attempts to obtain compensation from the US Government for losses from the Lexington raid proved fruitless. The situation in Buenos Aires was chaotic and diplomatic relations with the US remained ruptured till 1839. He made several approaches to the British Government asking for support to re-establish his business at Port Louis, receiving support from Woodbine Parish (British chargé d'affaires in Buenos Aires from 1825 to 1832) as the best qualified person to develop the islands.[7]

Vernet wrote to Lieutenant Smith offering advice, which was gratefully received and acted upon. Smith repeatedly urged Vernet to return to Port Louis but as Vernet became increasingly involved in the territorial dispute with the government in Buenos Aires all communications ceased and no more accounts were sent. An approach to Lieutenant Robert Lowcay, who had succeeded Lieutenant Smith as British resident, to retrieve his property was rebuffed but later he was requested to remove his property as the British government could not be responsible for it.[14]


  1. "A brief history of the Falkland Islands Part 2 – Fort St. Louis and Port Egmont". Archived from the original on 6 October 2007. Retrieved 19 July 2007.
  2. Freedman, Lawrence (2005). The Official History of the Falklands Campaign: The origins of the Falklands war. Psychology Press. ISBN 978-0-7146-5206-1.
  3. Lewis, Jason; Inglis, Alison. "Part 3 – Louis Vernet: The Great Entrepreneur". A brief history of the Falkland Islands. Archived from the original on 1 April 2010. Retrieved 19 July 2007.
  4. Cawkell 2001, p. 50
  5. Shuttleworth & Parish 1910, p. 345 In the course of the year 1829 the Consul-General first called the attention of the Foreign Office to the question of the Falkland Islands. Parish's attention was first called the question early in 1829, when the Buenos Ayreans proposed a scheme for detention of prisoners and convicts in the Islands. Parish at once communicated the intention of the Buenos Ayres Government to the Foreign Office, but before writing his next despatch a new development had arisen. A certain Mt. Louis Vernet had obtained permission from Rosas to colonise Solidad and Staten Island; he had done so with great success, finding the soil suitable for potatoes and other vegetables, the climate excellent, and the prospects for cattle-breeding most promising. Hearing that England claimed sovereignty of the islands, he now applied to Great Britain, through their Charge d'Affairs, for the protection of his colonists.
  6. Brebbia, C. A. (2006). Patagonia, a Forgotten Land: From Magellan to Perón. WIT Press. p. 170. ISBN 978-1-84564-061-3.
  7. Peter Pepper, Graham Pascoe (1 June 2008). "Luis Vernet". In Tatham, David (ed.). The Dictionary of Falklands Biography (including South Georgia): From Discovery Up to 1981. D. Tatham. pp. 541–544. ISBN 978-0-9558985-0-1.
  8. "Silas Duncan and the Falklands' Incident". USS Duncan Reunion Association. 2001. Retrieved 25 August 2011. The letters show that the USS Lexington, under the command of Silas Duncan, visited the Falklands in December, 1831, to investigate complaints by American fishermen that a "band of pirates" was operating from the Islands. After finding what he considered proof that at least four American fishing ships had been captured, plundered, and even outfitted for war, Duncan took seven prisoners onboard Lexington and charged them with piracy. The leaders of the prisoners was Louis Vernet, a German, and Matthew Brisbane, an Englishman both of Buenos Aries.
  9. Tatham 2008, p. 117
  10. Cawkell, Maling & Cawkell 1960, p. 43
  11. Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores – the Malvinas Islands Archived 31 May 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  12. Fitzroy, R., Voyages of the Adventure and Eagle. Volume II. Accessed 2 October 2007
  13. FitzRoy, Robert. "Narrative of the surveying voyages of His Majesty's Ships Adventure and Beagle between the years 1826 and 1836, describing their examination of the southern shores of South America, and the Beagle's circumnavigation of the globe. Proceedings of the second expedition, 1831–36, under the command of Captain Robert Fitz-Roy, R.N." Darwin Online. Retrieved 2 November 2011.
  14. Cawkell, Maling & Cawkell 1960, p. 51


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