BY A GUEST WRITER
There are a few countries around the world with which Wales has long-standing and profound cultural, political and social ties. The other Celtic countries, of course. The United States, where, famously, 16 of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were of Welsh descent — with particularly strong Welsh connections with Pennsylvania (aka “New Wales”) and Ohio. However, one of the most celebrated and enduring international relationships is with Argentina.
Welsh Settlement in Argentina
When Michael D. Jones sought to establish a settlement for Welsh people free from the cultural repression and bigotry of the British state, it was the Argentine government that he approached for permission to locate Y Wladfa in Patagonia as a new country, a “little Wales beyond Wales”, where Welsh would be the language of religion, government, trade and education. And so it was that 153 Welsh settlers arrived in Patagonia aboard the Mimosa, a converted tea-clipper, in a bay which they named “Porth Madryn”.
The context to this remarkable venture was the hostility of the British state to the language and culture of the Welsh people which had reached new heights in the mid-Victorian era. The official denigration and suppression of the Welsh language was legitimized and fuelled by the reports issued by the three English commissioners appointed by the Westminster parliament to head an “Inquiry into the State of Education in Wales”. Their Reports infamously declaimed:-
“The Welsh language is a vast drawback to Wales, and a manifold barrier to the moral progress and commercial prosperity of the people. It is not easy to over-estimate its evil effects …” (Read more.)
In Argentina, however, the Welsh settlers were welcomed, and the Welsh-Argentine community continues to this day centred on the towns of Gaiman, Trelew and Trevelin, where there are today at least 5000 Welsh speakers.
“Every Bloody Cause”
The long association between Wales and Argentina experienced tragedy in 1982 during the conflict in the South Atlantic.
Many Welsh-Argentines from Patagonia were conscripted into the Argentine forces occupying and defending the Falklands/Malvinas. One such Welshman, Milton Rhys, was sent as a young conscript as part of the Argentinian garrison to be a radio operator on the Falklands-Malvinas. Señor Rhys has given a poignant account of his experiences during the period of Argentine rule and the subsequent British invasion. Milton Rhys is the great-grandson of William Casnodyn Rhys, a Baptist pastor and Welsh patriot who emigrated to Patagonia from Port Talbot in the 1870s.
Of course, Welshmen fought on both sides of the conflict in the South Atlantic. Thirty-two Welsh soldiers of the British army’s “Welsh Guards” regiment were killed or severely wounded at Bluff Cove, with many suffering terrible burns, after they were left on board the ill-fated Sir Galahad logistics vessel for many hours awaiting orders to disembark – in a display of gross incompetence by the British military high command.
In these experiences on both sides of that senseless conflict, Alun Rees’s lines come to mind . . .
“Now Taffy is a fighter
when he hears the bugle call.
Name any war since Agincourt:
Taffy’s seen them all.
He’s fought the wide world over,
he’s given blood and bone.
He’s fought for every bloody cause
except his bloody own.”
Competing Legal Claims to the Falklands-Malvinas
The conflict in the South Atlantic arose out of a long-standing dispute over sovereignty of the Falklands/Malvinas Islands between the British and Argentine states. Here is a brief synopsis of the competing claims.
It is accepted by both Argentina and Britain that first country with a good legal claim to the Falklands/Malvinas was in fact France, which established the first colony there in 1764 and gave the islands their original name after the port of St. Malo – Les Îles Malouines (subsequently rendered into Spanish as the Islas Malvinas).
The French subsequently agreed to transfer her claims to the Falklands/Malvinas to the Spanish. The Argentine claim that they acquired those rights from Spain in 1810 according to a principle of international law known as uti possidetis juris (basically, principle of international law which provides that newly formed sovereign states should have the same borders that their preceding dependent area had before their independence).
The Argentine claims were not effectively challenged by Britain until a British naval squadron arrived in 1833 and caused the submission of the resident Argentine garrison under threat of force.
On repeated occasions since the British invasion of the Falklands-Malvinas in 1833, the Argentine government has restated its claims.
In due course, the status of the Falklands/Malvinas was recognized as a territory to be decolonized under United Nations General Assembly Resolution 1514 of 14 December 1960, titled “Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples”.
Furthermore, earlier this year, the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), sided with Argentina accepting their maritime claims and fixing the limit of their territory at 200 to 350 miles from their coast – so awarding the seas surrounding the Falklands/Malvinas to Argentina.
Although widely denigrated or misrepresented by the British government and much of the British media, the Argentine claims to the Falklands/Malvinas have considerable substance in law.
In a nutshell, the validity of the British claims to the Falklands/Malvinas rests on two questions:-
- Was a plaque left by the British when they abandoned a brief settlement on the Islands in 1774 sufficient to entitle the British to re-assert a claim 60 years later (in 1833) and eject the existing Argentine settlement by threat of force?
- Had France’s claims, which pre-dated any of the British claims, which France had transferred to Spain, and which Argentina had assumed on its independence, been extinguished by 1833?
To any objective observer, the basis of the British legal claims to the Falklands/Malvinas is decidedly shaky. When this was realised, the British government decided to switch the basis of their argument to one based on “self-determination”.
The self-determination argument has more than a touch of the Ealing Comedy “Passport to Pimlico” about it. How can a community of less than 3000 – smaller than Gwaun-Cae-Gurwen – and utterly reliant for all practical purposes on the umbilical cord with Britain, the colonial power, some 8700 miles away, assert a sovereign right of self-determination for its inhabitants? The Islanders are, of course, a transplanted population of British character and nationality. To attribute sovereign rights of self-determination to this tiny group of people is as ludicrous as astronauts claiming sovereignty over the moon.
Just as the British government and media persistently downplay and distort the basis of the Argentine claims to the Falklands/Malvinas, so too do they brush under the carpet the fundamental weaknesses in the basis of the claims of the British state to the islands.
Pragmatism and Self-Interest
Ultimately, the Falklands/Malvinas sovereignty issue is not going to find its resolution in legal arguments over fine points of international law, since the arguments of both Argentina and Britain have been amply aired and found to be riddled with weaknesses. The time has therefore surely come for both states to consider rationally and pragmatically what the right result should be. For example:
- Which country is best placed to administer these islands? Britain at a distance of 8700 miles or Argentina some 300 miles away.
- Could the British state put the vast sums spent defending and artificially sustaining the tiny settler population to better use?
- At a time of increased international tensions and security threats, should the British state be distorting its strategic defence priorities to defend the Falklands/Malvinas colony?
- Can the British state continue to rely in the 21st century, and post-Brexit, on political and military support from the US, EU and any countries in South America to maintain its occupation of the Falklands/Malvinas colony?
- Following the Brexit vote, and the pressing priority for the British state to establish and upgrade trading relationships beyond the EU, should the British government be perpetuating trivial colonial conflicts at the expense of valuable trading relationships with the emerging economies of South America?
The Future Role of Welsh Politicians
Given our unique, long-standing and treasured relationships with the Argentine government and people, isn’t it time that we in Wales stood up to the British state and voiced our opposition to the intransigent and counter-productive stance of successive governments on this issue?
Four years ago, the Argentine government reached out to senior members of Plaid Cymru to enlist their support for moves to resolve this dispute. These approaches were apparently rebuffed by Plaid at that time.
Isn’t it now time for a rethink on this – especially following the election of the pragmatic President Mauricio Macri in Argentina?
Jac says . . . Not long after the conflict in the South Atlantic I got to meet a few of the surviving guardsmen. One of them, from my part of Swansea, was here to marry a local girl. And of course his mates turned up for the wedding.
People still talk about the first time these survivors of the Sir Galahad heard the low-flying RAF jets come down our valley. Regulars in a Welsh village pub saw Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder at first hand.
I’m not sure how many of them are still alive. The bridegroom from Manselton died in 1995, and this sad entry tells us that in 2010 his grave still had no headstone.
That’s the personal, the human, aspect of this tragedy. The wider picture can only be appreciated if we by-pass the British media, for the truth is that England stands almost completely isolated, virtually no one supports her claim to the Malvinas.
The claim is founded upon imperialist aggression and sustained by a combination of lies and yet more aggression, with contempt for international law and UN Resolutions thrown in. The excuse used is self-determination, ‘the people of the islands wish to remain British’.
You might as well ask the denizens of the Shankill Road if they support a united Ireland. Or go to a meeting of the Abbasock Holiday Home Owners Association with a petition demanding that Gwynedd doubles council tax on second homes.
Finally, let us not forget that throughout that conflict in defence of democracy and freedom – so memorably dismissed by the great Jorge Luis Borges as ‘two bald men fighting over a comb’ – Britain relied heavily on intelligence and other support from Chile. A country then controlled by Margaret Thatcher’s great friend General Pinochet, a man with firm views on democracy.
~ ♦ ~