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’Understanding’ Malvinas with a travel book

A Malvinas war veteran visits the cemetery on the Islands.

By Andrew Graham-Yooll

For the Herald

Family album gives a glimpse of the life and times of islanders in the south Atlantic

It should not take much thought or disbelief to come to terms with why the Malvinas islanders don’t want to be part of Argentina. Our most significant offering is an economic crisis or some form of upheaval every ten years. And it should not take much thought either to see why any British government would part with the islands in favour of Argentina. The English voter, whatever the limitations on their thoughts about or awareness of the rocks, would see such a decision as an act of betrayal. A transfer of dominion or sovereignty would keep that government’s party out of office for a considerable length of time.

The islanders are content to live as they are, build on their village history and their strength as a community. Now for the oil in 2017. They have struggled through six or seven generations (not many of the families go that far back, but a few do) in a struggle against poverty concentrating efforts to survive and make a living in the bitter climate that is their lot in the gateway to Antarctica. They want to stay that way. The political complicity involved in the thought that the islanders could be lured into accepting Argentine military rule was one of the shabbier performances of the Anglo-Argentine community leaders in 1982.

Of course, it could be argued that given the psyche of Argentina’s men, and women, those islanders with a history of hardship might have done better on the mainland. We have a long experience of boom and bust, fortunes made and lost in a society grown accustomed to lawless competition and fast bucks. And to that add the unsettling record of instability and disorder. All too much set against the quiet life on the islands

These observations, and more, are sparked by a book published this month in Buenos Aires. Its title (in translation) is, simply, Kelpers, with two subtitles: Neither English nor Argentines; A view of the nation that is growing off our coast (published by Sudamericana), by journalist Natasha Niebieskikwiat (to be referred to as Natasha hereforward), a writer on foreign affairs at Clarín. The islanders will note the qualification of “Kelpers” not apt and perhaps even derogatory, because it is used in critical remarks on the mainland. As her colleagues know and have been told repeatedly, Natasha has worked on this book for nearly 20 years, almost from the time of the first of her eight visits to Stanley, the first in 1996 as Clarín’s correspondent. However, her caution that this is not a “political” book misses the mark: any book about a community or society in a situation of conflict becomes “political,” like it or not.

A travel diary out of the ordinary

But Natasha’s book is not the ordinary (and now, written to excess) historical argument to claims and counter with all the depreciatory and contemptuous language from both sides. This is a travel diary of sorts, collected during the author’s journeys to the islands. This is where the book becomes something different. The author, with a special sense of displacement contributed by her Polish origins, invests her research into a text that reads at times like a family album, with abundant detail on the original colonizers and farmers engaged to work on the islands. There are even “Did you know?” aspects covered: for example, that the islands are increasingly suffering from fresh water shortage, which will pose more problems when the oil exploration begins in earnest. Water wells are being dug ever-deeper in the gardens of Stanley.

Few might see the basic but most important quality of this book. In the torrent of texts about the South Atlantic war and after (the rush into print, not always informed, during the two and a half months of the conflict and combat, 100 titles were added to the few books previously available in the century since the diplomatic row began) not many offered the aim to “understand” the population of the islands in the manner developed by this author. Her narrative is an effort to explain the people, why they came in the first place and why they want to continue to be there. Presumably, we now need a book to explain us breathless Argentines, always in haste, mostly dogmatic to “them”. But perhaps the islanders are no longer interested.

An elementary detail which Natasha establishes in her Introduction is that the near 3,000 inhabitants, mostly urban, have come through a century of hardship to build a home and a business for themselves, through social and class divisions, the colonial rule of a single and unquestionable corporation (the Falkland Islands Company, FIC) and strict obedience to community lore, to reach a status now when they are among the highest-paid people in the world, foreseeing further comforts from an oil boom planned as from 2017. If you look from such prospects at our Repsol-YPF disaster, there is even more reason to see the islanders’ view.

Walking the islands

Natasha “walked” the islands. She went for the historical detail, visiting the tourist destinations (the old homes or what’s left of them, of the early settlers, the museum, archive and library, among other points) then went tracing families on more remote farms. The reader is shown common links between islands and mainland. (My father and an aunt used to recall people in Santa Cruz and Tierra del Fuego crossing the water to Stanley, and back, to visit friends and relatives in the 1930s.) And here is where the family album comes in. Not many names range right back to the seafarers and whalers of the nineteenth century, but some are still to be found, through the female side of families, the descendants of ancient settlers. Like elsewhere, the inhabitants saw booming times, with Stanley Bay chock full of ships storing food and water for the crossing to the Pacific through the Strait of Magellan — the vessels blocked the view of the city. That lasted until the Panama Canal cut travel time to the Pacific. After wool prices fell worldwide, the islands declined slowly to a stage where settlers felt ignored in the sixties and seventies, barring some party conflict in Westminster or the occasional diplomatic row with Buenos Aires.

And then 1982 happened and that changed everything. Natasha remarks that many islanders still harp on about 1982, that the war is ever present, and that they shouldn’t have that issue uppermost in their minds. True only if Europe is taken as an example of relatively quick recovery after 1945. Closer to home the memory of the Argentine landing on April 2, and the ill-treatment given some islanders, is not forgotten and it shouldn’t. just as we should not forget Videla or Galtieri. The 1982 experience has made some people quite hostile to Natasha’s visits and enquiries, although in general she appears to have been made welcome and was well-treated. But if the islanders are to be asked to change their manners, the question is why haven’t Argentines changed in a fashion that would encourage confidence and trust? In the last half-century only two Argentine governments worked on building bridges. The first was the administration (1963-66) of Dr Arturo Illia whose foreign ministry followed the UN resolution on decolonization as from 1964. The other softly-softly government was that of Carlos Menem, with Guido Di Tella as foreign minister in the nineties, like it or not.

Then came the March 2013 plebiscite on the Malvinas where the vote to stay under British rule was overwhelming. British and Falklanders, with the accent on Falklands as an identity and trademark. A vote of that kind secures very little sympathy beyond Stanley harbour. Politically, probably little more than a botched invasion.

For the time being, the main contribution to “understanding” will have to be Natasha Niebieskikwiat’s family album, and welcome it is.

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