How Prosperity Transformed the Falklands (A Reporter at Large)

Once a distant outpost of the British Empire, the islands have become a global crossroads. In the season of the coronavirus, the intimate communities may evolve yet again.

It is a place to retreat to in a time of plague. Outside the town are miles and miles of empty land, and few roads. Nothing anywhere but whitegrass, dark, scrubby bushes growing close to the ground, and rocks. Only low mountains and no trees, so there’s little to block the incessant wind that blows in from the sea. It’s very quiet, at least when the wind dies down, and some people find the silence and the emptiness hard to take. Before the war, in 1982, some of the bigger farms employed dozens of men, and there were settlements with forty or fifty people living in them, but most of those people are gone now, either moved or emigrated. These days, there is one person for every twelve square miles. Some of the old houses are vacant and derelict; others were hauled out of the settlements, leaving not so much as a gravel track behind, because the people who lived there rode horses.

At the edges of the two big islands, East Falkland and West Falkland, are more than seven hundred smaller islands, some empty, others inhabited by only one or two families: a couple of houses, some generators, a landing strip. There is plumbing and Internet. With a big enough freezer, you could stay here without contact for months. Longer, if you know how to live as people did here until very recently: killing and butchering their own mutton, milking cows, collecting seabird eggs and diddle-dee berries, digging peat for fuel. During the war with Argentina, when people were fleeing the town and turning up at farmhouses, there was not much worry about feeding them, or the British soldiers who took shelter in henhouses and shearing sheds. The farmers had vegetable gardens, and countless sheep, and flour and sugar in fifty-kilo sacks.

For a hundred and fifty years, when the Falkland Islands were a distant outpost of the British Empire, many men came from the Scottish Highlands to work as shepherds, and the islands are oddly similar to the Shetlands or the Isle of Skye—the bleak, rocky landscape; the blustery rain; the nearness of the sea—as though a piece of Scotland had broken off into the Atlantic and drifted eight thousand miles south, past Ireland, then Portugal, past Morocco and Mauritania and Senegal, down past the coasts of Brazil and Uruguay, and come to rest just a few hundred miles north of Antarctica. But here, on days when the air is very sharp and clear, people know that a floating iceberg must be close. And here there are penguins at the water’s edge: three-foot king penguins with egg-yolk bibs; squat rockhopper penguins with spiky black head feathers like gelled hair; whimsy-hatted gentoos. In March, as the plague was circling, the penguins had nothing to do. They were molting, so they couldn’t swim or eat. Molting, people said, was tiring and uncomfortable. The penguins stood about in crowds near the surf, backs to the wind, waiting for their feathers to fall out.

Then again, when the plague does come there may be no escape. Two commercial flights leave the islands each week: one to Punta Arenas, in southern Chile, on Saturdays, and one on Wednesdays, to São Paulo. Even in normal times these flights are often cancelled owing to strong winds at the airport, and now both have been halted. There are military flights to Britain, but these rely on a stopover to refuel, and so many countries have closed their borders that for several weeks there were no flights at all and the islands were completely cut off. There used to be a boat that brought fruit and dry goods and mail once a month from Montevideo and made the rounds of the settlements, but that was a long time ago. People who live on the more remote farms have been warned that if they get sick no one will be able to come and get them, so those most at risk are departing for the only town—Stanley, on East Falkland—if they can.

Until recently, the Falkland Islands were a quasi-feudal colony, in which an arcadian Britain of the past was preserved in microcosm—a population of eighteen hundred, territory a little larger than Jamaica. The islanders, almost all of whom claimed British ancestry, ate British food and planted British gardens, with crowded flower beds and gnomes. They flew Union Jacks from their cars and greenhouses. They were given to displays of patriotism that were rare in the mother country: they celebrated the Queen’s birthday, and sang the national anthem every Sunday in the cathedral. When older islanders talked about Britain—even if they had never been there, and their families had been in the Falklands for five generations—they called it “home.”

John Fowler arrived on the mail boat in 1971. After several awful days at sea, he woke up at four or five in the morning to find that the ship was still. He went up on deck in his pajamas and saw that they were moored on the jetty at Stanley—the town just a few streets on the steep slope above the harbor, little white houses with colored roofs, the air smelling of peat smoke—and saw what looked like three-quarters of the population assembled onshore to greet the ship. To him, just woken up, and disoriented by appearing in public in his pajamas, it was a dreamlike sight, in 1971—like England twenty-five years before, the men in ties and mackintoshes, the ladies in the sort of dresses he remembered his mother wearing when he was a boy.

At the time, the Falklands were poor and embattled, losing so many people to emigration that it seemed the society was in danger of becoming extinct, the islands abandoned. Nobody knew that it was in fact on the verge of an astonishing change: that, a generation later, it would be unrecognizable, its politics transformed, its population doubled and commingled, its identity mutating. It is the fruit fly of societies—a tiny social organism that has metamorphosed through centuries of history in twenty years.

Everything changed for the Falklands because of a chain of events set in motion by the decision of General Leopoldo Galtieri, then President of Argentina, to invade, in April, 1982. Argentina had long claimed the islands, which lie three hundred miles off its coast, and although it was defeated in the war, it claims them still. It maintains that the Falklands are an illegal colony, populated by implants sent by London, and that the British forces on the islands are there to prevent islanders from escaping to Argentina.

In a referendum in 2013, all but three voters elected to remain a self-governing British territory, but the Falklands are no longer now as British as they were. They have become a place where people fetch up from all over the world, for all sorts of reasons—rootless wanderers, transient workers, people fleeing politics at home. In February, a small delegation arrived representing a group of Hong Kong Chinese who were nervous about Beijing. Several white South Africans have turned up; in early March, a divorced contractor from Cape Town who had recently emerged from ten years in prison, in Kuwait, visited offices in Stanley with a stack of business cards. But the constant pressure of the Argentine claim compels the islanders to make the case to the world that they are something more than a haphazard group of settlers, sharing nothing but the ground they live on.

Until three hundred years ago, the Falklands were uninhabited, except by wolves, seals, and island birds—penguins, cormorants, skuas, dark-faced ground tyrants. In 1690, a British captain, John Strong, made the first recorded landing, but he didn’t stay long. A French settlement was established in the seventeen-sixties, and quickly handed to the Spanish. For a few years in the same period, the British maintained an outpost on Saunders Island, near West Falkland, but after clashes with the Spanish they decided that it wasn’t worth the money and went home, leaving a lead plaque asserting British sovereignty. The Spanish kept a garrison on East Falkland for forty years at the end of the eighteenth century, and in the eighteen-twenties, under license from Buenos Aires, a Huguenot cattle-ranching merchant from Hamburg hired gauchos from the mainland and started a settlement that lasted for a few years until it was destroyed by an American gunboat. The British reclaimed the islands in 1833, but it was not until the eighteen-forties that a town was established at Stanley.

After that, people came from all over on boats—sheep farmers from England, fishermen from Scandinavia, seal hunters from Connecticut, whalers, pirates. For the better part of a century, Stanley’s harbor was crowded with abandoned ships wrecked on the terrible journey around Cape Horn—the route taken by European prospectors heading for the California gold rush. Many sailors deserted—traumatized by their brush with death, or just from being horribly seasick on the rough passage from Montevideo. They hid out in Camp (an Anglicization of campo, or “countryside”—in the Falklands it meant everywhere that wasn’t town) until their ship had left. Later, people arrived on yachts—they sailed into Stanley Harbor on their way somewhere else and decided to settle—a couple from Australia, a family from France.

The Lady Elizabeth, a ship grounded at the east end of Stanley Harbor.

A man who lived on one of the outer islands for many years used to say that there were two kinds of people in the Falklands: those in Camp, who were mostly descended from farmers who had been kicked out of the Highlands during the clearances, and were hardworking and honest, and those in Stanley, who were descended from people thrown off ships for bad behavior, and were not to be trusted. But there were all sorts in Camp. When Lionel Blake—known as Tim—was the manager of Hill Cove Farm, on West Falkland, in the nineteen-sixties, there were juvenile delinquents working there, one of whom had come to the Falklands straight out of Borstal. It wasn’t easy to get people to move eight thousand miles for low-paid contract work, so you couldn’t be choosy. Tim advertised for shepherds in Farmers Weekly and got a steelworker, a gardener, and a cinema projectionist.

That was how many people came: they answered an ad. The Falklands weren’t a place that most people thought to go to, or had even heard of, so you had to catch their attention. In the early days, farm managers would place notices in newspapers all over Britain. Later, people would post their résumés on hospitality job sites like Catererglobal, or type “overseas jobs” into Google. You didn’t get people who were leaving a lot behind. Even Tim himself was there because he was a third son and there was no room for him on his father’s farm in Somerset.

Tim was Falklands gentry: his grandfather Robert Blake had bought a half-share in Hill Cove in the eighteen-seventies; he lived on the farm for twenty years and had eight children. Shortly before the turn of the century, his body damaged by arthritis and riding accidents, he returned to England, but his share of Hill Cove stayed in the family. This was a common pattern: the early owners lived on the land, but by the twentieth century most farms were held by absentee landlords in Britain, or by the Falkland Islands Company—the Falklands equivalent of the East India Company, combining trade with governance. The government was run by expatriates who didn’t mix with the locals: Falkland Islanders were colonial subjects, and were treated accordingly. At the annual May Ball, people danced the waltz and the foxtrot, and then halfway through the evening everyone moved to the sides of the room so that the governor and his wife and invited dignitaries could process through the hall as the band played “God Save the Queen.”

Tim’s plan was to work in Hill Cove for four years and save enough money to buy land somewhere in England. But, soon after he arrived, he met Sally Clement, the daughter of Wick Clement, another farm manager. Sally had grown up on West Falkland but had been sent to an English boarding school at twelve. By the time she finished there, she barely knew her parents and didn’t want to go back. She wanted to study history at university, but she felt she couldn’t ask her parents to pay for it, and what would she have done with a history degree, anyway? Shortly after she came back to the Falklands, she met Tim at a Christmas party. It was fortunate that they liked each other, since there was almost no one else on the island that either could have married.

In Tim Blake’s first six months at Hill Cove, he found the pace so much slower than English farming that it nearly drove him mad. There were tens of thousands of sheep, but there was no arable land in the Falklands; it was all rocks and peat bogs, so there was much less to do—no working the fields, no plowing and seeding, no harvest. The farmworkers at Hill Cove were always telling him that it was no good getting excited, you could do it tomorrow as well as today: you had a year to do a year’s work, and there was nothing you could do to change the cycle. Eventually, he saw that this was true, and he grew to love the slowness of it, the meditative rhythm of the months going by:

Tim: Riding behind a flock of sheep, or walking behind a flock of sheep—
Sally: You couldn’t hurry them.
Tim: You can’t hurry them. And you’ve got time to—for your mind to float where it will. It was an absolutely fabulous life.

When he was walking behind the sheep, he was always watching them, watching for the wrong sort of movement:

Tim: You upset a sheep, it will switch off, and it ceases to be a thinking thing. But you leave a little gap like that in a fence, somebody will find a way out and the whole lot will go.
Sally: If you make a pig’s ear of it and get them all scattered.
Tim: There will be troublemakers about. When you’re gathering, you’ll always find the odd one that doesn’t want to come in, and you’ll need to watch that sheep. Because when you root her out from one hiding place she won’t have given up. But to stop the spread of ked, which was a skin parasite, you have to be ruthless: if you leave a sheep behind today and it’s got ked on it, it’ll infect any sheep it comes into contact with. We had a rule on the farm that I was taught the moment I got there: if a sheep stops, kill it.

You had to watch for other things, too. In the spring, gulls and turkey vultures attacked the lambs, pecking the underside of a lamb’s chin until they pecked its tongue out. You’d see a ewe with blood on her underside where the lamb had tried to suck but had no tongue to do it. In those days you didn’t butcher for meat, other than the few animals you needed for your own mutton, because there was no abattoir on the islands and no way to get the meat to market, so when a sheep was too old to yield good wool you just killed it and tossed its body on the beach.

For the first twenty years that Tim Blake was at Hill Cove, from the late fifties to the late seventies, the farm, like the other farms in the Falklands, was run on a system that had progressively been outlawed in Britain by legislation, the Truck Acts, which stretched back to the fifteenth century. The farmworkers rarely handled cash: they were paid in scrip, and had a credit account at the farm store in the settlement. At the end of the year, the farm manager would tell them how much money they had left after subtracting their purchases; he would pay their taxes for them and deposit what remained into a government savings account, or help them invest it. The manager might be the only local authority—he conducted marriages and assigned punishments; it was said that not long before Tim Blake came to Hill Cove a man there was fired for whistling. Because drinking could be a problem, especially in winter, when there wasn’t much to do, the farm store rationed sales of alcohol. When a man grew too old for farmwork, he had to retire, which meant that he had to leave his house on the farm and move to Stanley. But there was little for retired men to do in Stanley except go to the pub, and they often died soon afterward.

The farm manager and his family lived in “the big house,” with a maid, a cook, and a gardener. The married men lived either in small houses in the main settlement or in “outside houses,” isolated in distant parts of the farm, where they could tend to the flocks that were near them. As part of their contracts, the families were housed and given mutton to eat and cows to milk. For variety, they ate penguin eggs, which were round, and big as tennis balls; they tasted of seaweed and their yolks were red. Education on the islands was patchy. Some of the larger settlements, with ten or fifteen children, had a schoolhouse, but many children had a travelling teacher, who might live with them for two weeks every two or three months. Among the older generation of farm managers, some considered it imprudent to educate farm children too well.

Single farmworkers lived in a bunkhouse with a cook. With the exception of the maid in the big house, there might be no single women anywhere nearby: around the time of the 1973 census, on the whole of West Falkland there was one unmarried woman and fifty-one unmarried men. Many women married British soldiers—there was a small garrison of Royal Marines on East Falkland—and left the islands; even if a man found someone to marry, the divorce rate was exceptionally high. So, if a man got hurt, it would likely be the manager’s wife who took care of him. When Tony Smith crushed his hand under the drive belt of a generator in Port Stephens and blood was spurting out the tips of his fingers, it was the farm manager’s wife who heated a needle over a candle flame and pushed it through each one of his nails to release the pressure.

If there weren’t enough married men to live in the outside houses, sometimes a single man would live there by himself, not seeing anyone for weeks at a time. There was an outside shepherd living alone on a farm on West Falkland around the nineteen-fifties who fell very ill and thought he was dying, so he let out his dogs and fed his chickens, lay down on his bed, crossed his arms over his chest, and waited for death, figuring that sooner or later someone would find him. After a while he felt better and got up again, and the story was still being told decades later. Everyone thought it was hilarious.

There was a compressed intimacy in the settlements, both stifling and enfolding: there could be few secrets in places that small, and families depended on one another for help. If someone got sick, it could be a couple of days before the doctor reached him; deliveries came rarely, so people had to borrow. Every year after shearing was over, one settlement on each of the main islands would host Sports Week, and the farmers’ families would get together to celebrate. During the day, there was horse racing and shearing competitions and sheepdog trials, sometimes fuelled by gin-and-tonics for breakfast, and in the evening there was drinking and dancing until four or five in the morning. There was no place to stay other than the houses, so there might be twenty people sleeping in two or three rooms, crammed together on the floor.

Ailsa Heathman, a fifth-generation islander, on her farm, Estancia.

Until the nineteen-eighties there were no roads in Camp, so most people got around on horses. Some had Land Rovers, but the soil was so wet that they were always getting stuck in bogs. There weren’t many landmarks to steer by, and fog often obscured the few that there were, so people learned to navigate by looking at the ground. No matter how you travelled, it took hours to get anywhere, so when you passed a house you would stop in for a meal or to sleep over. Anyone living outside a settlement was expected always to be able to come up with a meal and a bed for the night.

For a long time you rarely knew when someone was coming, because there were no phones in Camp, and the mail came once a month. When the mail boat brought letters for one of the outer islands, someone on the mainland would light fires to let people know where the letters were from: one fire for local, two for England. Later, when mail for an outer island arrived in Stanley, it was sorted into sacks, which were then dropped out the door of a plane onto the island. In 1950, the government set up a radio-telephone service linking forty farms; the drawback and the charm of this system was that people could hear one another’s calls. Each morning at ten, a doctor in Stanley would hold consultations over the radio-telephone, and everyone would stop what he or she was doing and sit down around the radio with a cup of tea to listen to islanders describe their coughs and aches and gynecological problems and irritable bowels.

The enormous changes that propelled the Falkland Islands through two centuries of history in twenty years actually began shortly before the war, in the late nineteen-seventies, around the time that Tony Heathman learned how to shear sheep. Tony’s roots in the islands went back as far as Tim Blake’s did, but he came from farmworkers, not gentry: he grew up mostly in Cape Dolphin, on East Falkland; his father was an outside shepherd. He left school at fifteen, in 1964, and worked on the farm at Port San Carlos, then went to Stanley in the winter of 1968 and cut peat.

He had always wanted to learn how to shear sheep in the modern New Zealand style, but there had been no one in Port San Carlos to teach him. Then he heard that in Goose Green there were two managers just over from New Zealand, so he got a job there and started to learn. The method was graceful, precise, every movement choreographed for maximum speed and minimum effort: the shearer standing bent over rather than kneeling, the animal gripped between his legs, the shearer taking up the sheep’s front right leg with his left hand, the first blow of the machine shears down inside the flank, stretching the belly skin up, covering the teats for two blows up the crotch to the center, then rolling the sheep over, two blows across the topknot and above each eye, step through. Then the brisket blows, the neck wool and straight up the throat, round onto the side of the cheek, short one under the ear, the sheep’s head on the shearer’s knee; then down the leg and the sock peeled off, the sheep turned again for the long blow across the back and down the leg—the longest blow in shearing—so that the fleece came off neatly in one piece, like a shed overcoat.

Tony spent a couple of years perfecting his skills at Goose Green, and then, in the early seventies, he joined up with two other men to form a shearing gang, the first in the Falklands. The idea was to go from farm to farm as freelance shearers, charging eightpence a sheep, which was better money than being a shepherd. The shearing gang worked out better for the farms as well, because under the old system they had to employ large numbers of workers for the shearing rush who then didn’t have much to do for the rest of the year.

The gangs came just in time, because the farms were in trouble. Whereas in the previous few decades wool prices had been high and the Falklands had brought in more tax revenues to the British exchequer than they had cost in investment, by the end of the nineteen-seventies the price of wool had plummeted. In 1975, the Foreign Office sent Lord Shackleton—a former Labour Party leader in the House of Lords and a son of the Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton—to the Falklands to assess their prospects. Shackleton recommended that the Falkland Islands government buy the big farms back from their absentee landlords, divide them into lots small enough to be managed by a single family, and sell them to islanders. The absentee landlords were delighted to be rid of their failing properties, and Shackleton’s plan was gradually put into effect.

A few years after Tony Heathman joined the shearing gang, he got married, to a woman named Ailsa, whom he had known all his life—his sister was married to her uncle. They were both fifth-generation islanders, descended on their mothers’ side from the same man, William Fell, who came to the islands from Scotland around 1859. Ailsa had grown up in the Rose Hotel, a pub in Stanley that her parents and grandmother ran, but she spent all her summers with relatives who worked at Green Patch, a farm on East Falkland.

As it happened, Green Patch was the first of the big farms to be subdivided after the Shackleton report. The Falkland Islands Company sold it to the government, and in 1980 the government divided its seventy-two thousand acres into six holdings of around twelve thousand acres each. Tony and Ailsa jumped at the chance to have their own farm. In the years that Tony had been on the shearing gang, Ailsa had been working as a rousie, piling the wool in the sheds, and in the off season they lived in a caravan and drove around Goose Green repairing fences. They could make a hundred pounds a day between them if they were lucky, and they had saved most of it.

They applied for one of the holdings, Estancia, and were offered a lease for fifteen thousand pounds. But running their own farm was not what they’d imagined. The first winter was hard, and they lost a lot of sheep. Because the land was so poor, it could support only three thousand sheep, but you needed a minimum of six thousand to make the farm viable. Wool prices kept going down. Tony and Ailsa couldn’t have got rid of the farm, because they couldn’t have sold it for enough money to buy a place in Stanley, so they cut back everywhere they could think of and held on.

They weren’t alone: the mood everywhere on the islands was grim. It had become obvious to the islanders that Britain considered them a problem. For years, the Foreign Office had been pushing them closer to Argentina, arranging for goods and services to come from there rather than from Britain. Argentina, whose government had recently been taken over by a military junta, had been growing increasingly bellicose on the issue of sovereignty, and the last thing Britain wanted was an international dispute over some distant rocks nobody had heard of. It seemed clear to the islanders that Britain planned at some point to simply hand them over. At the end of 1980, a minister from the Foreign Office visited Stanley and proposed to an apprehensive audience in the town hall that the Falklands be given to Argentina in a long-term “leaseback” arrangement, similar to the one that Britain and China had for Hong Kong. Not long afterward, the House of Lords voted to refuse the islanders British citizenship. “In a place where people have become well aware that loyalty expressed over many generations is swiftly forgotten,” the Penguin News wrote, in a bitter editorial, “they are not surprised that they have been pushed a little further out into the cold.”

If the farms were failing, and Britain was likely to betray them to the Argentines, what was there left to stay for? People began making plans to get out—contract workers went back to Britain; people with enough savings emigrated to New Zealand—but many islanders didn’t have the money to start over in a new country, and had been in the Falklands for so many generations that they no longer had any ties to Britain or anywhere else. Where were they supposed to go?

On April 1, 1982, the governor of the Falkland Islands, Rex Masterman Hunt, received a telegram from the Foreign Office: “We have apparently reliable evidence that an Argentine task force will gather off Cape Pembroke early tomorrow morning. You will wish to make your dispositions accordingly.” Hunt had evacuated from Saigon in 1975 and remembered how long it took to shred documents, so he immediately ordered shredding to begin; then he went on the radio and told the islanders to expect an invasion but not to be inquisitive and go outside, since they’d only be in the way. Patrick Watts, the head of the radio station, announced that he would keep broadcasting, interspersing music with news; people began phoning in to report what they were seeing, and he broadcast the calls. The next day at dawn, the Argentines landed and marched into Stanley. After a brief resistance, the governor realized that fighting back with the islands’ tiny defense force was futile, and surrendered. The Argentines declared that they had come to liberate the islands from colonialism, and ordered schools to be taught in Spanish and everyone to drive on the right-hand side of the road.

For the first few hours, no one knew whether Britain would come to defend them or not. That Argentina would invade when Britain had been more or less asking to hand them over made the country’s regime seem even crazier; people in Stanley began talking about where they could flee to if Britain capitulated. Some began frantically packing to evacuate to Camp, though the Argentines were in Camp, too, forcing people out of their homes, herding them into buildings, demanding food and vehicles. Later that day, the islanders learned that Margaret Thatcher, the British Prime Minister, had decided to send the Navy, after all, though it would take many days to get there.

The islanders did what they could to undermine the enemy. Reg Silvey, the Cape Pembroke lighthouse keeper and a radio ham, rigged an aerial out of a steel-core washing line and transmitted troop information to the British. Terry Peck, a policeman, concealed a telephoto camera in a drainpipe and walked around taking photographs of Argentine missile sites. A farmer named Trudi McPhee led a caravan of islanders in Land Rovers and tractors through hostile territory at night across East Falkland to Tony and Ailsa’s farmhouse, where British troops needed vehicles to transport weapons. Eric Goss, a manager at Goose Green, convinced Argentine soldiers that the lights of British ships in Falkland Sound were moonlight reflecting off seaweed.

A house in Goose Green, a settlement on Lafonia, the peninsula that forms the southern part of East Falkland.

The conflict lasted seventy-four days; around six hundred and fifty Argentines and two hundred and fifty Britons, as well as three Falkland Islanders, died. On the fourteenth of June, Argentina finally surrendered. The commander of the British land forces sent a message to London: “The Falkland Islands are once more under the government desired by their inhabitants. God save the Queen.”

Afterward, Stanley was so wrecked and filthy, rubbish and debris everywhere, that it was hard to imagine it could ever be repaired. People returning to homes where Argentine conscripts had camped out found their things broken or stolen, graffiti on the walls and drawers full of feces. Outside the town, farmers were afraid to move around, because the land was strewn with mines. People were angry and depressed, traumatized by the violence of the invasion and by how helpless and vulnerable it had shown them to be. Many felt guilty about the British soldiers who had died: two hundred and fifty dead for eighteen hundred Falkland Islanders. Were they worth it?

During the war, groups of islanders had been crammed together, either forcibly, by Argentine soldiers, like the more than a hundred people held captive for nearly a month in the community hall at Goose Green, or because they took refuge in the West Store in Stanley. The people who spent the war like that grew very close; but in the dismal aftermath they were overwhelmed by the task of purging the filth from their houses and earning enough money to repair them, and the feeling of togetherness mostly dissipated. After the war, most people in Stanley had troops billeted with them, and everywhere you went there were soldiers in uniform, so the town still felt like a place under military occupation. The British troops called the islanders Bennys, for a village-idiot character in the long-running British soap opera “Crossroads.” When they were ordered to stop, they took to calling them Stills, as in, “Still a Benny.” With so many soldiers coming through on three-month tours, a lot of marriages broke up, and a lot of people turned up at the hospital with S.T.D.s.

Trying to keep their heads above water in Estancia with too few sheep, Tony and Ailsa looked for ways to diversify. They sold hay. They planted vast vegetable gardens and sold produce to the mess kitchen on the base, though the military’s specifications were so rigid that selling to it was barely worth the trouble. (“Each root must be not less than 20 mm in diameter and not less than 50g in weight. The difference in weight between the smallest and largest root in any one package must not be more than 30mm in diameter and 200g.”) Some years, they grew six tons of carrots. For the most part, Ailsa and Tony pulled them all themselves, though one weekend a woman came to help, and was so crippled afterward from all the bending that she had to go to the hospital.

After the war, the wretched condition of the Falklands attracted international attention, and Britain allotted the islands more aid money than it ever had before. It passed a nationality bill that granted Falkland Islanders full British citizenship, and it gave the islands independence in all matters except foreign policy and defense. The islands would be run not by the governor but by their legislative council; this would consist of eight elected members, though there would be no political parties—there was no need, since most people had known one another all their lives. There was already a local court, and since it was difficult to assemble a jury in which no one was related to the defendant, the bailiff was empowered to step outside and collar more potential jurors literally off the street.

But the turning point that changed everything was Britain’s decision, in 1986, to permit the Falklands to claim fishing rights to the waters for a hundred and fifty miles offshore, which it had not allowed before for fear of antagonizing Argentina. The waters surrounding the islands lay on the yearly swimming routes of toothfish—Chilean sea bass—and two species of squid much valued in Asia and southern Europe. For decades, the islanders had watched Russian and Taiwanese fishing boats fill their nets—working by night, shining bright lights into the water to attract the squid to the surface—without being able to do a thing about it. Sales of fishing licenses to foreign fleets multiplied the islands’ collective income threefold, virtually overnight.

Suddenly, all sorts of things that people had been longing for were actually possible. Since the late nineteenth century, islanders had wanted a swimming pool because the sea was too cold to swim in, so nobody knew how, and, when boats capsized, people would drown. Now there would be a pool. A new secondary school was built, and a hospital. The changes that had begun before the war accelerated: the old farms were subdivided, the government lent people money to buy the new ones, and soon nearly all the land in the Falklands was owned by the islanders who farmed it.

Merlita Ponsica immigrated to the Falklands from Cebu, in the Philippines, in 2017.

The government set about building roads all over the islands, so that people could visit one another without its taking eight or ten hours to get there. It subsidized a car ferry linking East Falkland to West Falkland, twenty miles across the Falkland Sound, and a few nine-seater planes to transport people longer distances, or to the outer islands. Proper phones, with numbers and private lines, were installed. It was decided that any Falkland Island teen-agers who passed their exams could attend sixth form and university in Britain, all expenses paid, including trips home each year. A union negotiator went in to haggle with the government and emerged with salaries doubled, wondering if he was hallucinating.

Most people quickly got used to the new way of living, and found that they liked it. But, having grown up in the bad times, Falkland Islanders were extremely frugal, and each new project was strenuously resisted by those who said that it was unnecessary, or too expensive, or that it would never work. Members of the legislative assembly were leery of wasting money on mistakes—and, early on, there were some very expensive mistakes—so before embarking on big projects they hired experts to draw up reports detailing different options, and the pros and cons of each, and everything that could possibly go wrong. The people who had previously complained about the expensive mistakes now complained about the expensive experts, and the regulations and paperwork and best practices they brought with them:

Tony: The fisheries office in Stanley—they spent nearly five hundred thousand pounds on the foundation. You could launch a bloody space shuttle off that foundation!
Ailsa: We’ve been building houses in the Falklands for nearly two hundred years and nothing’s blown away that I ever heard of.

Even with all the experts, things went wrong. When the road from Stanley to the airport was built, it was built with deep ditches on either side. Rumor had it that somebody who wasn’t a Falkland Islander had mistaken the annual rainfall figure for the monthly one, and designed it that way to accommodate flooding. Many years and countless accidents later, the ditches—too expensive to fix—were still there, and people were still bitter about them. After the airport road was tarmacked, some wanted to tarmac more roads, like the one out to the ferry port, while others thought that, if you did that, next thing you knew people were going to want lines painted down the middle of the roads, and then barriers along the edge to prevent cars from falling into the ditches, and by then you might as well give everyone their own limousine and throw in a year’s supply of tiaras while you were at it.

The Falkland Islands were now among the richest places on earth—with an income, per capita, comparable to those of Norway and Qatar. Despite its spending, the government had also put aside several years’ income for a rainy day: it had no debt at all. And, meanwhile, the possibility had arisen of exponentially more money in the near future. Since the nineteen-nineties, oil companies had been exploring the waters around the islands, and by the early twenty-tens it had become clear that substantial oil deposits existed in the basins offshore. The islanders cautiously reminded themselves that drilling was not a certainty—it depended on oil prices and various technical issues—but it seemed increasingly likely that this would happen, and that the Falklands’ annual revenues could soon quadruple. On April 1st, a broadcaster on Falkland Islands radio announced that the government had struck gold and everyone should claim free shares in a mining venture. At that point, the news seemed so plausible that few people realized it was a joke.

Merlita Ponsica was in her forties and working as a receptionist at the visa office in Cebu, a city in the Philippines a few hundred miles southeast of Manila, when a woman a little older than she was came in to apply for a visa to the Falkland Islands. The woman had been working overseas for years—in Hong Kong and Macao and Singapore—and sending money home to her mother, who lived in a rural area and was taking care of the woman’s three children. Then the woman had met a man in an online chatroom, and he had suggested that she join him in the Falklands. Now she had a job in Stanley, working in the convenience store of a gas station, and she was living with the man. She had even brought her children over.

It was safe in the Falklands, the woman said—maybe the safest place in the world. The money was good—up to ten times what you would earn in the Philippines—and health and education were free. It was better than Dubai, even, because in Dubai it was almost impossible to get residency, whereas you could get permanent residency in the Falklands after five years. The woman explained to Merlita how she had met the man online, and soon Merlita, too, had a boyfriend in the Falklands, about twenty-five years older than she was. This man helped her find a job in Stanley, working at the supermarket—you couldn’t move to the Falklands without a job—and in 2017 she flew over.

Patrick Watts, the former head of the Falkland Islands’ radio station, outside his home.

It was cold in Stanley, and very quiet. It was so tiny, after Cebu, and almost nobody about, only a few cars driving by, or sometimes a couple of kids on bicycles. From a distance the town looked pretty, the white houses with colored roofs, but when you walked past the houses you saw that many were cheaply made, with painted siding and corrugated metal. Some people had planted flower beds, but many back yards were messy, strewn with spare building materials and old cars. Some people kept animals—dogs and chickens, even horses and sheep. Sometimes in the evening a lamb could be heard crying. On Saturday nights, if you walked past one of the pubs you could hear loud music inside, and there would be people standing outdoors smoking, women in tight dresses, and sometimes drunk people flailing about, punching each other. But the woman in the visa office had been right; it was safe. At home she’d been afraid to carry money, but also afraid not to carry money, because if someone attacked her and she hadn’t got any she might be killed. In Stanley, she never worried about walking alone.

At first, she was very homesick. There were other Filipinos in Stanley, but the ones who’d come before her could be snooty about new arrivals, so she mostly kept to herself. After a few months, she and the boyfriend broke up—she found out that he’d been seeing another Filipina on the side—but the money was good and she decided to stay. She worked, went home, cooked dinner, went to sleep. She had left her three-year-old son back in the Philippines, and she missed him so much she wanted to die. Then she figured out how to get one of her sisters a job in Stanley, as a waitress. Once her sister arrived, she felt better. Her sister worked late at the restaurant, so in the evenings after the supermarket closed Merlita was alone. But at night, and on their days off, she and her sister sat in their house and sang and drank together, and video-called home after midnight, when the Internet was cheaper.

Filipinos were relatively recent arrivals. After the war, people had started arriving from St. Helena, another British island territory in the South Atlantic. In the nineties and early two-thousands, Chileans who had grown up under military dictatorship had started moving to the Falklands to work in the hotel—for a long time there was only one hotel, the Upland Goose—or in the shops, or to drive a taxi. Later on, a group of mine-clearance workers from Zimbabwe spent a couple of years on the islands, ridding them of mines from the war, and some liked it enough that they decided to stay and bring their families.

Some of the de-miners had already lived all over the world—the Falklands was just another posting. Shupi Chipunza had grown up in Harare and done A-levels in history, Shona, and English literature intending to go to university, but then he heard that de-mining paid double what he could earn as a teacher. He left to take a series of de-mining jobs, in Croatia, then Lebanon, then Congo, then Cyprus, then Afghanistan, and, finally, the Falklands. By the time he got to Stanley, he had married Agnes, a girl who grew up on his street in Harare, and they had three young children. He wanted to stop going away so much, so he got a job installing floors, and later worked as a firefighter at the airport. He brought Agnes over, and she started a house-cleaning business. Shupi was determined that he and Agnes would not fail to integrate into the Falklands community, and he had lived in so many places that he knew what it took to get the natives to accept you. He joined a soccer team, he participated in charity fund-raisers—there were a lot of charity fund-raisers. He explained to Agnes which foods the islanders ate with cutlery and which with their hands, so that they wouldn’t embarrass themselves if they were invited to dinner.

Whereas in the seventies in the Falklands there had been only sheep, now there were not only the fisheries but also tourism, which was growing every year, with all the cruise ships stopping by on their way to Antarctica. Tony and Ailsa, like many islanders, started a sideline in tourism. They did battlefield tours and talked about their war experience, and showed people the remains of two Argentine helicopters near their farm. They drove people out to see the king penguins on the beach at Volunteer Point. On a big cruise-ship day there might be fifty vehicles at Volunteer Point, with four passengers in each. During the summer, many people took time off work to pick up tourism gigs, but there still weren’t enough drivers for the days when four thousand passengers came ashore, more than doubling the islands’ population, so the tourists who hadn’t booked car trips in advance would trudge around Stanley in matching promotional rain jackets and extreme-weather boots, taking photographs of the statue of Margaret Thatcher and the red post boxes and the red phone booths outside the post office.

It was impossible to fill all the jobs—many people in Stanley had two or three. Young people switched careers easily if they felt like it: from I.T. consultant to running an embroidery business; from research biologist to airline pilot. People who had emigrated in the seventies began moving back, and three-quarters of the students who went away to study returned, but there still weren’t enough. Shops and hotels started bringing in more and more people from abroad, and by the time of the 2016 census only forty-three per cent of the population was native-born. Of the remainder, about half were from Britain, but the rest came from nearly sixty countries. Of course, it being the Falklands, many of the sixty countries were represented by one or two people. (“The Russians came through fisheries science. There’s a Romanian in Port Howard—he’s a farmworker. The Latvian, I really don’t know how he got here.”)

In addition to those who came for work, there were a lot of travellers in the Falklands—people who spent their time staring at maps, who had been all over the world, who had no deep roots and had fetched up in the South Atlantic for one reason or another. Pat Warburton was a dental hygienist in her sixties from York Springs, Pennsylvania, who had been to Tibet and Mongolia in a Unimog truck that she and a boyfriend had kitted up into a mobile home. She had followed the Silk Road through Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan into northwestern China; she had been all over Europe and South America and Africa. She would stop to work for a few months in dental offices that took her on temporarily, in South Africa or New York or Kathmandu, and then, when she had saved enough money, she would search on Web sites—Workaway, MindMyHouse—for people who could give her room and board in exchange for some kind of help. On a three-month coconut-harvesting Workaway in the Tuamotu Islands, in the South Pacific, she decided that she liked remote islands, and she liked the sound of the Falklands, so she placed an advertisement in the Penguin News. She was taken in by a couple at Hill Cove who wanted help around the farm, and spent a few months cooking for a shearing gang, cleaning barns, and castrating lambs. A neighbor spotted her, and she ended up moving in.

A group of penguins at Volunteer Point, on East Falkland.

Keith Biles started out in the nineteen-sixties working in London for a firm of bullion dealers, but when he visited his brother-in-law, who was working in Pretoria, he realized that many people were living better for less money overseas, and he wanted to be a part of that. He went to work for a bank that would send him abroad, and was posted to Manila, then Hong Kong, then New York, Sri Lanka, Oman, Dubai, Ghana, and the Falklands. While he was living in Stanley, he turned fifty-five and came up for retirement, and he and his wife had to decide where to settle. He was drawn to Cyprus because the climate was nice and life there was easy, but his wife couldn’t face it, thirty years of sitting in the sun and going to bars and meeting other expatriates for dinner. They considered returning to England, but it had been so many years since they’d lived there that they had no roots anywhere in particular. Their children were living in different parts of the country and planning to emigrate themselves. So in the end they decided to stay. They had friends in Stanley, they were active in local organizations, they had a nice house with a picture window overlooking the sea.

Prosperity changed nearly everything. When an islander bought one of the new farms, he needed to live on his own land, so typically he moved into the outside shepherd’s house that was already on it. Suddenly, the people he had lived with for years, maybe his whole life, were gone, and his family was alone. The work on each farm could be managed by one couple, especially once people started herding sheep with quad bikes rather than horses, so farmworkers who couldn’t afford to take on their own farms either moved to Stanley or left. Within a few years, many of the settlements had emptied out—a place that had had fifty people living in it might now have four. People didn’t need neighbors anymore, though, the way they once did; now they had money, and it was easier to get into Stanley on a plane, and products were flown in from abroad all the time, so, if they needed something, they might no longer have to borrow.

The new roads made getting around much quicker, which meant that if you wanted to visit someone you could, without taking two days to do it. But, because of that, you didn’t need to stop at anyone’s house along the way, or spend the night. People got into the habit of calling before they came, to make sure that a visit was convenient. A lot of people stopped staying over for Sports Week. They might come out to see the races, drink a few Budweisers in the afternoon, and then drive home that night. It was a bit of an imposition to stay over, and who wanted to spend a night on the floor when you could sleep in your own bed? Anyway, Sports Week was no longer as exciting as it had been when it was the only time you’d see certain people all year. With so many leaving early, Sports Week became Sports a few days, and the all-night dances petered out:

Tony: There’s no social life left in the Camp.
Ailsa: I used to keep all the beds made up—people often stopped here overnight. We used to get about eight hundred visitors a year.
Tony: Twelve hundred, one year!
Ailsa: We all knew each other. Tony would be away nearly every weekend looking for somebody that was lost or bogged. When we first got this place, I said, “I want hooks in the storeroom for twelve mugs.” He said, “What the hell do you want twelve mugs for?” Well, there was many a day they were all dirty and I’d be washing them before the next lot came in. But once the road went in people would just drive past.

With the new phones, you could finally talk to a doctor in private, and people quickly got used to that. Years later, when the hospital was being refurbished, a temporary waiting room was set up, with windows that were visible from the road, and people complained that it was outrageous that passersby might see them there and know that they had an appointment. On the other hand, while there was now more privacy, some things that had not been spoken of before, or had been hidden in isolated farmhouses, began to come out. Stanley’s small jail grew crowded with elderly sex offenders. The hospital could now afford to invest in mental health; visiting therapists noticed in the islands’ population a surprising near-absence of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, but a higher than usual incidence of alcohol abuse and depression.

There were a few people who said that they liked the Falklands better the way they used to be, though almost everybody mocked them for pining for the good old days, when everyone was poor and miserable and half the population was trying to leave. “I wish it had never happened,” Patrick Watts says. “I did love the old Falklands the way it was—the nice, relaxed, slow way of life we had—which some people couldn’t tolerate, so they upped and went. It was a small population, and we were closer together. Pre-’82, the Falklands was the place where I lived; now it’s the place where I work. That’s how I describe it.”

It used to be that people who lived in Stanley knew everyone they saw on the street, and would say hello to them. Of course, you always had the odd foreigner turning up. Patrick Watts had brought home his wife, Sima, a Dutch citizen of Indian extraction who had grown up in Suriname, having met her at an all-you-can-eat buffet dinner at Mr. Wu, a Chinese restaurant in London. But in the old days people came one at a time, so you recognized them. The older generation found the number of strangers disturbing, although they weren’t greeting people on the street anymore, anyway, because now everyone had cars so nobody walked.

Some islanders complained that, with so many people from all over the world, the Falklands were becoming unrecognizable. Others found the new cosmopolitanism exciting, and thought that those who complained were lacking in vision and probably racist, harkening back to the days before the war, when islanders used to cite the nearly hundred-per-cent whiteness of the population as proof that they were truly British. But, in addition to this familiar divide, there was a twist unique to the Falklands, caused by the lingering spectre of the war. Falkland Islanders claimed the right to self-determination under the United Nations Charter. The charter granted that right to “peoples,” but it didn’t define what that meant. What did it take to be a people? How did some people become a people? Was it a matter of time? Shared culture? Children born on the land? Was there, on the other hand, a point at which a population was so transient and unstable that it looked less like a society than like an airport? Islanders liked to point out that their old families had lived in the Falklands for more generations than many Argentine families had lived in Argentina—for practically as long as Argentina had been a country—and some worried that if the islands again came to be inhabited mostly by travellers and contract workers from abroad this advantage would be lost.

People had come to the Falklands for so many different reasons that it was hard to combine them into the kinds of larger national legends that explained who you were. Most of the usual stories were not available. The first arrivals had not tamed or transformed the land, uprooting trees and plowing fields: there were no trees, and the sheep took the land as it was. The islanders had rid themselves of their colonial masters, but not by revolution; the colonial masters had wanted to be rid of them. A liberating war had been won, but not by the islanders themselves. Moreover, although the islands now had plenty of money, they were still reliant on Britain in many ways—for medical care, education, and defense, for professionals and experts. Independence seemed impossible, at least in the foreseeable future; the place was just too small.

Most people now described themselves as Falkland Islanders first and British second, but it was hard to say what that meant. Britishness was easy to proclaim—the Union Jacks, the red post boxes. Symbols were enough because everybody knew what Britain was, and there was too much of it to capture, anyway. But what a Falkland Islander was, was harder to describe. Most people felt strongly that sheep farming was an important part of their heritage, but not many people lived in Camp anymore. The gift shops were full of penguins, but although everybody liked penguins they were not obviously totemic. “We’re so young, we don’t have a long history,” Leona Roberts, a member of the islands’ legislative assembly, says. “And there’s no native population, no carvings to tell us who we are.”

When asked what it meant to be a Falkland Islander, most people with deep roots in the islands would talk about survival in isolation and bad weather; making do with very little; figuring out how to fix something without training or the proper parts; helping one another out because nobody else was going to do it, because there was nobody else. A lot of being a Falkland Islander had to do with being poor, but now Falkland Islanders were no longer poor. “When Premier Oil researched its first environmental and social-impact statement, we had people saying, We’ve got to protect our way of life, we’ve got to protect our way of life,” Mike Summers, the head of the chamber of commerce, says. “And at some point in a meeting I said, ‘So what is that, then?’ And there was a silence. And I said, ‘You see—the problem is, we don’t know.’ ”

In late March, as the plague drew closer, and the planes stopped coming, the islanders, like people everywhere, sat at home and went online, trying to figure out what was going to happen. Oil prices had plunged since the pandemic began, and covid had been spreading among workers living in close quarters on rigs, so it seemed unlikely that drilling would start anytime soon. With restaurants closing in Europe, demand for fish was a fraction of what it had been, and that was in addition to the possibility that Brexit would result in European tariffs approaching twenty per cent. It was not yet clear what all this meant for the fisheries, but their revenues made up nearly two-thirds of the islands’ income, so any reduction would have an enormous impact. Tourism was the second-largest business, and that consisted almost entirely of cruise-ship passengers. Who was going to sign up for a cruise now? And if the tourists stopped coming restaurants and hotels would close. You weren’t allowed to stay in the Falklands without a job, so the people who worked there and didn’t yet have permanent residency might have to go home.

What would happen if planes stopped bringing in regular supplies? Would the islands become remote once more, hoping the deliveries came in, relying on homegrown food if they didn’t? In the old days, fruit was shipped in once a month—it was hard to grow anything on the islands other than berries—and people called mutton “365” because they ate it every day, sometimes for all three meals. Could that happen again? Would younger people who’d grown up in Stanley learn to slaughter sheep? Maybe the people who missed the way the Falklands used to be would get what they wanted:

Ailsa: Another World War. Heaven forbid, but it might sort the world out.
Tony: Shut shore down for a month.
Ailsa: We’d have to learn to live on our own resources and get along together for once.

It seemed inevitable that the plague would come. Everyone was waiting. For weeks, some people had been saying on Facebook that the government ought to close the borders, at least to the cruise ships, but the passengers kept arriving, walking all over Stanley, spreading God knows what.

Now, though, with the beginning of fall in the Southern Hemisphere, the tourism season was over. There would be no more cruise ships, and the bed-and-breakfasts and the gift shops would shut. With borders closing in other countries and the uncertainty of flights, many of the experts and consultants had gone home. The long-term islanders would be on their own again for the winter. And if people started dying everyone would mourn, because everyone would know who they were.

Larissa MacFarquhar
Carlos Alves de Sousa