A town called Egmont
A.S.H. Smyth yomps to the scant, wind-battered ruins of the first British colony on the Falkland Islands
This article is taken from the August/September 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
Ninety miles West-North-West of Stanley, Saunders Island is home to the Pole-Evans family, 6,500 sheep, cows, both pet and working dogs, some horses, one pig plainly being fattened up for Christmas, albatross colonies, Johnny Rooks, countless penguins, the occasional dead whale, and the site of the oldest British settlement on the 780 islands that comprise the Falklands.
Thanks to the infamously changeable Falklands weather, our little red FIGAS air taxi had been delayed for the morning, so once David Pole-Evans and his wife and daughter (see also: the fire service) had collected us from the airstrip, and we’d driven the few hundred metres over to “the Settlement”, and had a cup of tea, there was only really a couple of hours of mid-autumnal light left in the day.
“How far is it to Port Egmont?” I asked. “Oh, maybe 20 minutes,” said our hosts, not glancing at our three-year-old.
Nine months earlier, the French had secretly set up a base on East Falkland
The Pole-Evanses mainly commute by quad bike; but my wife had said we would not need the baby-carrier. So, under a chilly, clear sky, we tramped out, child on our backs, along the coastal path, between the black mud of the water’s edge and the Eastern slopes of Mount Egmont (259m), up a gentle valley, through long moorland paddocks of befuddled-looking sheep and hairy cows, until, as the sun began to disappear precipitously behind the hill, we reached a newish-looking gate, beyond which a Union Jack could clearly be made out flapping vigorously at full mast, amid the ruins of some low stone buildings.
Until the second half of the eighteenth century, most sightings of the Falklands were by lost mariners, blown off course from the coast of Patagonia, on attempted journeys around Cape Horn. All ships approached the islands from the West, not least because of the prevailing, often very forceful, winds. For this reason — and in the absence of a North West passage or Panama Canal — the Falkland Islands were to become an important staging post for European ships either preparing for or recovering from voyages to the Pacific, and a potential strategic position against the Spanish in the eventuality of war.
In January 1765, Commodore the Hon. John Byron of the frigate HMS Dolphin landed at what he proclaimed “one of the finest natural harbours in the world … All the Navy of England might ride here together very safely.” Taking possession on behalf of George III, “his heirs and successors”, Byron (left) named the spot for the Earl of Egmont, then First Lord of the Admiralty. Byron wrote, “I am almost certain that We are the first Ships that ever have been there since the Creation, & I coasted the Island above 70 Leagues afterwards, but saw no Smokes nor Signs of any Bodys being there.”
In fact, nine months earlier, the French had secretly set up a base on East Falkland. This was Port Louis, with a population of 74 mainly Nova Scotian refugees (one of whose children, Sebastien Benoit, may well have been the first man ever to be born in the Falkland Islands). This French expedition had set out from St Malo — whence “Malouines”, and, latterly, “Malvinas”. It is illustrative of the geography of the Falklands that these rival settlements spent almost two years failing to find each other (although when they did, they exchanged officerly hospitality).
In 1766, a Captain John MacBride returned to Port Egmont with HMSs Jason, Carcass and Experiment. They secured possession, laying out kitchen gardens, constructing buildings including an artillery blockhouse, installing a garrison, and leaving a ship on permanent stand-by.
Although most of the “settlers” slept aboard their ships, an archaeological survey carried out in 1992 identified some 50 distinct man-made features, from the harbour complex to the Governor’s residence. Still visible are significant remains of a large store/barracks building, houses, and gun emplacements, as well as numerous low, gorse-topped banks that denote more structures, long since abandoned and trampled by the grazing animals.
Alas for tourists, much of the locally-available building material, such as peat blocks, tussac grass and whale ribs, was biodegradable — and what was not was ultimately removed or “upcycled” by one party or another. But bits of brick, sea-smoothed glass, and fragments of tile are visible along the seashore; chinaware, penguin-boilers and other evidence of daily life have also been found.
The South Atlantic experience “distinguishes the man of perseverance”
Crucially, the settlement and the body of water in front of it are sheltered by Mount Egmont from the westerly winds, which in the age of sail could often make it impossible to get out of a harbour in that general direction (the next day, at the opposite end of Saunders Island, I found myself walking at almost 45 degrees — both left and forwards — just to stay upright).
Those with a good imagination will not struggle to envisage that “an appointment so remote, and so unfavourable” — in the words of ship’s surgeon Bernard Penrose — was hardly thought of as a cushy posting. He, too, complains of the weather: that the ice was two feet thick on the ponds in winter, and in mid-summer hailstorms destroyed their vegetables.
When not on board ship, they often lived in makeshift buildings that “in England would not have been used even as kennels for dogs”. Resourceful, but hardly over-resourced, these men (I find no mention of women or children) certainly had to be industrious. Penrose recounts them bending the edges of a spade as a replacement for their frying pan. In all, he found the South Atlantic experience “distinguishes the man of perseverance”. Above the settlement, a small cemetery, containing half a dozen graves, stands on the side of Mount Egmont.
In 1767, the French retired, ceding Port Louis to Spain (who had hitherto made no physical impression on the islands). Having finally discovered where the British were, in June 1770 a Spanish commander arrived at Port Egmont with five armed ships and 1,400 soldiers. The tiny British garrison fired their guns once, for honour’s sake, and then capitulated. Lord Nelson wrote that the expulsion from Egmont was what inspired him to join the Navy.
The dishonour was short-lived, for a year later, the Spanish handed Port Egmont back to the British in order to avoid war. But less than three years after that, a Royal Navy strategic review (on the eve of the American War of Independence) resulted in the garrison’s withdrawal, the departing CO, Lt Clayton, affixing a lead plaque to the blockhouse door, to let it be known to all nations that the Falkland Islands remained British.
Sealers soon re-occupied the settlement, until the Spanish burned the buildings down in 1780. However, the Spanish then permanently evacuated Port Louis in 1811, leaving a lead plaque claiming possession for Ferdinand VII. At the end of 1832 a small Argentine garrison arrived at Port Louis, under the command of Major Esteban Mestivier, whom they promptly murdered. Within weeks, they were expelled by a detachment of Royal Marines from HMS Clio.
Most tourists, I suspect, come for the penguins
For a while, the Brits called the place “Anson’s Harbour”, before reverting to the former French nomenclature. But a report from Admiral George Grey in 1836 likened the “little Colony” to “a preventative station on the coast of Northumberland” — and though a few outlines of these old settlement buildings are still visible, Port Louis soon became, and is today, a modest sheep farm. In 1845, the governor, Richard Moody, moved the capital to Port Jackson (which he renamed Port Stanley) because it was deemed the safest and best harbour, letting out almost immediately onto the ocean to the East.
When Richard Moody stepped down as the governor, three of his men chose to remain, including Pte James Biggs, whose descendants substantially contributed to the current population. One of them is a colleague of mine in two separate jobs; another is the owner of the big stone building (a rarity) I spotted from the air just as we cleared West Falkland.
On Saunders Island, David Pole-Evans and his family remain the only occupants, apart from tourists — and most of those, I suspect, come for the penguins. But at Port Egmont, the Union Jack still flutters valiantly in the wind.
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