The Wreck of the Isabella; & The Falklands and the Dwarf
Hugh Stephenson reviews two new books on the Falkland Islands
- The Wreck of the Isabella
David Miller - Leo Cooper, 1995 - 259 pp. - £16.95
- The Falklands and the Dwarf
Kit Layman and Jane Cameron - Picton Publishing, 1995 - 160 pp. - £29.50
In the three centuries since 1690, when they were first claimed for Britain and named after the then Treasurer of the Navy, Lord Falkland, those wind-and-rainswept islands in the South Atlantic have claimed a place in British political and military affairs out of all proportion to their limited economic significance. Most of the history written about them has served to put them in their strategic context. Now, indirectly as a result of the 1982 Falklands War with Argentina, we have two books of quite another kind about the islands' history.
The Isabella was an ordinary brig on an ordinary voyage back to England from the convict colony of New South Wales via Cape Horn. The passengers were time-expired convicts and returning soldiery, including a detachment of Royal Marines who had been part of an original group of forty-nine sent out in 1803 to help found Hobart in Van Diemen's Land and then forgotten about by the admiralty. In February 1819, with the Master drunk, she ran in the dark onto an outlying island of the Falklands group. The islands at the time were uninhabited. The fifty-four passengers and crew had no prospect of rescue.
David Miller, who first started to research this hitherto unrecorded epic of survival when he went as an army officer to the Falklands in 1985, has brought together an astonishing volume of information about all of those involved in the saga. The result is a most unusual documentary insight into the lives and life-expectations of a chance collection of colonialists, convicts, sailors and sealers: all living out lives that would otherwise have been unremarkable if they had not – as rescued or as rescuers, as heroes or as villains, as Britons or as Americans – been caught up in a drama that extended over twenty-one months and two full southern winters. In addition, as the story unfolds, one is offered telling vignettes of the exhausted state of the Royal Navy after seventeen continuous years of global war against the French and as a result of the sudden extra operational strain caused by the War of 1812 with the Americans.
The second book concerns the Falklands seventy years later, when the islands were a reasonably well-settled and moderately prosperous British colony. The raw material of the book is a collection of unpublished letters to his wife by the captain of HMS Dwarf; a small warship sent from Montevideo in 1881-82 to cruise the islands and prevent seal poaching. His account of everything he saw and everyone he met, both at Stanley and on all the remote islands, is a remarkable social document.
The letters are a charming read in their own right. Their value to the social historian of the Falklands lies in the thorough research and annotation underlying them. (Admiral Layman commanded the Seventh Frigate Squadron during the 1982 war and returned to the islands as Commander British Forces in 1986.) The contemporary photographs that accompany the text of the letters are mainly the work of Jane Cameron, since 1989 the Falkland Island Government Archivist. From the pages spring not only the personages of Stanley at the time, but the hardy ex-soldiers and Scottish crofter-settlers whose names and descendants have made the Islands and the Falkland Islands Company what they are today.
Hugh Stephenson is Professor of Journalism at City University.
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