Monday, June 30, 2008

The South Atlantic as Biography

In last week's mail, I received an invitation to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, in London, for the book launch of the Dictionary of Falklands Biography. Unfortunately, I won't be able to make the trip, but the project should appeal to anyone interested in the South Atlantic Ocean, Patagonia, and the Falklands (known to Argentines as the Malvinas) in particular. Most of the contributors to the book's short bios are British, but there is one prominent Argentine historian and one Chilean. Some entries are autobiographical.

Lack of time and money prohibit my attending the launch, but the book deserves attention. Covering the period prior to the Argentine invasion of 1982, it's been a labor of love for former Islands Governor David Tatham, who invited me to contribute a piece on Scottish sheepfarmer John Hamilton (pictured here), who emigrated to the islands in the 1880s but spent much of his life in Chile and Argentina as well. In the mid-1980s, I had spent a year-plus in the islands on a Fulbright-Hays grant while researching my PhD dissertation in geography at the University of California, Berkeley; during that period, I did some biographical research and writing on Hamilton with materials from the local archive. While I also did some university teaching in the ensuing years, I got sidetracked into guidebook writing (which. however, has allowed me to revisit the Islands several times) and thus never published that material until now.

Hamilton is an interesting figure because he embodies the ambivalence and ambiguity of the relations between the Islands and the continent. He acquired substantial properties in Argentine Patagonia and, in 1904, he married Olivia Heap, a Scotswoman who had been a nurse at the British Hospital in Buenos Aires. His daughter Penelope later married an Argentine.

Even as his Argentine properties prospered, Hamilton kept a close watch on the Falklands and, when opportunities arose, he began to acquire property there. In 1922, for instance, he bought Beaver Island and adjacent islets; shortly thereafter he purchased Weddell Island and the Passage Islands, and then Saunders Island (pictured here) in the mid-1930s. He also owned property in Stanley.

While he lived mostly in Argentina, Hamilton was neither a speculator, nor a stereotypical absentee landlord. He took positive action to improve pastures on badly overgrazed Weddell, including stock reductions and replanting of tussac grass, and he imported coniferous trees from Punta Arenas as ornamentals and windbreaks. He also attempted to diversify the farm economy through minor industries such as seal oiling (soon abandoned) and the introduction of exotic mammals such as foxes, skunks and guanacos from the South American continent. The idea was that their pelts, as well as those of South American otters, would find overseas markets; ironically, foxes proved a plague to West Falkland farmers.

Hamilton kept much of his money locally, with more than £90,000 in Stanley's Government Savings Bank even during the 1930s Great Depression (when he donated several thousand pounds for construction of lighthouses on East and West Falkland, and improvements to King Edward Memorial Hospital). He also researched road-building in the countryside at a time when such projects were so visionary as to be almost hallucinatory.

In 1940 Hamilton moved to Buenos Aires because of a chronic eye problem and, when ongoing treatment required him to remain nearby, he purchased a stud farm at the locality of Merlo, west of the Argentine capital. He died in September 1945, survived by his daughter Penelope Alvarez.

Unfortunately, the Falklands properties became a bone of contention because of their ownership by Hamilton's Argentine heirs; while Hamilton had once attemped to move his headquarters from London to Stanley, he ran into complications with Argentina, which may have seen his properties as a foothold in the Falklands. Instead, he incorporated offshore in Jersey.

After his death, many Islanders argued for Hamilton's expropriation as part of an ambitious land reform scheme that never came to fruition. In 1987, five years after the South Atlantic War, the Hamilton estate finally sold Beaver, Weddell, Saunders and surrounding islets to local residents. In a visit to Weddell only a few months before that took place, I copied the photograph above; a few years later, Hamilton's handsome Weddell house, with its spectacular interior woodwork, burned to the ground in a chimney fire - the photograph with it.

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