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OutpostsJourneys to the Surviving Relics of the British Empire
By Winchester, Simon
Like most long journeys into the unknown, this one began with an idea -- an idea that was triggered by a strange story I read one wet Sunday afternoon in a recent early spring, on the front page of a London newspaper. It was all about the alleged 'invasion' of an island known as Southern Thule, which was said to be 10,000 miles away from England in chilly wastes of the Southern Ocean.
The island of Southern Thule is quite barren, windswept, bitterly cold, uninhabited and, to all intents and purposes, useless. The Admiralty's Antarctic Pilot says that it is part of an old sunken volcano, and is covered with ash and penguin guano. There are seals, a variety of petrels and a bank of kelp weed a few hundred yards offshore, especially around a small inlet called Ferguson Bay. Of other possible delights the Pilot is silent.
The central fact of this curious tale is that Southern Thule belongs now, and belonged at the time of the 'invasion', to Britain. It was, and is, a part of a British Crown colony -- one of the South Sandwich Islands, which are themselves dependencies of the Falkland Islands. Southern Thule was, indeed, part of the British Empire. It was given its name because it must have seemed to its first finders at very much the extreme end of the discoverable world.
Some time during the November of 1976 -- no one is certain of the exact date -- a party of fifty members of the Argentine Air Force landed on this remote British rock and, with neither notice, permission nor publicity, constructed a small military base. They built barracks, and a small concrete landing pad for their helicopters. They set up weather-recording machinery and a radio station. They built a plinth, and erected a flagpole, and they flew their flag -- the blue and white bandera of the Argentine Republic. So far as they and their commanders were concerned the island, hitherto British, was now an integral part -- de facto if not de jure -- of Argentina.
It was a month before the British Government discovered what had happened. Ham radio operators on the Falkland Islands, a thousand miles away to the west, heard chatter between Argentine naval vessels and the Thule air force detachment. On the orders of the Ministry of Defence the local Royal Naval guard ship -- HMS Endurance -- was sent down to investigate. Five days before Christmas a helicopter from the ship spotted the Argentinians, and the extraordinary news of what was at the very least an act of the most immense cheek, was flashed to London.
But what initially intrigued me about the story is that London did almost nothing about it. More than a year was to go by before word of the seizure was to leak out to the British public -- via the Sunday newspaper -- or to the British Parliament. The then Prime Minister, James Callaghan, admitted to a House of Commons that was by turns amused and outraged that yes, he had known all about the affair and that no, he was not planning to send in the Marines to dislodge the Argentinian trespassers. Patient negotiations would continue, he said, to try to persuade them to go away, and in the meantime the interests of regional serenity, diplomatic practice and protocols would be better served if everyone remained calm, and made light of the incident.
The Argentines remained on Southern Thule until six days after the Falklands War was ended, on 28th June 1982. The same HMS Endurance that had first sighted the men six years before, turned up with a recovery party. HMS Yarmouth, a frigate, dropped a salvo of shells on to a bluff not far from the Argentine base. A Royal Naval tug and a Royal Fleet Auxiliary stood by, giving the whole exercise a properly Imperial appearance. And the Argentines, outnumbered and outgunned, surrendered and handed over their weapons to the Royal Marines. The Union flag was hoisted, and everyone -- British victors and Argentine vanquished -- sailed away and left Southern Thule to a customarily lonely winter of gales, ice storms and blizzards.
The story did not quite end there. Six months later a passing British warship noticed, to general astonishment, that the Union flag had been taken down from the jackstaff and the blue-and-white Argentine flag run up in its place. Wary sailors clambered on to the island, finding it deserted, but noticed that whoever had taken the British flag down had folded it with commendable neatness and stuffed it under a nearby boulder. There was general agreement that the new invader was a wit, if nothing else.
The sailors' amusement was not matched back in London: a signal was sent to HMS Apollo ordering its men to destroy all buildings on Southern Thule, leaving none fit for prolonged habitation. Demolition crews moved in with plastic explosive, and by Christmas 1982 every barrack block and mess room and met station was reduced to a pile of concrete rubble.
Only a tiny refuge hut was left, stocked with rations, in case a British survey team should ever find itself benighted on the island. And to give such stranded men solace, a Bible, presented by the Scottish Commercial Travellers' Christian Union, was tucked in with the food. As a final act the helicopter crew from Endurance raised yet another Union flag, though since the halyards had been destroyed it could only flutter at half mast, where it possibly remains to this day, whipped by the freezing winds, to declare to all the world that this minute speck of worthless land is British, and that, as stated in the best-known of all British Imperial axioms, 'What we have, we hold.'
The story intrigued me, for one reason above all. I had thought to the extent that I had ever thought about the matter at all since schooldays -- that we had no longer had an Empire ...Continues...
Excerpted from Outposts by Winchester, Simon Excerpted by permission.
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