Phantom Pirates of the Falkland Islands

The US sent its navy over to clear out the Falkland Islands.. in 1831

We've all heard of the Falkland Islands wars in 1982. The British Government claimed that the Falkland Islands were uninhabited until they established a colony under the queen in 1841. The Argentine Government claimed that they had territorial sovereignty over the Falkland Islands first, but were later invaded by the British. Today, we will be talking about another invasion of the Falkland Islands... in 1831.

A stamp issued in 1982 from the Argentine Government commemorating Luis Vernet.

In 1826, French citizen Luis Vernet was given permission by the newly-minted Government in Buenos Aires for an expedition and a settlement in the Falkland Islands. Back then, it was called Islas Malvinas.

Decree from the Governor of Buenos Aires authorizing Luis Vernet to lead an Expedition

In 1829, the Government in Buenos Aires gave him the commission of governor to enforce laws and regulate commerce in the Islands. Later that year, Vernet moved to Port Soledad with his family and a group of thirty Gauchos. He also sent a circular to all masters engaged in fisheries on any part of the coast under his jurisdiction, “ordering them to desist from fishing under penalty of confiscation and ordered ship masters not to shoot cattle on the East Falkland Islands.”

British and American ships completely ignored this circular and continued about their business. However, Luis Vernet was very enthusiastic about his new colony. He even issued his own currency in 1829.

Vernet decided to collect tolls from ships that used the Island for fishing and whaling. He contracted English sea captain Mathew Brisbane to collect the taxes. Captain Brisbane received a portion of the fees collected.

In 1831, Captain Brisbane tried to collect taxes on the American ship: The Superior, which was captained by Stephan Congar. Captain Congar paid the tolls, but immediately he sailed his ship to Buenos Aires and reported Vernet's action as piracy to the US envoy, George Slacum. However, in Buenos Aires, there was a small problem: there was no damage or theft to any American ships. But, since when did a slight problem like facts ever get in the way of US aggression?

Soon, the US ship Harriet crossed the Falkland Islands. Once again, Captain Brisbane tried to collect the tolls. Captain Davinson refused to pay the fees, but he agreed to sail his ship to Buenos Aires, where it could be adjudicated in court.

A third ship, The Breakaway, followed. This time, Captain Carew tried to make a run for it. However, he was stopped by Brisbane's men. Brisbane confiscated the ship's papers and left three men to guard the ship. Captain Carew's crew overpowered the guards and made it back to Connecticut, where they, too, cried about piracy.

All this commotion got Andrew Jackson's attention in 1831. He ordered his Navy Secretary Levi Woodbury to send a Navy ship to put an end to the piracy in the high seas. Navy Secretary Levi Woodbury penned a letter to Captain Silas Duncan, who was stationed near Rio de Janeiro, in this hysterical letter.

Meanwhile, on December 6, 1831, Andrew Jackson, in his State of the Union address, described the problem:

I should have placed Buenos Ayres in the list of South American powers in respect to which nothing of importance affecting us was to be communicated but for occurrences which have lately taken place at the Falkland Islands, in which the name of that Republic has been used to cover with a show of authority acts injurious to our commerce and to the property and liberty of our fellow-citizens. In the course of the present year one of our vessels, engaged in the pursuit of a trade which we have always enjoyed without molestation, has been captured by a band acting, as they pretend, under the authority of the Government of Buenos Ayres. I have therefore given orders for the dispatch of an armed vessel to join our squadron in those seas and aid in affording all lawful protection to our trade which shall be necessary, and shall without delay send a minister to inquire into the nature of the circumstances and also of the claim, if any, that is set up by that Government to those islands. In the meantime, I submit the case to the consideration of Congress, to the end that they may clothe the Executive with such authority and means as they may deem necessary for providing a force adequate to the complete protection of our fellow-citizens fishing and trading in those seas.

On the orders from the Secretary, Captain Duncan sailed his ship to the Falkland Islands and he destroyed all the settlements there. Every house was plundered. The livestock was slaughtered. After, ravaging through the settlements, he forcibly removed all the residents and took them back to Argentina.  

With this Navy intervention, no private US vessel was charged taxes at the Falkland Islands. In the same State of the Union Speech, Andrew Jackson refers to sending the Navy to fight pirates in Sumatra.

The US foreign policy of the 1800s is eerily similar to US foreign policy of today, but our history textbooks never teach us about it.