Letter from Europe

The Îles Malouines

Issue no. 2013/21


Only rarely do we venture beyond the shores of Europe within our Letter from Europe. But the layered toponymy of the archipelago in the South Atlantic reveals the complicated history of settlement in the islands known today as the Falklands or Islas Malvinas.

Dear fellow travellers

At eleven this morning, the MV Concordia Bay will set out on a routine journey across the strait that divides the two principal islands in the archipelago. The vessel is a workaday boat - and certainly not to be confused with the MS Costa Concordia, which has for the last 18 months lain wrecked off the east coast of the Isola del Giglio in the Tyrrhenian Sea.

This Monday morning journey is the last run the MV Concordia Bay will be making for a while, as the boat is taking time out for maintenance. For the coming four weeks there will simply be no boat services around the islands. Look back to early charts and these islands were shown as the Îles Malouines. The first settlement was Port-Saint-Louis. It was founded in 1764 by French mariner and explorer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville. The settlers at Port-Saint-Louis were dispossessed Acadians who sailed with Admiral de Bougainville from Saint-Malo in Brittany.

We'll return to the islands in a moment. But let's say a word or two more about Bougainville. He led the first French expedition to circumnavigate the world. There's a legacy of that ambitious voyage on modern maps in Bougainville Island in the Solomon Islands archipelago (although the island is, unusually, not part of the territory of the state known as the Solomon Islands - it actually belongs to Papua New Guinea).

Closer to home there is a colourful reminder of Bougainville's voyage in gardens across Europe and the Mediterranean region, where the family of plants known as bougainvillea are firm favourites. Isn't it odd to discover that the plant which more than any other captures Riviera life is in fact an import? It was a botanist on Bougainville's circumnavigation who first described this South American genus. The scientist named the plant after the expedition leader.

Back in the Îles Malouines, there too is an island named after Admiral de Bougainville. British cartographers generally prefer a rival toponym: Lively Island. These are islands where the art of naming places is deeply controversial. Our Spanish maps show the stretch of water linking the two largest islands in the archipelago as Estrecho de San Carlos, yet our English maps favour the name Falkland Sound. Most of those on the MV Concordia Bay this morning will surely prefer the later rendering. Toponyms are a touchy subject in the Falkland Islands - that distant Overseas Territory of Britain much coveted by Argentina (where the islands are referred to as the Islas Malvinas and the capital is assertively claimed as Puerto Argentina).

It is deep midwinter in the Falklands just now, and not a lot of people are out and about. A good time, therefore, for the MV Concordia Bay to take a break for annual checks.

Only rarely do we venture beyond the shores of Europe within the pages of hidden europe magazine. But the layered toponymy of this archipelago in the South Atlantic reveals the complicated history of settlement in the islands. And tucked away on the maps are a few nods to France. Both Argentine and British sources concur that the large inlet that almost divides East Falkland in two is named in honour of the Duke of Choiseul, the French statesman who gave the nod to Bougainville that it would be no bad thing to create a French settlement in the Îles Malouines.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)


You can read more about place names in this archipelago in hidden europe 40. We even make a little detour to South Georgia where we note that maps have recently been updated to show a new place name: Thatcher Peninsula. Now there's a name to ponder.

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