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Map of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands

The sovereignty of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islandsmarker is disputed between the United Kingdommarker and Argentinamarker. The United Kingdom annexed the islands in 1908 and exercises de facto control with the exception of a brief period during the Falklands War in 1982. The dispute started in 1927 when Argentina claimed sovereignty over South Georgia, and subsequently was expanded in scope with Argentina claiming the South Sandwich Islands in 1938. The islands have no indigenous population, and currently no permanent population.

History of the claims

Origins of the British claim

The South Georgia archipelago was first claimed for Great Britainmarker by James Cook in January 1775, having been previously discovered by Anthony de la Roché. However, the British did little to enforce this claim until 1843, when Letters Patent were issued to provide for the government of the islands, which were to be governed as a Falkland Islandsmarker Dependency. These were revised in 1876 and 1892.

In 1908, following enquiries regarding the sovereignty of the area currently covered by the British Antarctic Territory from the Norwegianmarker government, the British government stated that the islands were British, and issued Letters Patent to include "South Orkneymarker, South Georgia and South Shetland islandsmarker, and Graham Land situated in the South Atlantic Ocean to the south of the 50th parallel of south latitude and lying between the 20th and 80th degrees of west longitude" as Falkland Islands Dependencies. It was made clear at this time that the association with the Falkland Islands was intended as an administrative convenience.

As it had been noticed that that a literal interpretation of this claim would include parts of the South American mainland, the letters patent were clarified on 28 March 1917, redefining the limits to exclude all territories north of 58°S and west of 50°W, but to otherwise include all land in this region. Though the Argentine government were given details of the 1908 letters patent (at their request), neither Argentina nor Chilemarker objected to either claim.

Origins of the Argentine claim

The Compañía Argentina de Pesca (CAP), an Argentine-registered whaling company run by Norwegian Carl Anton Larsen, was the first company to set up operations on South Georgia in 1904. This company founded the settlement of Grytvikenmarker and its employees (including Larsen himself) became the first permanent residents of the island. In 1905, the Argentine government authorised a weather station on the island.

In 1906, the CAP signed a lease with the Falkland Islands government, and following the 1908 annexation the company started to use British whaling licences and leases for land at Grytvikenmarker and Jason Harbourmarker. Also in 1908, the CAP started looking to the South Sandwich Islands for the expansion of their business. Larsen adopted British citizenship in 1910. Argentina's first explicit claim to South Georgia was made in 1927 and to the South Sandwich Islands in 1938.

Later developments

Following the Argentine claims, the UK repeatedly (in 1947, 1951, 1953 and 1954) offered to take the matter to the International Court of Justicemarker in the Hague but this was turned down by Argentina. When Britain took the issue to the court unilaterally in 1955, Argentina declined to cooperate, citing a lack of jurisdiction. The British divided the Falkland Islands dependencies in 1962, in accordance with the newly-signed Antarctic Treaty. Those areas south of 60°S became the British Antarctic Territory, while the remainder - South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands - retained their previous status.

Falklands War

Argentina established a military base, Corbeta Uruguaymarker, on Thule Islandmarker at the far south of the South Sandwich Islands in November 1976. When this base was discovered by the British that December, the British protested diplomatically, and sent a task force (Operation Journeyman) to protect the Falkland Islands from potential invasion.

On 19 March 1982, a group of 50 Argentines posing as scrap metal merchants landed at Leith Harbour on South Georgia aboard the ARA Bahía Buen Suceso and hoisted the Argentine flag. The British government responded by sending HMS Endurance with 22 Royal Marines to expel the Argentines, but they were held off to avoid increasing the tension. Further Argentine troops, lead by Lieutenant Alfredo Astiz (known as the "blond angel of death") were landed and the British set up a station to monitor the activities there. Argentine forces invaded the Falkland Islands on 2 April 1982 and took Grytvikenmarker the following day, leaving 44 marines.

In response to the Argentine invasion, the British launched Operation Corporate (the recapture of the Falkland Islands) of which Operation Paraquetmarker was part. Royal Marines retook Grytviken in two hours on 25 April 1982 using intelligence from the SBS who had infiltrated the island, following an attack on the ARA Santa Femarker by Royal Naval helicopters. The garrison at Leith Harbour surrendered the following day, and Corbeta Uruguay surrendered on 20 June 1982. It was demolished that December.

Current status

Grytviken in 1989
Britain has administered South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands separately from the Falklands since the islands were made a British dependent territory in their own right in 1985. The status of the territory was altered by the British Overseas Territories Act 2002, and the terminology now used is British overseas territory.

Argentina considers the islands to be part of the Islas del Atlántico Sur department of Tierra del Fuego Provincemarker. The claim to South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands is written into the 1994 Argentine constitution alongside the claim to the Falkland Islands.

Current claims

Claims by Argentina

Argentina claims that:

  • Argentina has, since 1927, protested every British action that it has known about that contradicted Argentine sovereignty of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.

Claims by the United Kingdom

The United Kingdom claims that:
  • The first landing on South Georgia was under Captain Cook in 1775.
  • The United Kingdom annexed South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands in 1908.
  • Whaling stations on the islands (including the CAP) operated under British licence.
  • The islands have been administered continuously by Britain since 1908, with the exception of the illegal Argentine occupation of 1982.


  1. Foreign and Commonwealth Office: Country Profile: South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands (British Overseas Territory) - History
  2. World South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands; Accessed 23 June 2008
  3. Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands
  4. 18th Century History of South Georgia, South Atlantic Ocean, Accessed 23 June, 2008
  5. National Interests and Claims in the Antarctic, pps 19-20, Robert E. Wilson
  6. Historia General de las Relaciones Exteriores de la República Argentina: Georgias del Sur, Universidad del CEMA; accessed 5 July 2008
  7. Historia General de las Relaciones Exteriores de la República Argentina: Sandwich del Sur, Universidad del CEMA; accessed 5 July 2008
  8. Getting it right: the real history of the Falklands/Malvinas, p34, Accessed 23 June 2008
  9. Foreign and Commonwealth Office: Country Profile: British Antarctic Territory - History, accessed 2 July 2008
  10. BBC News - Secret Falklands fleet revealed, 1 June 2005; Accessed 2 July 2008
  11. "infiltrated on board, pretending to be scientists, were members of an Argentine naval special forces unit" Nick van der Bijl, Nine Battles to Stanley, London, Leo Cooper P.8 as reported in Lawrence Freemdman, The Official History of the Falklands Camapign: Vol I The Origins of the Falklands War
  12. "Bahia Buen Suceso set sail for South Georgia on 11 March carrying Argentine Marines" Rowland White, Vulcan 607, London, Bantam Press, p30.
  13. BBC On this day, 19 March 1982: Argentine flag hoisted on S Georgia; Accessed 2 July 2008
  14. BBC Newsnight ; 25 April 1982
  15. BBC On this day, 25 April 1982: Marines land in South Georgia; Accessed 2 July 2008
  16. Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands: Government overview; Accessed 5 July 2008
  17. Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores - The Malvinas Islands; Accessed 23 June 2008

See also

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