Cheek, a fifth-generation Falkland Islander, left Stanley March 10 and is staying in England.
Until recently when I told people where I came from I almost always met blank looks or rash statements that showed ignorance of the Falkland Islands. Now everyone should know where they are, but many commentators and magazine articles still spread the old myths about bleak, barren islands populated by sheep, penguins and a few ancient, weather-beaten shepherds.
The story of the Falkland Islands began for my family in 1841. James and Margaret Biggs sailed from Portsmouth late that year in the naval ship Hebe and arrived in the Falklands in January 1842. My father, Basil Biggs, is a great-great-grandson of James Biggs. He was born in the capital town of the Falklands, Stanley, and as a young man worked on ships around the islands. When he and his brother returned to the Falklands after serving in the British forces in World War II, he met and married Betty Rowlands, whose family had arrived more recently.
In 1954 they moved to South Georgia with their three young children, of whom I am the oldest. At the time, there were three flourishing whaling stations there. On King Edward's Point was a British administrative base--my father was the policeman, although he wore his uniform only a few times a year for ceremonial occasions, or more rarely to make an arrest or search for illegal stills used by the whalers.
For children, South Georgia was an idyllic place. We had no school and ran wild most of the time, exploring the lower slopes of the mountains and freezing our fingers and feet in clear mountain streams. We watched with awe as the Norwegian whalers at the nearby whaling station flensed, or removed the blubber from, the whales brought in by the fleet of catchers. When we'd see a rare blue whale being towed in by one of the catchers we would run around to watch it being dragged up onto the plan, as the flensing platform was called. It reduced to the size of mice the men who climbed over it, making strategically placed cuts with their flensing knives, which allowed the outer skin and blubber to be removed in strips and dragged off to the boilers to be reduced to oil. But the capture of whales became less and less profitable, and by the mid-1960s the whaling stations had closed down and the necessity for the administrative base in South Georgia ceased. In 1969, my parents moved back to Stanley and King Edward's Point housed only a handful of British Antarctic personnel.
My father is now head keeper at Cape Pembroke Lighthouse outside Stanley, and my mother works in the post office philatelic bureau. The bureau is trying to expand to match the growing demand for stamps. Perhaps one of the only good things to come out of the invasion is the fact that with no new stamps issued they may be able to clear the backload of work.
My husband John is an electronics engineer; I teach school in Stanley. My two daughters, Miranda, 10, and Rosalind, 8, attend Stanley Junior School with about 100 other children. Children from outside Stanley can come in at age 8 or 9 and live in hostels to attend school full time. Until the invasion many did so.
Children in the islands have been able to enjoy freedom and independence without fear of the dangers that seem to abound in more developed industrial societies. They learn to respect the birds and seals that live on the shore, and they entertain themselves without being exposed to television and other ready-made entertainment on which children in other countries seem dependent. They can be outgoing and friendly because they do not have to be warned about speaking to strangers--everyone knows everyone else in the island.
We do have some families with problems, and children of those families may have difficulty learning, or commit acts of petty vandalism such as window-breaking. But serious crime is rare. Alcohol abuse is probably no more common than anywhere else, but in the absence of more serious problems it tends to make headlines. People seen by the doctors and magistrates to be drinking to the detriment of their health and family welfare may be put on "the blacklist" for periods of three months to a year. This means that they are prohibited from buying alcoholic beverages. The list is circulated to shops and public houses, and there is a penalty for people found guilty of supplying alcohol to anyone "on the list."
Perhaps the most striking thing about the islands is the peace and friendliness. The landscape is not as spectacular as the beautiful mountainous island of South Georgia, but it has a unique quality with the colors of the vegetation seeming to change hourly with the light. The air is clear and free from industrial pollution, with the many sea and land birds largely unaffected by the fewer than 2,000 inhabitants. Many goods are imported from Britain and arrive every three months on a ship which then transports wool to England.
The islands' principal source of revenue is wool. Most of the people are employed directly or indirectly in sheep farming. Farms are mainly very large and some take up entire small islands owned by a single family. In these cases, the owners have to be farmer, shearer, dairyman, butcher and mechanic, and able to attend to all the repairs and routine maintenance required for several buildings, some machinery and many miles of fencing. The farmer's wife and children also help with the shepherding and milking of cows, as well as all the other work around the farm. Most people grow most of their own vegetables, make their own bread and have to be self-reliant for most of the services that people in other countries take for granted. In addition, some mothers have to find time to teach their children or at least supervise homework left by a traveling teacher.
One such person is Lorraine McGill, who with her husband Robin runs Carcass Island on the far west of the Falkland Islands. Until very recently she had been teaching her two children, doing all the farm work and helping visitors to rent one of their two small cottages for bird-watching holidays. As if this were not enough, on several days each summer she is the host of huge home-baked teas for up to 100 tourists who come ashore for a few hours from the tourist ships Lindblad Explorer and World Discoverer.
Yet somehow, people in the camp, as all the farming area outside Stanley is called, also have some leisure time. They spend pleasant evenings picnicking, fishing or walking, or in front of peat fires. Each spring egging is popular. Islanders enjoy collecting and eating eggs of such wild birds as penguins, geese, cormorants and sea gulls. I prefer to leave the eggs; I find their taste too strong, and often fishy, but few other islanders would agree with me. In spring and summer much time is invested in gardening, and the peaty soil produces excellent vegetables if shelter from wind and salt spray can be given by bushes, fences and trees. Trees require extra effort and patience to grow, but around Stanley and a number of camp settlements they now provide shelter and an interesting variation on the landscape. Most houses also have a flower garden, and tourists are often amazed at the quantity and quality of the flowers grown, though many visitors come expecting a barren waste, "the chilly, windswept, treeless island" so often described in books.
A necessary summer occupation is peat-cutting. Most families use peat for cooking and heating, and it must be cut sod by sod from the peat banks. After cutting, it is left to dry for a few weeks, then is turned and put into small heaps called rickles. Rickling is a job that all the family shares in and may only take a few hours, though a good peat cutter spends days cutting his year's supply. The peat is then carted by tractors and thrown into a large peat shed ready to be chopped into smaller pieces to fit the stove and grate in which it is burned. The thought of the pleasant smell of peat smoke plays a large part in the imagination of homesick islanders who are abroad.
In the autumn families collect wild berries called diddle-dees, which make delicious jams, pies and jellies, an excellent accompaniment for wild goose. Wild strawberries, which grow in scone runs on hillsides, are highly prized; it takes several hours of searching and picking to produce enough for a dishful, eaten uncooked with cream. The most extraordinary fruit is the teaberry. Its pale pink-and-white coloring matches the delicacy of its flavor; like the wild strawberries, it is usually eaten with cream, but may be cooked in cakes and tarts.
Most Falkland Islanders have the gift of intelligence and common sense that enables them to repair a radio, fix a Landrover or reupholster a chair. Nearly every household in the island had a sophisticated citizen-band type radio, since confiscated by the Argentines, which enabled them to keep in touch with friends, family and neighbors. Most households in Stanley and camps have labor-saving machines, and recently many people have imported video equipment and received tapes from Britain, which made a welcome addition to the once- or twice-weekly films shown in the farm halls.
But life in the Falklands is now disrupted. People living in the capital (including my parents and my husband's parents) are under curfew for more than 12 hours each day. A letter written on April 26 by my sister-in-law, Frances Biggs, says that family people will not be picking teaberries this year because the area where they grow has been mined.