A Bibliophile in the Antipodes

Glen N. Wiche


aving explored the world of books and printing in the little-known and seldom-reported North Atlantic islands of Greenland, Iceland, and the Faeroes, I recently turned my attention to the southern hemisphere and fulfilled a long-standing ambition by visiting the Falkland Islands.

Located 350 miles northeast of the southern tip of South America, these British islands are about the size of Connecticut, but according to the 2001 census have only 1,300 inhabitants. The nearest island neighbor, South Georgia, is nearly 1,100 miles to the east. To the south lies Antarctica. And to the west is Argentina, with which the Falklands have had a long and stormy relationship. There are perhaps few places so small and so isolated that have had such a controversial history.

Navigators who voyaged through the turbulent South Atlantic first sighted these uninhabited islands in the 16th and 17th Centuries. During the 18th and 19th Centuries there were brief periods of settlement by France, Spain, and even the United States. Only Britain, however, made any attempt to settle the islands on a permanent basis. The modern history of the Falklands began in the 1840s, when the capital was moved from Port Louis to the newly established community of Port Stanley. Among the first settlers from Britain were many Chelsea Pensioners, who arrived with prefabricated housing, some of which can still be seen.

During the boom years of transoceanic shipping, the islands enjoyed great prosperity. Commercial vessels from many nations called regularly at Port Stanley to refit, restock their provisions, and make repairs after having rounded treacherous Cape Horn. The islanders lived comfortably and, indeed, well. After the opening of the Panama Canal, maritime commerce lessened, and the islands fell into a long decline. The inhabitants lived quietly, earning their living principally from sheep farming. Much of the world learned of the Falklands only as a result of the 1982 conflict that occurred when Argentina invaded the islands in an attempt to wrest them away from Britain. That conflict cost the lives of about 250 British and 750 Argentine soldiers. The islands today remain proudly independent and staunchly British.

This diminutive and isolated land seems an unlikely place to investigate books and printing. Nevertheless, my one-week stay gave ample time for exploration and provided several unexpected and fascinating glimpses into the bibliographical history of the place. Of all the Atlantic islands that I have visited, the Falklands remain the only ones that to this day do not have a commercial printing press. In spite of this fact, books and the printed word are an important part of life on the islands. While there are no single-purpose bookshops in the Falkland Islands, many stores in Port Stanley carry a wide variety of books. These books include works about the Falklands’ history, along with current titles on a variety of subjects. Many of these volumes have been imported from Great Britain. Some islanders have moved to the Falklands from Britain and other Commonwealth nations, including Australia and St. Helena. Consequently, this small capital — population 900 — can boast of several fine private libraries.

The Stanley Public Library well serves its patrons with an inventory of about 18,000 titles. The efficient two-person staff was happy to show me the small but very interesting special collection of early printed accounts of the Falklands. These accounts included the rare first edition of Bouganville’s Travels, which contains one of the earliest descriptions of these islands. Virtually everyone I met in the Falklands was widely read and knowledgeable in many areas, as I discovered that morning when the library’s first patron came in looking for D. Alexander Brown’s history of Native American life, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.

It was through the Port Stanley library that I was able to meet the head printer of the Falklands, Mr. Tony Pettersson, who recently completed his 43rd year as a printer. As head printer, he is responsible for printing all government proceedings, a task which consumes approximately one million sheets of paper each year. His grandfather served on a Swedish vessel that was wrecked on West Falkland in the late 19th Century. He must have found the islands congenial, for he made them his permanent home. It was a great pleasure to chat with his grandson about the history of printing in the Falklands.

The first non-governmental publication was The Falkland Islands Church Bulletin, which appeared in the early 1900s. The first regular newspaper, The Falkland Islands Times, started publishing in the 1950s. Today, news and events are chronicled in The Penguin News, which is also available on the Internet. One of the highlights of my visit was when I examined the two English presses, circa 1900, on which all of the islands’ printing had been done until recently. Incredibly, until the 1970s all printing had been done by letterpress. Mr. Pettersson explained to me that while he could not type, he knew perfectly where every piece of type was located in a type case. Before I left, I told him I would make a bargain with him. If he would stay at his job for another seven years, I would return to help him celebrate his golden anniversary as a printer.

One of my principal aims during my visit was to call upon the Falkland National Archives. For many years, the earliest printed and manuscript records of the islands had been kept in the most haphazard way. It has only been since the end of the 1982 Falklands War that these accounts have been organized and catalogued. They now reside in a temperature and humidity controlled room in a new building that is dedicated to the preservation of the islands’ written records.

I made a small contribution to the holdings of the Archives, which combined both my interest in the islands of the Atlantic and in the English diarist Samuel Pepys. In my Pepys collection, I have an early map of South America that depicts Pepys Island. The island was supposedly sighted on a 1683 voyage on which the noted English navigator William Dampier was a participant. When accounts of the voyage were published in England, the position of Pepys Island was inaccurately recorded. Numerous expeditions unsuccessfully attempted to locate it in the 18th Century. Not until the eminent Captain Cook had examined all of the evidence was Pepys Island finally determined to be one and the same as the Falkland Islands. It was my pleasure to present a fine reproduction of the map that I have in my Pepys collection to the Archives of the Falkland Islands.

Books that have their origin in the Falklands must still be printed and bound in Britain. Even with access to the Internet, this process is inevitably a slow and laborious one. It is to the credit of the Falklands archives that two books have been published under their sponsorship. The first was a volume of traditional Falklands recipes, which also included much folklore and local history. This attractively designed and well-printed volume as compiled by “Tim” Sullivan, a Glaswegian who has made her home in the Falklands for the past 20 years.

A second title, Bridget’s Book, was published in December 2002. This volume publishes, for the first time, one of the archives’ great treasures: the diary of an 11-year-old girl, who lived on a West Falkland sheep station at the beginning of the 20th Century.

All of this, I think, is a considerable achievement for a country whose total population is less than that of many Chicago office buildings. The world of books and the printed word have their place in large societies as well as small ones, as these literate and charming islands at the bottom of the world so ably demonstrate.

An inset “Pepyses or Pepys I[sland]” in “A new and exact map of the coast, countries, and islands with ye land of ye South Sea Company.” From Herman Moll, The World Described, London, 1732-1735. From the collection of Glen Wiche.

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