The South Orkney Islands are a group of islands in the Southern Ocean, about 375 miles (604 kilometers) north-east of the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, situated at latitudes about 60°30′ to 60°83′ S and longitudes 44°25′ to 46°25′ W. The archipelago comprises four main islands. Coronation Island is the largest, measuring about 30 miles (48 km) long; its highest point is Mount Nivea which rises to 4,153 feet (1,266 meters) above sea level. Laurie Island is the easternmost of the islands. The other main islands are Powell and Signy. Smaller islands in the group include Robertson Islands, the Saddle Islands, and Acuña Island. The total area of the archipelago is about 240 square miles (620 km²), of which about 90 percent is glaciated. The Inaccessible Islands about 17 miles (28 km) to the west are considered part of the South Orkneys.
The islands are claimed both by Britain (as part of the British Antarctic Territory since 1962, previously as a Falkland Islands Dependency), and by Argentina as part of Argentine Antarctica. Under the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, sovereignty claims are held in abeyance. Britain and Argentina both maintain bases on the islands. The Argentinian base, Orcadas, established 1904, is sited on Laurie Island and comprises 11 buildings which house up to 45 people during the summer, and an average of 14 during winter. The British Antarctic Survey base, Signy Research Station, is located on Signy Island and was established in 1947. Initially operated year-round, since 1995-1996 the Signy Research Station has been open only from November to April each year (southern hemisphere summer). Apart from personnel at the bases, there are no permanent inhabitants on the islands
The climate of the South Orkneys is generally cold, wet, and windy. Summers are short and cold (December to March) when the average temperatures reach about 38.3 °F (3.5 °C) and fall to about 9 °F (−12.8 °C) in July. The all time temperature range is between 53.6 and −47.2 °F (12 and −44 °C). The seas around the islands are ice-covered from late April to November. Despite the harsh conditions, the islands do support vegetation and are part of the Scotia Sea Islands tundra ecoregion, along with South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, the South Shetland Islands and Bouvet Island. All these islands lie in the cold seas below the Antarctic convergence. These areas support tundra vegetation consisting of mosses, lichens and algae, while seabirds, penguins and seals feed in the surrounding waters.
The South Orkney Islands were discovered in 1821 by two sealers, the American Nathaniel Brown Palmer and the British George Powell. The Islands were originally named Powell’s Group, with the main island named Coronation Island as it was the year of the coronation of King George IV. In 1823, James Weddell visited the Islands, gave the archipelago its present name (after the Orkney Islands, Scotland) and also renamed some of the islands. The South Orkney Islands are located at roughly the same latitude south as the Orkney Islands are north (60°S vs 59°N), although it is not known if this was a factor behind the naming of the islands.
Subsequently, the islands were frequently visited by sealers and whalers, but no thorough survey was done until the expedition of William Speirs Bruce on the Scotia in 1903, which overwintered at Laurie Island. Bruce surveyed the islands, reverted some of Weddell’s name changes, and established a meteorological station, which was sold to the Argentinian Government upon his departure in 1904. This base, renamed Orcadas in 1951, is still in operation today and is thus the oldest research station continuously staffed in the Antarctic.
Falkland Islands Dependencies was the constitutional arrangement for administering the British territories in Sub-Antarctica and Antarctica from 1843 until 1985. The South Orkney Islands did not officially become a territory of the Dependencies until 1908.
The arrangements were first enacted by the British Letters Patent of 1843, just ten years after two British naval vessels had arrived in the Falkland Islands to re-assert British sovereignty over the islands known in Spanish as Islas Malvinas), expelling the United Provinces of the River Plate (part of which later became Argentina). The port town, and administrative capital of Stanley was also established on East Falkland in 1843. The Letters Patent were subsequently revised in 1876, 1892, 1908, 1917 and 1962. For reasons of practical convenience the Dependencies were governed by Britain through the Falkland Islands Government, constituting however a distinct entity that was not part of the Falkland Islands in political or financial respect.
The territorial scope of the Dependencies varied as particular territories were claimed, annexed, and commercially exploited over an extensive period of time starting with South Georgia in 1775. Responding to repeated inquiries by the Government of Norway in 1905–07, Britain confirmed that the areas in question (between 35° and 80° west longitude) were British based on discoveries, and issued the 1908 Letters Patent extending the Dependencies to incorporate the South Sandwich Islands and Antarctic mainland territory (Graham Land), with a permanent local administration in Grytviken, South Georgia, established in 1909.
The territories constituting the Falkland Islands Dependencies in 1908 were listed by the Letters Patent as “the groups of islands known as South Georgia, the South Orkneys, the South Shetlands, and the Sandwich Islands, and the territory known as Graham’s Land, situated in the South Atlantic Ocean to the south of the 50th parallel of south latitude, and lying between the 20th and the 80th degrees of west longitude”. In 1917, the Letters Patent were modified, applying the “sector principle” used in the Arctic; the new scope of the Dependencies was extended to comprise “all islands and territories whatsoever between the 20th degree of west longitude and the 50th degree of west longitude which are situated south of the 50th parallel of south latitude; and all islands and territories whatsoever between the 50th degree of west longitude and the 80th degree of west longitude which are situated south of the 58th parallel of south latitude”, thus reaching the South Pole. All these territories were administered as Falkland Islands Dependencies from Stanley by the Governor of the Falkland Islands.
The Argentinian claim to the islands dates from 1925. It was originally justified by the Argentinian occupation of the Laurie Island base and later subsumed into a wider territorial claim.
In 1943, at the height of World War II, the UK undertook a military operation known as Operation Tabarin, to provide reconnaissance and meteorological information in the South Atlantic Ocean. This “secret” wartime project became the civilian Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey and later the British Antarctic Survey (BAS). BAS is responsible for most of the United Kingdom’s scientific research in Antarctica. In the 1950s, the Antarctic Treaty was negotiated to demilitarize the region and retain Antarctica — defined as all land and ice shelves south of 60°S latitude — for peaceful research purposes. The treaty was passed in 1961.
A biological research station on Signy Island was built in 1947 by the British Antarctic Survey, and was staffed year-round until 1996, when the Station staffing was reduced to 8-10 personnel who remained only during the southern hemisphere summer (November to April each year).
The Antarctic Treaty came into force in 1961, Article 4 of which states “No acts or activities taking place while the present Treaty is in force shall constitute a basis for asserting, supporting or denying a claim to territorial sovereignty in Antarctica. No new claim, or enlargement of an existing claim, to territorial sovereignty shall be asserted while the present Treaty is in force.”
In 1962, the South Orkney Islands became part of the newly established British Antarctic Territory, along with the formerly-separate dependencies of Graham Land and the South Shetland Islands.
The British Antarctic Territory was formed on March 3, 1962. a sector of Antarctica claimed by the United Kingdom as one of its 14 British Overseas Territories, of which it is by far the largest by area. It comprises the region south of 60°S latitude and between longitudes 20°W and 80°W, forming a wedge shape that extends to the South Pole, overlapping the Antarctic claims of Argentina (Argentine Antarctica) and Chile (Chilean Antarctic Territory). Most countries do not recognize territorial claims in Antarctica.
The new international legal regime introduced in the Antarctic territory south of 60° south latitude by the 1961 Antarctic Treaty prompted Britain to separate the part of Dependencies that became subject to the Treaty. That was done by a 1962 Order in Council that established the British Antarctic Territory, leaving in the Dependencies only the island groups of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, including Shag Rocks and Clerke Rocks.
In 2012, the southern part of the territory was named Queen Elizabeth Land in honour of Queen Elizabeth II. The territory is inhabited by the staff of research and support stations operated and maintained by the British Antarctic Survey and other organisations, and stations of Argentina, Chile and other countries. There are no native inhabitants.
The first post office in the Falkland Island Dependencies was opened on the South Shetland Islands in 1912. The various islands used stamps of the Falklands until 1944 when sets were issued for use in each of the individual Dependencies. These were created by overprinting eight denominations of Falkland Islands stamps first released in 1938 and 1941; the overprint applied in red ink identified the dependency. These were replaced in 1946 by general issues inscribed FALKLAND ISLANDS DEPENDENCIES. In 1963, the first issues of the British Antarctic Territory superseded the Dependencies stamps except in South Georgia who issued its own. The South Georgia stamps were, in 1980, replaced by those once again inscribed FALKLAND ISLANDS DEPENDENCIES. Finally, in 1986, stamps were issued inscribed SOUTH GEORGIA & SOUTH SANDWICH IS.
The first stamps released by the British Antarctic Territory were issued on February 1, 1963, an engraved set with 15 values ranging from ½ penny to one pound, featuring a portrait of Queen Elizabeth overlooking various scenes of human activity in Antarctica. Several additional issues in the 1960s were followed by a decimalization issue in 1971 produced by overprinting the 1963 stamps. Since then, stamps have come out at regular intervals, about 10-20 per year in several sets, with a full definitive series every few years (polar explorers in 1973, plankton in 1984, fossils in 1990, research ships in 1993, etc.). The design topics are related either to Antarctic research or to the native life of Antarctica. While some are actually used by visiting tourists and resident scientists, the bulk are sold overseas to collectors.
The Falkland Islands Philatelic Bureau acts as the sales agent for the British Antarctic Territory. Unlike some Antarctic postal administrations, all official First Day Covers are cancelled at the relevant base in the Territory, before being returned to the Philatelic Bureau at Port Stanley for distribution. The Antarctic Postman, based at Port Stanley, visits the British Antarctic Territory bases by ship to officially release new stamps; the stamps are not otherwise available for sale until this has happened. The date of the visit is recorded and the stamps are then released at the Falkland Islands Philatelic Bureau, at Port Lockroy for tourists, and elsewhere.
Scott #4L2 was released on February 21, 1944, bearing the overprint SOUTH ORKNEYS / DEPENDENCY OF in red on the Falkland Islands 1 penny dark violet & black stamp originally issued on July 14, 1941 (Scott #85B). It’s perforated at a gauge of 12. The engraved stamp portrays the 1914 Battle Memorial located to the west of Government House on Ross Road, Port Stanley on East Falkland Island. The memorial commemorates the Battle of the Falklands, fought between British and German fleets on December 8, 1914. A figure of Victory faces east, looking out to sea towards the site of the battle. She holds a palm branch in one hand and an orb in the other. Unveiled in 1927, it is believed to be the world’s most southerly memorial to the Great War. December 8 is a public holiday in the Falkland Islands and a service is held at the memorial.
The Battle of the Falkland Islands was a decisive British naval victory over the Imperial German Navy during the First World War in the South Atlantic. The British, after a defeat at the Battle of Coronel on November 1, 1914, sent a large force to track down and destroy the victorious German cruiser squadron. Admiral Graf Maximilian von Spee — commanding the German squadron of two armored cruisers, SMS Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, the light cruisers SMS Nürnberg, Dresden and Leipzig, and three auxiliaries — attempted to raid the British supply base at Stanley in the Falkland Islands. A larger British squadron — consisting of the battlecruisers HMS Invincible and Inflexible, the armored cruisers HMS Carnarvon, Cornwall and Kent, the armed merchant cruiser HMS Macedonia and the light cruisers HMS Bristol and Glasgow — had arrived in the port the day before, on December 7.
Visibility was at its maximum, the sea was placid with a gentle breeze from the northwest, and the day was bright and sunny. The advanced cruisers of the German squadron were detected early. By nine o’clock that morning the British battlecruisers and cruisers were in hot pursuit of the five German vessels, these having taken flight in line abreast to the southeast. All except the auxiliary Seydlitz were hunted down and sunk.
Casualties and damage were extremely disproportionate; the British suffered only very lightly. Admiral Spee and his two sons were among the German dead. Rescued German survivors, 215 total, became prisoners on the British ships. Most were from the Gneisenau, nine were from Nürnberg and 18 were from Leipzig. Scharnhorst was lost with all hands. One of Gneisenau’s officers who lived had been the sole survivor on three different guns. He was pulled from the water saying he was a first cousin of the British commander (Stoddart).
Of the known German force of eight ships, two escaped: the auxiliary Seydlitz and the light cruiser Dresden, which roamed at large for a further three months before her captain was cornered by a British squadron (Kent, Glasgow and Orama) off the Juan Fernández Islands on March 14, 1915. After fighting a short battle, Dresden‘s captain evacuated his ship and scuttled her by detonating the main ammunition magazine.
As a consequence of the battle, the German East Asia Squadron, Germany’s only permanent overseas naval formation, effectively ceased to exist. Commerce raiding on the high seas by regular warships of the Kaiserliche Marine was brought to an end. However, Germany put several armed merchant vessels into service as commerce raiders until the end of the war.
After the battle, German naval experts were baffled at why Admiral Spee attacked the base and how the two squadrons could have met so coincidentally in so many thousands miles of open waters. Kaiser William II’s handwritten note on the official report of the battle reads: “It remains a mystery what made Spee attack the Falkland Islands.” It was generally believed Spee was misled by the German admiralty into attacking the Falklands, a Royal Naval fueling base, after receiving intelligence from the German wireless station at Valparaiso which reported the port free of Royal Navy warships. Despite the objection of three of his ships’ captains, Spee proceeded to attack.
However, in 1925 a German naval officer, Franz von Rintelen, interviewed Admiral William Reginald Hall, Director of the Admiraltry’s Naval Intelligence Division (NID), and was informed that Spee’s squadron had been lured towards the British battlecruisers by means of a fake signal sent in a German naval code broken by British cryptographers Similarly, on March 14, 1915, the Dresden was intercepted by British ships while taking on coal at sea in a location identified by NID codebreakers)