Why would a small group of islands in the South Atlantic need a national biography? Not least, as the editor points out, because they have been part of several major historical events but also because their history is in many ways a reflection of many other small British colonies scattered around the world.
David Tatham was well qualified to organise this project, not only because he is a retired Governor of the Islands but also because of his enthusiasm and commitment to them. Given the extent of the undertaking and the number of authors involved (176) he has done amazingly well to get from the start of the project in 2002 to publication of a very handsome volume of 576 pages by the middle of 2008.
His useful Introduction lays out the principles he tried to follow, of which the most important was to attempt to limit the length of entries, to include as many illustrations as he could afford and to stop at 1981, thus avoiding the complications introduced by the Conflict. I also thoroughly approve of his inclusion of living people, although some may feel that these accounts are less dispassionate than the “everyone deceased” approach of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography! Whilst I was also pleased to see that the Dictionary covers South Georgia this island’s characters are probably not as well covered as I would have liked. He has done an excellent editorial job as well, which must have been especially taxing given the wide range of contributors.
Of course it is invidious to say that there are people missing from the biography and Tatham does point out that some were excluded at their request whilst for others no suitable authors could be found. I do however find it odd that for the Falklands, Ian Strange was not included given his major role in Falklands conservation, nor John Smith who established the museum and is a talented artist of the Falkland landscape, nor the Napier family for their stewardship of West Point Island, and although Ken Pierce-Butler is included both for his time on South Georgia and as SECFIDS in the Falklands neither of his successors as SECFIDS (Frank Elliott and John Green) are included. There are some names missing as well for South Georgia – why not RM Laws for his pioneering work on elephant seals, NA Mackintosh for his Discovery Investigations work, H Will who provided the first professional description of South Georgia vegetation, B Stonehouse for his bird studies, S W Greene who wrote the first flora for the island and even D.J Coleman who was the last government administrator there?
The information available for each entry varies significantly but I am certain that everyone will find new details, even for some of the best know individuals. For many of the Falkland Islanders I suspect there is no other published source of detailed biographical information. Much new material has been extracted from the archives in Stanley and London.
The choice of subjects is very broad. All of the Falkland Governors are included and, of course, well known explorers like Hawkins, Cook, Bellinghausen, Bougainville, Nordenskjold and Shackleton. Amongst the scientists Darwin gets the longest entry but there are others like Arthur Cobb, Lance Tickell, Joseph Hooker, Stanley Kemp and Nigel Bonner. Especially interesting are the Falklanders like Les Hardy of the Kelper Store, Sydney Miller , Arthur Felton, and Cracker Davis. FIC is well represented along with many farm managers, as are the wide range of officials who came out from Britain to the Falklands to act as Financial Secretary, Attorney General etc. Tatham has also included key British politicians and many Argentinians who have played a role in Falklands history. I found many names I had not heard of like the photographer Gustav Schultz, the farmer Dick Vinson, the American whaler Francis Rotch, the Director of Public Works George Roberts, and Black Kit, the mysterious runaway slave.
There are five annexes covering abbreviations, governors, military ranks, and a glossary whilst Annex E lists nine publications produced in the Falklands. This title is misleading as the publications listed are only serials and inexplicably the list does not include the Falkland Islands Government Gazette which began in 1891, nor the Blue Books (1846-1944) and remarkably the Falkland Islands Journal which, when it began in 1967, was printed in the islands.
By any standards the book is a very fine production. Printed on heavy high quality paper with 365 illustrations in colour and black and white, it has coloured maps as endpapers and is hard bound in black cloth with a dust wrapper. In my many consultations of the text I failed to find any spelling mistakes and the double column layout in a large page format is very pleasing. Since all the entries are arranged alphabetically the editor clearly felt that an index was an unnecessary expense, although I think it would have greatly aided searching for individuals associated with specific subjects like South Georgia or whaling. However, Tatham has capitalised the names of all who are in the volume so the reader can see some of the links between them. On the grounds of the length of the volume he was forced to omit all the references used by the authors so it is not possible to return to the sources if you want to follow up any specific individual. For those unfamiliar with the literature of the Falklands I believe it would have been worth including one or two pages of selected books and bibliographies to point the interested reader in the right direction.
Reviewers are supposed to look more critically at a book than the general reader and I would not want my list of things that could have been included to dissuade anyone from buying or consulting what is a most valuable reference work, which I am certain will stand the test of time. Whilst it might seem expensive, a book of this quality published by a commercial publisher would have cost at least twice as much. David Tatham is to be congratulated not only for bringing this interesting project to fruition but also for taking on the onerous job of publishing it himself to keep the costs as low as possible. This is an exceptionally fine addition to the Falkland literature!