When the French withdrew from Port Louis in 1767 they left behind cattle and horses which then ran wild and grew rapidly in numbers. By the early 19th century there were large herds of wild cattle running loose, as well as many pigs and horses. In 1842 Governor Richard Moody, keen to stimulate interest in the colony, issued a pamphlet entitled Information respecting the Falkland Islands, published by authority. In this document he stated that there were forty thousand head of cattle, fat, magnificent and better than the animals of the South American mainland, ready to be exploited by a well financed commercial organisation.
This pamphlet would reach Samuel Fisher Lafone, an English merchant of Montevideo, who sent his agent Martinez to Stanley to find out the possibilities. Martinez reported favourably on the prospect and by March 1846 a contract was signed in London, granting Lafone the sole rights of killing and subduing the wild cattle in the southern peninsula of East Falkland and adjacent islands, area that would later become known as Lafonia.
He managed the land concessions through his agents and never set foot in the islands himself, which drove the venture into debt soon after. Samuel Lafone had been financed by the London merchants Ricketts Boutcher. In London his younger brother, Alexander Ross Lafone, suggested to Boutcher that the best way out of the difficulties would be the formation of a joint stock company. Interest in the City was sought through the issue of A Preliminary Prospectus of the Royal Falkland Land, Cattle, Seal and Whale Fishery Company, which stated that a moderate estimate of the company’s property would be land £120,000; existing buildings, plant etc. £10,000; wild cattle 80,000 at 20s, £80,000; wild horses, pigs and other animals £2,000; total £212,000. Lafone later admitted that these estimates may have been a little exaggerated.
The Formation of the Company
In January 1851 a company was formed for the purchase of Lafones’ rights and interests in the islands, and on 24 April 1851 a preliminary meeting of The Falkland Islands Company was held.
The Falkland Islands Company has been in operation for over 160 years and dates back to the mid-1800s, where the company was granted a Royal Charter to Trade by Queen Victoria on 10 January 1852. Lafone himself was a major shareholder in the new company. The objectives established by the Royal Charter were the taming of wild cattle, developing the farming of sheep, establishing a general store and providing, if possible, regular postal communications within the islands and with the mainland and Europe. John Dale, brother-in-law of Samuel Lafone, was appointed as the Company’s first Colonial Manager.
The first years did not meet the expectations and real solid progress was only initiated in 1867, with the enlightened appointment by the Company’s board of directors of a new Colonial Manager, Frederick E. Cobb.
The Early Years (1867 – 1891)
Frederick Cobb was 22 years old when he arrived in Stanley in 1867, but he was more than capable of setting the company on the path to prosperity. He had the unpleasant job of dismissing the incumbent manager and as a consequence, he found himself working entirely alone, without any office assistance. He realised that of the main departments of the company, the store in Stanley and the farms in Camp, it would be the latter that would pull the company out of its difficulties.
During this period, the sheep disease of scab was the colony’s curse, which meant that half the sheep brought in for shearing were bare of wool. In 1868 a group of prospecting farmers from New Zealand arrived at Stanley and Cobb listened to their experiences of sheep farming in their country and as a result, negotiated a deal with one of them, Wickham Bertrand, who became Camp Manager, replacing Robert Greenshields. The improvements of the new appointment were visible immediately and by 1880 the company’s flocks were clean of scab, however, small outbreaks occurred on the boundaries with neighbouring farms whose managers were less careful in the management of their stock.
Bertrand left the company in 1870, and Cobb himself took general charge of the camp, which then had several thousand tame cattle ad many thousand more wild cattle roaming over Lafonia. The company had an important source of income from the sale of hides, but as sheep numbers increased so the wild cattle were crowded out and killed.
For the following 20 years Cobb divided his time between Stanley and Darwin, acting as both Camp and Colonial Manager, before increasing duties in Stanley prevented him being in camp as much. During this time he firmly laid the foundations of a farming enterprise that would lead the company to prosperity for the next 100 years. Sheep numbers had increased from 35,000 scab-ridden animals to 150,000 healthy, woolly sheep when he left.
In 1891 Frederick E. Cobb resigned and was appointed Managing Director upon his return to England, a few years later he became Chairman of the company.
J.M. Dean had become a prominent businessman in Stanley just a decade after arriving in Stanley in 1840. He was capable of undertaking most work related to ships and sealing, and held the local Lloyds Agency for shipping. He provided agency services to most of the farmers, laying out money in support of their businesses in a way that earned him both profit and goodwill, and he owned the main store in Stanley, in partnership with the Lafones.
Despite being recommended as a partner for the Company in 1851, Dean was a strong competitor for the FIC. Dean’s West Store was better placed, his goods bought more cheaply by an excellent London buying service, and sold for a lesser profit than that demanded by the company, but it was in shipping where Dean showed his capabilities. Prior to the opening of the Panama Canal, Stanley was a port of refuge for ships that had weathered Cape Horn but required repairs before continuing their voyages; a considerable ship repair business has developed. Dean monopolised this business through his possession of the hulks required for cargo storage whilst ships were being caulked to rid them of underwater leaks. In this respect, Cobb, FIC Colonial Manager, was limited in how much he could spend without referral to London, whereas Dean was able to snap up a bargain as soon as it became available.
After the passing of Mr George Dean, the FIC seized the opportunity to acquire the business and Mr J.M. Dean joined the board of the company. This meant that the Falkland Islands Company acquired The West Store, two taverns, a hotel, a club and three houses for employees in addition to a fleet of ships, a successful ship repair business and the banking business of all of the islands’ farmers.