It was supposed to have been a nice soft landing: a colonial assignment that married the twilight of a capable if unremarkable diplomatic career to the governorship of an obscure British outpost at the twilight of empire.
“A tranquil but absorbing posting" was the way the British Foreign Office described the job, Sir Rex Hunt later recalled.
And thus he was dispatched in 1980 to take charge of the Falkland Islands, a windblown archipelago in the South Atlantic, nearly 8,000 miles from England, where sheep outnumbered people by more than 300 to 1.
As Hunt, who died Nov. 11 at 86, could scarcely have imagined, his colonial idyll would end abruptly in 1982, when he found himself, literally overnight, directing a tiny band of British military men against an amphibious Argentine invasion.
Nor could he have imagined that the invasion would boil over into war before Britain was able to take the Falklands back.
Hunt’s odyssey, which involved holding the heavily armed enemy at bay with a pistol while pinned down by gunfire, followed by a forced exile and a triumphant return, impeccably encapsulates the waning days of colonialism.
By the time Britain reclaimed the Falklands 74 days after the invasion began, more than 900 people were dead.
Hunt, who was knighted in October 1982 for his service during the invasion, died in a hospital in Stockton-on-Tees, England.
In a statement, Prime Minister David Cameron said, “Sir Rex Hunt should be a hero to everyone in Britain," adding, “His courage, resolve and judgment fired the spirit of the islanders and the British people to stand up to aggression."
In 1980, after three decades in the foreign service, Hunt landed in Stanley, the Falklands’ capital and only town.
“My only real impression was of how small it was," he said afterward. “It looked as if a puff of wind could blow it away."
But the rough-hewn, rain-soaked landscape reminiscent of his native Yorkshire, and he soon came to embrace — and be embraced by — the Falklands’ 1,800 inhabitants.
Lying 300 miles off the southern tip of South America, the Falklands have been claimed since the early 19th century by Argentina, which calls them Las Malvinas. In 1833, they were also claimed by Britain. A century and a half of international discord followed, though it never erupted into war.
When Hunt arrived there, Argentina still wanted the Falklands badly. Britain ... well, that was another matter, as he would soon discover.
What Hunt discovered, not long after arriving, was that Britain wanted to unload the Falklands and had installed him to help it do that.
By the 1980s, the Falklands had become an albatross. To Britain, the economics of maintaining a colony so distant — and whose principal product, sheep, was in no short supply at home — were scarcely favorable. And colonialism was in increasingly bad odor in any case.
Britain had been negotiating sporadically with Argentina for decades, but the precise terms of a handover had never been agreed upon. With his reputation for amiability, Hunt seemed to London to be just the man to persuade Falklanders that belonging to Argentina was in their best interest.
The trouble was, they did not want to. Most islanders were descended from the original British settlers, and as Hunt quickly learned, they were determined to remain British. That Argentina was then in the hands of a military junta was no inducement either.
“The role of governor is rather special," Hunt told The Independent of London in 1992. “In a small colony, he’s the only voice the colonials have in London. So the governor has to become part of the colony."
This stance did not please London, which by all accounts worried that its man in Stanley had “gone native."
On March 31, 1982, London learned that Argentina was poised to invade the Falklands. The Foreign Office informed Britain’s ambassador to the U.N. It informed the U.S. One person it did not inform — for a full day — was Hunt.
About 3:30 p.m. April 1, Hunt received a cable now widely considered remarkable even by the standards of British sang-froid. It read:
“We now believe that the Argentine task force will assemble off Cape Pembroke by dawn tomorrow stop no doubt you will wish to make your dispositions accordingly."
Hunt considered the possibility that the cable was an April Fool’s joke, rejected the idea and started planning. The nearest British warship was days away. He had about 70 Royal Marines and some 30 local volunteers at his disposal and, as it transpired, less than 15 hours.
Hunt, who retired to England in 1985, said in interviews that the war had been “worth it" for keeping the Falklands British.
He remained closely allied with the islands, visiting often and serving as chairman of the Falkland Islands Association and president of the United Kingdom Falkland Islands Trust.
Rex Masterman Hunt was born in Redcar, in northeast England, on June 29, 1926. From 1944 to 1948 he was a fighter pilot in the Royal Air Force and later earned a law degree from Oxford.
After joining the foreign service in 1951, he was posted to Uganda, Indonesia, South Vietnam, Malaysia and elsewhere before being assigned to the Falklands.
Hunt’s survivors include his wife, the former Mavis Buckland; a son, Antony; and a daughter, Diana.
He was the author of a memoir, “My Falkland Days," published in 1992.
Today, the Falklands, population 2,563, remains a British overseas territory, a status that Argentina still bitterly contests.