In January 1775 Captain James Cook, in the ship Resolution discovered the Isle of Georgia, which he had named in honour of King George III. It soon became known as South Georgia. Likewise, the neighbouring Sandwich Lands, which he named in honour of the Earl of Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty, became known as the South Sandwich Islands. Cook extensively charted the coastline. It was hoped that the island was the fore-runner of a larger continent but this was quickly disabused by his charting. There was still some hope that there was a hospitable continent in the South Oceans. However, the terrain and climate of South Georgia made it appear unsuitable for permanent settlement.
The Portuguese did not pursue any claim when Cook made known the location of the islands on his return. This was despite the fact that they fell within their half of the world awarded to Portugal by Pope Alexander VI in the Treaty of Tordesillas. Their isolation and barren nature provided little incentive to European annexation.
The island's one benefit was a natural harbour that provided a useful refuge for whalers and explorers of the Antarctic. It was regarded as the last safe refuge for ships before they entered the treacherous Southern Seas and the iceberg zone further South.
The islands officially became a British territory in 1908 as part of a larger Administrative area claimed by Britain. This new administrative unit included the South Sandwich Islands, South Georgia, the South Orkney Islands and a region of Antarctica known as Graham's Land. The new unit was given the name Falkland Islands Dependencies (or FIDs). The governor of the Falkland Islands also took responsibility for all the territories within FIDs. Only South Georgia had a population of any kind, although a largely transitory one based on the whaling and sealing industry. The natural harbour proved a highly useful base for whalers to prepare in their journey's southward or to process the carcasses of animals before heading back towards Europe or North America.
The tail end of the Victorian era and the Edwardian era ushered in a period of intense Antarctic exploration. The continent had become one of the final frontiers for mankind to get to grips with and begin to understand. It was only natural that many of these explorers, Scott, Shackleton, William Speirs Bruce used the ports and facilities at Stanley and South Georgia during their expeditions. Britain's Antarctic claims were formally increased in 1917 on the 'sector principle' as was used in the Arctic claims of the time. For a while, the British considered annexing the entire Antarctic continent, but it was clear that other nations were equally interested in claiming the lands.
The Island provided the spark for the The Falklands War in 1982 when the Argentinians used a contract to clear scrap for the island as an excuse to claim sovereignty over the island. The scientists and HMS Endurance were left to defend British claims as best they could. What they did not understand was that the Argentinian Junta was looking for an excuse to launch an invasion of the Falkland Islands to distract domestic attention from the economic failings of the Argentinian government and its lack of democratic legitimacy. South Georgia inadvertently provided the stimulus for the Argentinians to launch their invasion of the Falkland Islands in April 1982.
The tiny British garrison on South Georgia put up fierce resistance to the Argentines attempting to land by ship and helicopter. Their determined resistance helped to illustrate Britain's determination to defend its sovereignty over the islands. South Georgia became the first target of the expeditionary force as it sailed South to liberate the Falklands. Poor weather complicated the operation but eventually the British were able to secure the island from Argentine control.
In 1985, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands ceased to be Falkland Islands dependencies and became a separate British overseas territory.
King Edward Point is the port of entry, and residence of the British Magistrate and harbour, customs, immigration, fisheries, and postal authorities. In order to protect the territory's unique environment, on 23 February 2012 its government created the South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands Marine Protection Area, one of the world's largest marine reserves at over a million squared kilometres.