The Chagos Islands – still a starless midnight

In his Nobel Prize lecture (2005), Harold Pinter spoke about “Art, Truth and Politics”, using the opportunity to castigate the anti-democratic nature of our great democracies.  “It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn’t happening. It didn’t matter. It was of no interest.” But misdeeds inevitably come back to haunt us.

The Chagos Archipelago is a group of seven atolls comprising more than 60 individual tropical islands in the Indian Ocean and situated some 500 kilometres due south of the Maldives. Officially part of the British Indian Ocean Territory, the Chagos were home to islanders for more than a century and a half until the United Kingdom evicted them in the early 1970s in order to allow the United States to build a military base on Diego Garcia, the largest of the islands.

In November 1965, the UK purchased the entire Chagos Archipelago from the then self-governing colony of Mauritius for £3 million pounds to create the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), intending to close the plantations to create an uninhabited territory from which the U.S. could conduct its military activities in the region. On 30 December 1966, the U.S. and the UK executed an Agreement through an Exchange of Notes which permit the United States Armed Forces to use any island of the BIOT for “defence” purposes for 50 years (through December 2016), followed by a 20 year optional extension (to 2036) to which both parties must agree by December 2014.

Between 1967 and 1973, the entire population was involuntarily removed from the islands. The plantation workers and their families were initially relocated to plantations on Peros Banhos and Salomon atolls in the northwest of the archipelago; others who requested it were transported to the Seychelles or Mauritius. The then independent Mauritian government refused to accept them without payment, and in 1973, the UK gave the Mauritian government an additional ₤650,000 to resettle the islanders. However despite this payment islanders often found themselves facing woefully inadequate housing and living conditions.

John Pilger, in his article “The war on democracy” published in the NewStatesman (19 January 2012), recounts the story of Lisette Talate, whose family was forcibly transported from Diego Garcia to Mauritius. Having described how the US military slaughtered hundreds of dogs on the island, many of them pets, Pilger notes:

“Lisette, her family and hundreds of the other islanders were forced on to a rusting steamer bound for Mauritius, a journey of a thousand miles. They were made to sleep in the hold on a cargo of fertiliser – bird shit. The weather was rough; everyone was ill; two of the women on board miscarried. Dumped on the docks at Port Louis, Lisette’s youngest children, Jollice and Regis, died within a week of each other. ‘They died of sadness,’ she said. ‘They had heard all the talk and seen the horror of what had happened to the dogs. They knew they were leaving their home for ever. The doctor in Mauritius said he could not treat sadness.’”

There are more than two sides to every story and in politics the jury is still out on the habitual plaints of inaction. Regardless, innocent people always suffer and their stories are easy to forget. Pilger goes on:

“Today, Diego Garcia is crucial to America’s and Britain’s war on democracy. The heaviest bombing of Iraq and Afghanistan was launched from its vast airstrips, beyond which the islanders’ abandoned cemetery and church stand like archaeological ruins. The terraced garden where Lisette [stood] is now a fortress housing the ‘bunker-busting’ bombs carried by bat-shaped B-2 aircraft to targets on two continents; an attack on Iran will start here. As if to complete the emblem of rampant, criminal power, the CIA added a Guantanamo-style prison for its ‘rendition’ victims and called it Camp Justice.”

Accepting his Nobel Peace Prize (1964), Martin Luther King Jr made his own position clear: “I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.” Let’s hope he was right.

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9 comments on “The Chagos Islands – still a starless midnight

  1. skeptic says:

    Ruminations – from ruminants – produce gas. That’s what this post is. You talk about truth but your piece is completely riddled with errors.

    1 Britain already owned Chagos AND Mauritius before Mauritian independence
    2 Britain paid Mauritius enough to compensate most Chagossian workers the equivalent of about 40 years salary.
    3 The Chagossians travelled to Mauritius on the boat that they normally voluntarily travelled to Mauritius on for family visits.
    4 To say they died of sadness is emotive trickery.

    Yes the Chagossians were treated badly but printing such rubbish does not do them any favours. Have you spoken to Chagossians living in the UK? I have! They do not want to be stuck back on a tiny island in poverty, with no resources. Those who live in the UK – a large number of them – have everything you and I have. A recent report showed how they were happy in Crawley.

    Try getting facts from both sides of an argument before rushing off and embarrassing yourself!

    • Philip Lee says:

      Thank you for taking the time to comment. I think the essential point is to do with power and its immoral uses. My blog was based on an article by John Pilger that is linked to mine. My blog underlines the impact on ordinary people of US and British connivance in obtaining a strategic military base in the Indian Ocean. It is not enough to concede that “Yes the Chagossians were treated badly but printing such rubbish does not do them any favours.” Who knows about them? Who goes back to find out what is happening now? Who cares? As for being “stuck on a tiny island in poverty, with no resources”: precisely! How were these islands decimated? Who was responsible? And, all things being equal, who would opt for Crawley over Chagos? I remain distinctly unembarrassed in the knowledge that on the Internet people can check for themselves for alternative points of view.

      • skeptic says:

        The islands decimated? They have been declared the world’s biggest no-take MPA. I’ve just had a quick read of some of the scientific literature about Chagos and they call it a pristine environment.

        If the Chagossians had not been removed form Chagos, with the collapse of the palm oil trade (just read about it) what would they have don? They would be living in a subsistence economy in great poverty, like the inhabitants of many of the Indian Ocean islands.

        Crawley over Chagos? Well if you’re thinking of a holiday there’s no contest. But if you’re raising a family you want schools, hospitals, and all the things that WE take for granted. There is a tendency to look at what the Chagossians might have had with unnecessarily thick rose tinted glasses. The noble savage idea that is bandied around – that the Chagossians would live in complete harmony with their environment – is ridiculous, NOWHERE in the world does that happen. If all they had was fish they’d catch the fish, and you couldn’t blame them. But in East Africa what has happened to the fish stocks? Mauritius has the lowest fish stocks in the whole Indian Ocean I read in one paper.

        If Chagos was given to Mauritius, as some Guardian readers think should happen, then Mauritius would fish it out pretty quickly I think. The Chagossians wouldn’t get a look in. It is Mauritius that the Chagossians feel has treated them badly, not Britain. Have you spoken to any Chagossians, you should it’s very informative.

  2. Dr Magnus Johnson says:

    They are not really pristine . . .there is a huge air/naval base there that has spilled millions of litres of fuel into the area . . noise pollution? Recreational angling by service personnel? What the UK government calls full protection exists on paper and in the form of one very slow patrol boat. The absence of a controlled fishery in the area will mean 20 less pairs of eyes to keep an eye out for pirate fishers and an increase in fishing activity. The ethnic cleansing of Chagos is a human tragedy, the declaration of the MPA (as demonstrated by wikileaks) had nothing to do with conservation and everything to do with politics. Some Chagossians want to return, some do not. If they were paid the rent due to them then they could easily afford the schools and hospitals that are (for the moment) available in Crawley.

    • Philip Lee says:

      Thank you for joining the fray. I cannot but agree. The abuse of power is the root cause of a world in which people have become disposable. There is some evidence that crimes against humanity committed, for example, in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, and in Latin America under various military dictatorships, are being brought before national and international courts. Impunity is being challenged. Why not bring the spotlight to bear on the case of Chagos?

  3. skeptic says:

    A little bit of research shows how Dr Johnson is trying to mislead. The documents say that Diego Garcia is excised from the MPA but it is only 1% of the MPA area so the 250,000 square miles or so are indeed fully protected. An internet search shows many research papers by scientists who have BEEN there who say it is pristine, has Dr Johnson been there to be able to pontificate on this matter.

    Diego Garcia is not all of Chagos, far from it, so using Diego Garcia as your example shows how little you know.

    There seem to be many websites where the writers want to stop the MPA and allow the international commercial fisher fleet to return. How fishing out the one resource that would be available to any returning Chagossians is good is beyond me. Unless you are in the pay of the IOTC! One single large tuna was sold to the Mitsubishi company for $250,000 a couple of years ago. They are a powerful lobby and they want the Chagos fish. The MPA being no-take IS protecting Chagos resources.

    There are two issues here – the treatment of the Chagossians and the protecting of the islands to which they may someday return. They should not be confused. The Chagossian people themselves want the MPA as they see it as protecting their heritage.

    Whatever the reasons for the declaration of the MPA it is surely a good thing. Politicians may have had one reason for the declaration but the literature shows that the scientists have been pushing for it for years on its ecological merits.

    So what is it to be Dr Johnson?. Would you like to say to the Chagossians one day – “Here are your islands back, sorry that all the fish have been taken, but we were paid to let the fleets in!”

  4. skeptic says:

    I see that you like only your version of the ‘truth’. How like a journalist!

    The people who want to steal potential Chagossian resources and allow the commercial fisher fleets in (for which the Chagossians get nothing) are the worst of hypocrites. The want to stop the MPA because it stops them from making money from a resource that should be there for all the people of the Indian Ocean.

  5. […] have written about this issue twice before (here and here), but it’s time for a sad […]

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