History is strewn with people screwed over by humanity. Armenians, Jews and Kurds to name but a few. But one group of people being screwed right now that almost no one knows about is the people of the Chagos Islands.
The Chagos Islands, also known as the Chagos Archipelago (formerly Bassas de Chagas) is a group of 7 tropical atolls making up 60 tropical islands located in the Indian Ocean. All sounds very wonderful so far right? Sadly though, they also were not only a “former” British colony, but also occupied some prime Cold War real estate. Currently the sovereignty of the Chagos Islands is in dispute between three countries. Mauritius, the Maldives and the United Kingdom, although to make things that little bit worse there’s a fourth player with a vested interest, the United States of America.
Independence and Cold War Politics
Chagos originally started as part of the British colony of Mauritius, before the British separated Chagos from Mauritius in 1965, three years before the country would be granted full independence. From there they joined 3 islands of the Seychelles into becoming part of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), a British colony.
The only problem? The Chagossians, (also Îlois or Chagos Islanders) a creole ethnic group native to the islands, of whom we shall get to in much more detail later….
So, where are the Chagos Islands? and How far are they from Mauritius?
The quick and easy answer is that they are in the Indian Ocean, 500 km south of the Maldives archipelago. Geographically, or at least politically part of Africa.
Who are the Chagos Islanders?
The Chagossians (also Îlois or Chagos Islanders) are a creole people that migrated to the area around 200 years before the events of 1967 and beyond. The original colony of Diego Garcia was formed in 1783 around coconut plantations. Over time the slaves were freed and unique French-Creole “Ilois” formed.
The Chagos Islands duly developed its own unique culture independent of Mauritius and indeed of their colonial overlords, the United Kingdom.
The eviction of Chagos Islands…
As part of the deal for Mauritius to gain independence Chagos was formed into the newly formed BIOT, British Indian Ocean Territory. This was not so strange at the time and although they would have remained a colony of the UK, locals hoped a semblance of democracy would come about, such as in places like the Cayman Islands, which was split from Jamaica before independence and is still a UK colony. Alas more sinister plans were afoot.
Between 1967 and 1973, the Chagossians were forcibly moved to Peros Banhos, and eventually Mauritius, a country that although they were formerly part of, essentially they had extremely few cultural links to. At the time there were around 1000 Chagoissians.
The locals were essentially not only forced to leave pretty much under gunpoint, but to absentee landlords also largely owned no property (and thus did not receive compensation)
Who lives in Chagos now?
This is where the underhandedness kicks in. The British bought out the leases from the landlords of the plantations, got the population down to zero and then leased the island of Diego Garcia to the United States who set up a military base with capacity for 3-5000 servicemen. The whole kicking out the locals was all a ruse to help create a US military base. So who lives in Chagos? 4429 US service men and women!
Can you visit the Chagos Islands?
Yes, if you are American and join the military and they station you in Diego Garcia.
So, who owns Diego Garcia? Technically the UK, but in reality the US. Probably the only US territory where they have to answer to the Queen.
And what about the Chagos Islanders???
There have been numerous court cases in the UK and the USA, threats that the UK could be kicked out of the security council, Mauritius saying they want the islands back and so on and so on. The reality though has been next to no change in the status quo. The USA remains the strongest force in world politics and sadly this means that the Chagossians are up shit creek without a calendar….
And what do the USA, and UK think about the locals?
A naked document from 1966 says the following
“However, Roberts stated that, according to the HMG’s current thinking on a reserve, there would be “no human footprints” or “Man Fridays” on the BIOT’s uninhabited islands. He asserted that establishing a marine park would, in effect, put paid to resettlement claims of the archipelago’s former residents.”
The term “Man Fridays” has come up in documents shared between the UK and the USA a few times since then, and aside from being a fairly offensive racial term, is a shocking way for two of the most influential governments in the world to communicate.
In many ways this epitomizes just how low the people of Chagos are being viewed by their colonial overlords.
But all is not lost!
Many Chagos Islanders and their descendants now live in the United Kingdom and despite being a homeless nation locked out from their homeland, they are an extremely active community, still fighting for their rights.
What can you do to help the Chagos Islanders?
Spread the word, tell people their story, follow them on social media, donate to their causes and support their football team!