A Chagossian and his final coconut harvest, photographed at the time of the first United States encampment (1971).
|Regions with significant populations|
|Chagossian Creole · Mauritian Creole · Seychellois Creole · English|
The Chagossians (also Îlois or Chagos Islanders) are people of African, Indian and Malay ancestry who inhabited the Chagos Islands, specifically Diego Garcia, Peros Banhos, and the Salomon island chain, as well as other parts of the Chagos Archipelago, from the late 18th to the late 20th century. Most Chagossians now live in Mauritius and the United Kingdom after being forcibly evicted by the British government in the late 1960s and early 1970s so that Diego Garcia, the island where most Chagossians lived, could serve as the location for a United States military base. Today, no Chagossians live on the island of Diego Garcia, as it is now the site of the military base Camp Justice.
The Chagossian people's ancestry is mostly African, particularly from Madagascar, Mozambique and other African nations including Mauritius. There is also a significant proportion of Indian and Malay ancestry. The French brought some to the Chagos islands as slaves from Mauritius in 1786. Others arrived as fishermen, farmers, and coconut plantation workers during the 19th century.
The Chagossians speak Chagossian Creole, a French-based creole language whose vocabulary also incorporates words originating from various African and Asian languages and is part of the Bourbonnais Creole family. Chagossian Creole is still spoken by some of their descendants in Mauritius and the Seychelles. Chagossian people living in the UK speak English. Many settled in the town of Crawley in West Sussex, and the Chagossian community there numbered approximately 3,000 in 2016.
In 1793, when the first successful colony was founded on Diego Garcia, coconut plantations were established on many of the atolls and isolated islands of the archipelago. Initially the workers were slaves, but after 1840 they were freemen, many of whom were descended from those earlier slaves. They formed an inter-island culture called Ilois (a French Creole word meaning Islanders).
In 1965, as part of a deal to grant Mauritian independence, the Chagos Archipelago was split off from the Colony and came to form the British Indian Ocean Territory. The territory's new constitution was set out in a statutory instrument imposed unilaterally without any referendum or consultation with the Chagossians and it envisaged no democratic institutions. On April 16, 1971, The United Kingdom issued a policy called BIOT Immigration Ordinance #1 which made it a criminal offense for those without military clearance to be on the islands without a permit.
Between 1967 and 1973, the Chagossians, then numbering over 1,000 people, were expelled by the British government, first to the island of Peros Banhos, 100 miles (160 km) away from their homeland, and then, in 1973, to Mauritius (for the relationship between the Chagos Archipelago and Mauritius, see Chagos Archipelago). A number of Chagossians who were evicted reported they were threatened with being shot or bombed if they did not leave the island. One old man reported to Washington Post journalist David Ottaway that an American official told him, "If you don't leave you won't be fed any longer." BIOT commissioner Bruce Greatbatch later ordered all dogs/pets on the island to be destroyed. Meanwhile, food stores on the island were allowed to deplete in order to pressure the remaining inhabitants to leave. The Chagossians owned no real property on the islands and lived in housing provided for farm workers by the absentee landowners of the plantations. The forced expulsion of the Chagossians after the acquisition of the plantations from their absentee landlords by the British Government was for the purpose of establishing a United States air and naval base on Diego Garcia, with a population of between 3,000 and 5,000 U.S. soldiers and support staff, as well as a few troops from the United Kingdom.
2006 visit to the island
In early April 2006, in an excursion organised and financed by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, a group of around a hundred Chagossians were permitted to visit the British Indian Ocean Territory for the first time in over thirty years.
High Court case
On 11 May 2006, the Chagossians won their case in the High Court of Justice in England, which found that they were entitled to return to the Chagos Archipelago. It remained to be seen how this judgment might be implemented in practice. However, in June 2006 the British government filed an appeal in the Court of Appeal against the High Court's decision. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office put forward an argument based on the treatment of the Japanese Canadians following the attacks on Pearl Harbor.
House of Lords decision, 2008
After the Court of Appeal had upheld the decision of the High Court, the British government appealed successfully to the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords. On October 22, 2008, the Law Lords reached a decision on the appeal made by the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, David Miliband. They found in favour of the Government in a 3-2 verdict, ending the legal process in the UK and dashing the islanders' hopes of return. The judges who voted to allow the government's appeal were Lord Hoffmann, Lord Rodger of Earlsferry, and Lord Carswell; those dissenting were Lord Bingham of Cornhill and Lord Mance.
Marine nature reserve and government communications leak
In April 2010, the British Government—specifically, the British diplomat Colin Roberts, acting on the instructions of David Miliband—established a marine nature reserve around the Chagos Islands known as the Chagos Marine Protected Area. The designation proved controversial as the decision was announced during a period when the UK Parliament was in recess.
On December 1, 2010, a leaked US Embassy London diplomatic cable dating back to 2009 exposed British and US calculations in creating the marine nature reserve. The cable relays exchanges between US Political Counselor Richard Mills and British Director of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Colin Roberts, in which Roberts "asserted that establishing a marine park would, in effect, put paid to resettlement claims of the archipelago's former residents." Richard Mills concludes:
Establishing a marine reserve might, indeed, as the FCO's Roberts stated, be the most effective long-term way to prevent any of the Chagos Islands' former inhabitants or their descendants from resettling in the [British Indian Ocean Territory].
Armed with the Wikileaks revelations, the Chagossians launched an appeal, seeking a judgement that the reserve was unlawfully aimed at preventing them returning home. Although United States Army soldier Chelsea Manning had been arrested nearly three years previously for the leaks, the UK government felt unable to confirm to the court that the leaked documents were genuine. It was made clear to the court that the government's inability to confirm was for two reasons: firstly, to protect itself from the charge that it created the reserve to prevent the islanders from ever returning home and, secondly, out of a purported fear that the US government might get angry if the cables were acknowledged as genuine. Despite the contents of his cable being known—"a marine park would, in effect, put paid to resettlement claims of the archipelago's former residents"—Roberts denied, when questioned in court, that there was an "ulterior motive" behind the reserve's establishment. Lord Justice Richards and Mr Justice Mitting then refused to accept the documents as evidence, declaring that to do so would breach diplomatic privilege. The Guardian described their decision as having "far-reaching consequences" and "a severe setback for the use of material obtained from leaks or whistleblowers." In June 2013, the pair of judges turned down the appeal brought by the Chagossians, ruling that everything was fine because the reserve was compatible with EU law.
It emerged in 2014 that—for three decades, in violation of environmental rules—the American navy had dumped hundreds of tonnes of sewage and waste water into a protected lagoon on Diego Garcia. In response to the revelations, the chair of the Chagos Refugees Group UK Branch, Sabrina Jean, noted:
When we Chagossians lived on our islands, the seas and lagoons were pristine. [...] For many years we have been pressing BIOT to conduct an environmental audit of the effects of the US occupation. This has been consistently refused, with the explanation that the impact of the occupation is minimal. We can now see that throughout this period there have been no controls on the pollution.
Discourse about the Chagossians
The WikiLeaks cables revealed diplomatic cables between the U.S. and U.K. about the Chagossians. A cable written by D.A. Greenhill on August 24, 1966 to a U.S. State Department official refers to the Chagossians as "some few Tarzans or Man Fridays."
Similar language appears in a 2009 U.S. State Department cable (09LONDON1156), which offered a description of the U.K. government's views about the effect of the Marine Protection Act:
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.
2012 Internet Petition to President Obama
The petition read as follows:
The U.S. Government Must Redress Wrongs Against the Chagossians
For generations, the Chagossians lived on the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean. But in the 1960s, the U.S. and U.K. governments expelled the Chagossians from their homes to allow the United States to build a military base on Diego Garcia. Facing social, cultural, and economic despair, the Chagossians now live as a marginalized community in Mauritius and Seychelles and have not been allowed to return home. The recent passing of the oldest member of the exiled population underscores the urgent need to improve the human rights of the Chagossians. We cannot let others die without the opportunity to return home and obtain redress. The United States should provide relief to the Chagossians in the form of resettlement to the outer Chagos islands, employment, and compensation.
On 4 April 2012, the sufficient number of 25,000 signatures was met to require a response from the Office of the President under its then-current policy. An undated response was posted on the White House petition web site by the United States Department of State, in the name of Michael Posner (Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor), Philip Gordon (Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs) and Andrew J. Shapiro (Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs). The response read as follows:
Thank you for your petition regarding the former inhabitants of the Chagos Archipelago. The U.S. recognizes the British Indian Ocean Territories, including the Chagos Archipelago, as the sovereign territory of the United Kingdom. The United States appreciates the difficulties intrinsic to the issues raised by the Chagossian community.
In the decades following the resettlement of Chagossians in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the United Kingdom has taken numerous steps to compensate former inhabitants for the hardships they endured, including cash payments and eligibility for British citizenship. The opportunity to become a British citizen has been accepted by approximately 1,000 individuals now living in the United Kingdom. Today, the United States understands that the United Kingdom remains actively engaged with the Chagossian community. Senior officials from the United Kingdom continue to meet with Chagossian leaders; community trips to the Chagos Archipelago are organized and paid for by the United Kingdom; and the United Kingdom provides support for community projects within the United Kingdom and Mauritius, to include a resource center in Mauritius. The United States supports these efforts and the United Kingdom’s continued engagement with the Chagossian Community.
2013 Internet petition to the UK Government
On the 16th of March 2013, an internet petition was launched in the UK from the HM Government e-petitions website in the UK. This was written in order to pressure the UK Government to rethink its past actions in light of the fact that the lease on the Chagos Islands is scheduled to run out in December 2014.
Return the Chagos islanders to the Chagos Archipelago
The Chagos islanders were forcibly evicted from the Chagos Archipelago in 1973. This eviction was to pave way for a US military base which would be rented by the UK Government to the US for a £14 million discounted price on the Polaris missiles. The Chagossians were relocated to the Seychelles and Mauritius, where they have lived ever since. In 2006, the Islanders won a High Court ruling which should allow them to return to the Islands. But since then, the Government has prevented their return by creating a marine park to protect the wildlife of the area and to also stop the Chagossians from fishing in the waters. I ask that the Government rethink their policy towards the Chagossians who had been living in the islands for hundreds of years, and allow the Islanders to return to their rightful home.
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- Vine, David (2009). Island of shame : the secret history of the U.S. military base on Diego Garcia. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 9780691138695.
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- Richard Norton-Taylor (15 April 2013). "UK refuses to admit US embassy cables obtained by WikiLeaks are genuine". guardian.co.uk. Retrieved 12 June 2013.
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- Milmo, Cahal (15 March 2014). "Exclusive: World's most pristine waters are polluted by US Navy human waste". independent.co.uk. Retrieved 17 March 2014.
- Jean, Sabrina (14 March 2014). "Chagos Islands saga: Let us Chagossians return home". independent.co.uk. Retrieved 17 March 2014.
- Kazerooni, Ibrahim (2010-12-03). "WikiLeaks Cables Reveal Use of Environmentalism by US and UK as Pretext to Keep Natives From Returning to Diego Garcia | Focal Points, the Blog of FPIF". Fpif.org. Retrieved 2012-06-21.
- "The U.S. Government Must Redress Wrongs Against the Chagossians". Whitehouse.gov. Retrieved 4 April 2012.
- "Archived Petition: Return the Chagos islanders to the Chagos Archipelago". Retrieved 2015-08-12.
- UK Chagos Support Association
- Chagos Islands Site - The oldest site in favour of the Chagos Islanders
- Let Them Return - The Chagos People's Homeland Campaign
- Diego Garcia: Paradise Cleansed by John Pilger
- Spreading democracy, by any means necessary. the US/UK and Diego Garcia
- US/UK BIOT defence agreements, 1966-1982, US Court filing
- The UK Chagos Support Association