Halfway between the coast of East Africa and Indonesia, and 500 km south of the Maldives, lies the Chagos Archipelago. It is a group of seven atolls, 60 tiny islands in all, controlled by Britain since 1814. Following the emancipation of slaves in 1835, little changed in the Chagos. The strict social order – white master; white, mulatto or black overseers; and black worker – was not altered. Yet, the workload was reduced and former slaves felt strong enough to protest against any perceived injustice. With time, Chagossians did improve their status, even though they were paid a pittance for their work.
By the turn of the XX century, Chagossians had developed a distinctive language, the Chagos Creole, adhered to the Catholic faith yet maintaining elements of African and Malagasy traditional beliefs, and possessed a clear group identity as Chagossians. They remained an isolated human group. A steam boat brought supplies and allowed people to travel between the Chagos and Mauritius only twice a year.
WWII taught a few lessons to the USA; among them, the importance of maintaining foreign bases from where to strike the enemy. To them, the island of Diego Garcia in the Chagos Archipelago was nearly perfect. US Admiral Arleigh Burke, Chief of Naval Operations, proposed that the British government detached the Chagos from Mauritius and create a new administrative entity, in this way the new territory could be used by US and UK military in future.
The British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) was formally established on November 8, 1965. Four days later, the British Colonial Office sent a message to the new BIOT administration saying it was “essential that contingency planning for evacuation of existing population from Diego Garcia should begin at once”. From that moment on, the BIOT did everything possible to evacuate the islands. Chagossians that went to Mauritius were not allowed back. Supplies were withheld; personnel at the local hospital and schools were not replaced.
On January 24, 1971, the whole population of Diego Garcia was asked to report to the plantation main office at East Point. There, they were told that the plantation was now closed and all had to leave the island. Promises were made of relocation on Salomon and Peros Banhos islands. Those who would accept to move to Mauritius were to be given land, housing and compensation. These never materialized. With no money, no clear juridical status, Chagossians relocated in Mauritius and Seychelles lived in dire poverty.
It did not take long for Chagossians to regroup and try all legal ways to return to their islands. Numerous petitions were sent to the Mauritian, Seychelles, USA and UK governments. None was answered. Throughout the 1980s Chagossians demonstrated against the British asking for repatriation and compensation. A few Chagossian leaders founded the Chagos Refugees Group. They asked Olivier Bancoult, one of the last to be born in Peros Banhos, to join the group. Olivier was only 18 at the time, but he was also one of the few Chagossians who went to secondary school and was literate.
A new lawsuit was filed at the High Court in London in 1998. On November 3, 2000, the British High Court in London ruled that the expulsion had been illegal under British law. Olivier Bancoult left the chamber making the sign of victory. “When I went outside the court – he later said – I was making a ‘V’. It was V for victory. It was the day when David finally defeated Goliath, when the people defeated the great Goliath, the great power, the British Government”. The victory was short lived. In 2003, Chagossians lost a High Court case and were denied compensation. In 2004, the British government invoked an archaic royal prerogative in order to crush previous judgments. A decree was issued that the islanders were banned forever from returning home. Once again, Olivier Bancoult and Richard Gifford, a London lawyer, got together and moved the case to the European court of human rights. Another setback occurred when, in April 2010, the Labour government declared that most of the archipelago – excluding Diego Garcia with its important military base – would become a marine protected area (MPA).
The issue of a MPA in the Chagos has been the cause of bitter fight. Chagossians are divided between those who see in the MPA an opportunity and those who smell a rat. The MPA could very well mean that no one will be allowed in most islands, and that fishing or other commercial activities may be banned altogether. In this case, only a handful of Chagossians will be allowed back, blocking most from returning and having a right to live there. The rift became apparent during the “Chagos Regagné – Chagos regained” conference held in London in May 2011. Many agreed that an eco-village on one of the outer islands could provide a base for Chagos people visiting their homeland and working on conservation projects. Others opposed the project
Chagossians are now waiting for the deliberation of the European court of human rights. The end is not yet on sight, but perhaps they are closer to regain the right to live in their motherland.