Keeping Up With the Chagossians

Ben Grapevine
10 min readJan 17, 2021

In 1960, somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 people lived in the Chagos Islands. Today, none of them do. Instead, the islands play host to a premiere United States military base and not much else. The people, and their native culture, are gone.

It was the construction of the U.S. base that served as the catalyst for the removal of the native Chagossians, but the islands themselves aren’t American. Washington didn’t have the authority to expel the Chagossians, or to build a base on their homeland, but one back-alley nuclear bomb deal later, two thousand islanders bid adieu to the only home they’d ever known.

Chagos

The Chagos Islands form an archipelago of over 60 isles in the middle of the Indian ocean. Their neighbors include no one, being separated from other landmasses by at least 450 miles of open ocean. This anomaly of isolation is the central source of Chagos’s tumultuous history.

The isles and atolls were first inhabited in the 1800s, populated initially by enslaved Africans brought there by the French to pick coconuts. After Napoleon fucked up his campaign of Euro-domination a world away from the tropical plantations, the British took control, and things changed a ton: now, instead of native African people performing slave labor for the French, they were slave-laboring for the British.

Then London outlawed slavery, which meant labor became more expensive — a sad side effect of freedom. Fortunately, cheap labor still existed in India, where the British bought up a bunch of… indentured servants and brought ’em to Chagos.

In time, the Chagos Islands, at least the few that could be inhabited, came to develop a unique, tropical multicultural community of people who led simple lives disconnected from the rest of the world by an absolute shitload of water. By the 1950s, they numbered some 2,000 people.

Also by the 1950s: Cold War. The two best friends of World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union, now hate each other a lot because they’re both strong and that’s not good. They’re playing chess matches against each other all over the world to see who’s stronger, except instead of chess pieces, they’re using people, and instead of chess, it’s a ton of murder.

During and leading up to the Cold War, the United States gains a new hobby: building a lot of military bases. Before World War II, the U.S. had only a few foreign bases. Actually, between everyone, there were only a few foreign bases. It wasn’t really a thing. Afterward, though, the previously-isolationist America decides it really likes fightin’, and wants to set itself up to fight as many dudes as possible.

So, in the interest of facilitating brawls with bad guys all around the world, the United States government wants to build as many bases as they can in as many places. But there’s a problem: the United States doesn’t own all the land in the world, which is a major bummer when your blueprint scope is “everywhere”. Luckily, while the United States doesn’t have territory everywhere, they have friends who do, like the British. Modern British history is, of course, a tapestry telling the stories of notable Britons who went to places they didn’t own and refused to leave until they did. As a result, before the decades of imperial exodus to come, the United Kingdom of the 1950s still presided over a pretty substantial colonial empire with holdings in the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, and the Indian Ocean.

When it comes to base building, the United States isn’t picky — they’ll build anywhere. But they’re particularly interested, understandably, in land that gives them a geographic advantage in the conflicts of the future. Countries like Israel and Saudi Arabia provide the United States a foothold in the middle east. Japan offers the U.S. a door to the heart of the Asia-Pacific region, and Germany expands American military access to the core of continental Europe. America’s footprint is everywhere. Well, not everywhere. So far, they’re all but unheard of in the Indian Ocean, meaning if a fight breaks out in the region, America won’t be there to join in, at least not for the first 45 minutes.

The British, though, as we’ve already established, do have a foothold in the Indian ocean: a bunch of li’l islands they’ve either DIY-conquered or inherited from other European conquerors. Some of these islands, as we’ve learned, are conveniently located right in the middle of it all, a perfect, easily-defensible location for a naval or air base. The United States is interested in signing a lease. But there’s one problem: it’s the 1950s and 60s now, which is a terrible time to be a fan of the British Empire. The exodus has arrived. Britannia’s territories are jumping ship left and right, with independence movements growing in British colonial holdings in every corner of the worldwide empire.

Here’s no different. The collection of islands the U.S. is lusting after belongs to the Crown Colony of Mauritius, which is set to become an independent country free from British rule. No British, no base. That’s not great for Washington. They’d rather work with their best frenemy than these geopolitical noobs. The two elder nations talk and London comes up with a plan: they’ll take the Chagos islands and carefully separate them from Mauritius, setting them neatly inside the newly-designated British Indian Ocean Territory. They also grab a few islands from Seychelles to add to the BIOT so it doesn’t look suspicious. Mauritius protests, but they’re very small, and the United Kingdom is very big. Then the UK makes a deal.

The deal wasn’t public for a while, because it was secret, and secret deals that go public are no longer secret. America wanted to use Diego Garcia, the largest and most eligible of the Chagos Islands, to build their base. The United Kingdom wanted some nuclear missiles. The deal goes as such: the U.S. gets the base, the U.K. gets weapons of mass destruction. Awesome. One tiny detail: there can’t be any people loitering around the base. To the American government, this is no problem. Their official public position is that no one lives on Diego Garcia. To the British, it’s a little bit of a problem, because two thousand people actually do live there.

A deal’s a deal, though, and you can’t go back on a friend, so the British move forward with a plan to kick everyone out. It starts slow at first, with reduced shipments of supplies in an attempt to convince the islands’ inhabitants to leave through… starvation. Either that doesn’t work or it doesn’t work fast enough, though, and the British change up their tactics. New plan: kidnap and kill all of their dogs. …for real.

Entirely flummoxed that canine genocide didn’t provide a pretext for two thousand Chagossians to call up their realtors and search for cozy condos elsewhere, the British turned to the most obvious option and loaded the islanders up on boats by force and shipped them to Mauritius, a country they had never known. Some refused to leave the ships until they were guaranteed housing. The Mauritian government technically complied, giving the once self-sufficient islanders hastily-constructed shanty houses and bidding them on their way.

Acknowledging the exchange, one British diplomat wrote, “Unfortunately, along with birds go some few Tarzans”. Poetic.

Diego Garcia, USA

The Americans got to work building their base. It takes up a sizable portion of Diego Garcia, but only that island and not any of the remaining sixty. To be fair, not all of those sixty islands are capable of supporting human settlements. It doesn’t really matter, though — per the British government, humans aren’t allowed to settle there either way.

The site at Diego Garcia is secretive. No journalist has ever been to the island. While other bases allow spouses to live nearby, this one doesn’t. So much for a romantic island getaway. Beyond military personnel, the only people allowed on the island are Mauritian and Filipino contractors who do basic on-base work like cooking and cleaning.

The base proved useful during the Gulf War, when an American-led coalition of countries intervened on the side of Kuwait following a Saddam Hussein-led Iraqi invasion. Before that and up to the present millennium, the role of the base was largely unknown.

As operations at Diego Garcia continued as normally as top secret operations can, the Chagossians waged a legal battle for their right to return to the island. After decades of estrangement from their homeland, they finally met victory in 2000 when a British judge ruled that they had been illegally removed, giving them the right to return. One-way tickets to Diego Garcia weren’t being handed out, but things looked bright. Then, a year later, four hijacked airplanes flew into the World Trade Center, Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania.

Tremors

The United States and its allies plunged into war and an atmosphere of high military alert. At first, the concerns of the Chagossians fell on the back burner as the British and American governments united against terrorism in western and Central Asia. Then, in 2004, the British government formally canceled the ruling via executive order on the grounds of national security.

Speaking to the L.A. Times, a Mauritian lawyer representing the expelled Chagossians said, “I knew 9/11 was a tragedy, but I couldn’t help but telling myself that this is also the end of the Chagos litigation. Given the importance of Diego Garcia for the U.S. military, I could not see any relaxation in the rules for resettlement now.”

It was a good guess. Since 9/11, the base at Diego Garcia has seen renewed importance. The original version of this piece, published in January of 2021, referenced the ongoing War in Afghanistan and regular eruptions of conflict in Iraq as evidence that American interests in the Indian Ocean were unlikely to wain any time soon. Since then, the United States officially pulled out of Afghanistan, ending the two-decades-long conflict. Still, even without the war, I’d be silly to suggest a turn away from conflict in the region is permanent. As long as there’s a strategic advantage to holding Diego Garcia, it’s hard to believe the United States will be interested in letting it go.

Operations at the base remain top secret. The United States denies allegations that the facilities at Diego Garcia have housed extrajudicial CIA detainees or played host to that agency’s campaign of torture, though accusations running contrary to those denials remain.

Nearly two decades since their initial victory in British court, Chagossians’ hopes of returning to their country were strong, but so was doubt. Then, in 2019, another ruling, this time in the United Nations. The international organization ruled that the British decision to keep Diego Garcia and its kin was illegal in a pretty brutal 116–6 vote. Again, the British government was told to return the islands to the Chagossians.

But the United Nations is the United Nations. The voting body carries no authority, and no one is charged with the execution of its rulings. Instead, they really hope the British will listen. And maybe they will.

…but probably not, realistically. The American lease on the island runs through 2036, and prematurely ending it could create a rift between the two special best friends. This would also be far from the first time a country ignored the demands of the United Nations in the name of esoteric national security concerns. In 2004, the body ruled that Israel’s construction of walls and settlements in Palestine was illegal, a ruling that Israel talked over loudly, pretending they couldn’t hear it. The Palestinian settlements remain internationally controversial, but few remain dedicated to holding Israel to the U.N.’s decision.

In the niche that is being forcibly removed from their island home in the interest of Western military expansion, the Chagossians aren’t alone. In the 1940s, the same thing happened to the native inhabitants of American-held Bikini Atoll, which later played host to a famous set of nuclear bomb experiments. “The benefit of mankind” was the reason given for their removal.

Later, the natives won the right to return, first to nearby islands incapable of properly sustaining human life, and then to Bikini Atoll itself. A victory, for sure, but a limited one. Unlike Diego Garcia, the military administration of Bikini Atoll hadn’t been using the island as a typical military base — they’d been nuking the shit out of it. Unsurprisingly, not long after the natives returned, they began complaining of health conditions secondary to exposure to nuclear radiation. The island, now theirs again, had been forever changed by the American occupation.

The People

The Chagossians remain a world away, most still living in Mauritius, some having moved to Europe or elsewhere. A few have been allowed to return to the islands of their births, but only temporarily — visits are supervised and time-limited, enough to allow the exiles to see their homes but not enough to live in them.

It wouldn’t be surprising to learn that some Chagossians are angry with the United States for removing them from their native islands, but those who have spoken on record speak differently; they’re not bothered by the presence of the American base. They’re comfortable living alongside it. Some have asked for the right to accept the service jobs given to Filipino citizens and Mauritians. They’re willing to cut a deal. But for the Americans who run the base and the British who administer the islands, it’s one deal at a time.

Originally published at https://bengrapevine.com on January 17, 2021. Edited for republication on Medium.

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