Through the interconnectedness, via Twitter, of people who do not in the least know each other comes to me this dreadful story of the horrible oppressiveness, in the service of their greater interests, of even the greatest modern democracies.
If you have ever heard of Diego Garcia, it was likely during some period of U.S. military activity, when news reports would inform of the military base there, on an Island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Strategically desirable during the Cold War, the base has served as launching and refueling point during dramatic air missions.
Diego Garcia is, in fact, the largest island in the Chagos archipelago “a chain of 65 small coral islands… about halfway between Africa and Indonesia, seven degrees south of the Equator…. Diego Garcia covers only 17 square miles – the others are much smaller.”
Originally uninhabited, the islands were settled, in 1776, by French colonists (and lepers), who brought in African slaves to work the coconut plantations. Ultimately, the islands having come under British possession,the slaves were freed, and they took control of the plantations. Over perhaps one hundred and fifty years a Creole population developed among the descendants of the freed slaves.
Then, at the height of the Cold War, the U.S. decided it needed that strategic Indian Ocean base, and ally Britain determined to provide it.
In 1966 Britain secretly leased Diego Garcia to the US for 50 years, with the option of an extension. This was done in exchange for a discount of millions of dollars on Polaris nuclear submarines – a way of concealing the payment. The US pays rent of one dollar per year. The deal was not disclosed to the US Congress, the British Parliament, or the United Nations.
A difficulty was that people lived on the island, and the U.S. did not want them there.
In 1967 the British government bought out the plantation owners, shut down the plantations and stopped the regular supply ship. With no warning or consultation, the islanders, numbering about 2000 at this time, were told that they were all being evicted. Those who tried to flee to the outer islands were rounded up. The islanders were isolated, intimidated, and tricked into believing that they would be settled into a similar environment with their own land and houses.
Armed men put the islanders in groups of 300 or more on to a ship designed to carry 50 and shipped them off to Mauritius or the Seychelles. They were forced to abandon their homes and all their possessions except one small bag each. These men slaughtered their livestock and destroyed their homes. Many of the exiles witnessed all of this.
Those who were on trips away at the time were simply not allowed back, left stranded in foreign lands with nothing but what they had with them. In 1971, Britain made it official with an Immigration Ordinance denying the Chagossians the right to ever return home.
The residents not being self-sufficient on the island, there is, perhaps, a kind of eminent domain argument that might be made for their removal, but not in the manner and under the conditions in which it all was actually accomplished. And if you read the full account, you will see that the record of the islanders seeking legal recourse and restitution – they are now headed for the European Court of Human Rights – is long and always, once more, disappointing. Many of the removed islanders live today, still, in awful conditions, and the British government continues to treat them in a strikingly different manner than the Falkland islanders.
Any thoughts on what the reason might be?