Depopulation of Chagossians from the Chagos Archipelago
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
The depopulation of Chagossians from the Chagos Archipelago, that is, the compelled expulsion of the indigenous inhabitants of the island of Diego Garcia and the other islands of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) by the United Kingdom, at the request of the United States of America, began in 1968 and concluded on 27 April 1973 with the evacuation of Peros Banhos atoll. The people, known at the time as the Ilois, are today known as Chagos Islanders or Chagossians.
Some Chagossians and human rights advocates have claimed that the Chagossian right of occupation was violated by the British Foreign Office as a result of the 1966 agreement between the British and American governments to provide an unpopulated island for a U.S. military base, and that additional compensation and a right of return be provided.
Legal action to claim compensation and the right of abode in the Chagos began in April 1973 when 280 islanders, represented by a Mauritian attorney, petitioned the government of Mauritius to distribute the £650,000 compensation provided in 1972 by the British government for distribution by the Mauritian government (it was not distributed until 1977). In October 1974, after receiving no assistance from the Mauritian Government, a Mr. Saminaden and Mr. Michel Vincatassin presented the British High Commissioner to Mauritius with a petition detailing the lack of support the islanders had received from the Mauritian government, noting that 40 islanders had died since arriving on Mauritius, and asking for the UK Government to work on their behalf with the Mauritian Government, or to return the Ilois to the Chagos.
From this initial petitioning grew a series of presentations and lawsuits culminating in the 27 March 1982 agreement among the British Government, the Mauritian Government, and the Islanders (numbering 1,419 adults and 160 minors), which was intended to settle all islander claims for the sum of £4 millions in cash from the British Government and £1 million in land from the Mauritius Government.
Beginning in 1983, a new series of compensation claims were made against the British Government by an Ilois group called the Chagos Refugee Group, located on Mauritius. The founders and officers formed the core of inhabitants who, beginning in 1999, brought three lawsuits to British Courts – in 1999, 2002, and 2006 – and one to an American Court in 2001, all requesting additional compensation and the right of abode in the Chagos. The U.S. case and two of these three British cases were defeated on appeal, the other was not appealed by the British Government.
In 2005, these same litigants filed an Application for Trial with the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), which was brought before that court in 2008 following the final defeat of the final British lawsuit before the House of Lords. The ECtHR ruled against the Application on 11 Dec 2012.
The British government has consistently denied any illegalities in the expulsion. Even so, various officials (including the Foreign Minister) have apologized to the Chagossians for wrongdoing, while still disputing that the deportees have a right to be repatriated at this time.
On April 1, 2010, the British Cabinet announced the creation of the world’s largest Marine Protected Area (MPA) which consists of most of the Chagos Archipelago, homeland of the Chagossians. The MPA will prohibit extractive industry of all kinds, including commercial fishing and oil and gas exploration. Some Chagossians have claimed that this MPA was created to prevent the islanders from returning to the islands.
On December 1, 2010, a leaked US Embassy London diplomatic cable  exposed British and US communications 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”. The cable (reference ID “09LONDON1156”) was classified as confidential and “no foreigners”, and leaked as part of the Cablegate cache.
1 The Chagossians
2.1 ‘A Memorandum of Guidance’ (1970)
2.2 U.S. Navy personnel arrive
2.3 The last Chagossians are removed
3 International law
6 Developments since 2000
6.1 Legal developments
6.2 Diplomatic cables leaks
6.3 Internet petition
7 See also
9 External links
A photo of the famed Chagossian named Samson, who could husk his weekly quota of 3,000 coconuts in three days. NOAA Photo from 1968.
The Chagos Archipelago was uninhabited when first visited by European explorers, and remained that way until the French successfully established a small colony on the island of Diego Garcia, composed of 50-60 men and “a complement of slaves”. The slaves came from what are now Mozambique and Madagascar via Mauritius. Thus the original Chagossians were a mixture of the Bantu and Austronesian peoples.
The French surrendered Mauritius and its dependencies (including the Chagos) to the UK in the 1814 Treaty of Paris, and the British immediately outlawed the slave trade. However, nothing precluded the transport of slaves within the colony, and so the ancestors of the Chagossians were routinely shipped from Mauritius to Rodrigues to the Chagos to the Seychelles, and elsewhere. In addition, from 1820-1840 the atoll of Diego Garcia in the Chagos became the staging post for slave ships trading between Sumatra, the Seychelles, and the French island of Bourbon, adding a population of Malay slaves into the Chagos gene pool.
The British Government abolished slavery in 1834, and the colonial administration of the Seychelles (which administered the Chagos at the time) followed suit in 1835, with the former slaves “apprenticed” to their former masters until 1 February 1839, at which time they became freemen. Following emancipation, the former slaves became contract employees of the various plantation owners throughout the Chagos. Contracts were required by colonial law to be renewed before a magistrate at least every two years, but the distance from the nearest colonial headquarters (on Mauritius) meant few visits by officials, and that meant that these contract workers often stayed for decades between the visits of the Magistrate, and this is little doubt that some remained for a lifetime.
Those workers born in the Chagos were referred to as Creoles des Iles, or Ilois for short, a French Creole word meaning “Islanders” until the late 1990s, when they adopted the name Chagossians or Chagos Islanders. With no other work to be had, and all the islands granted by the Governor of Mauritius to the plantation owners, life continued for the Chagossians as it would in a Eurocentric slave society with European managers and Ilois workers and their families.
On the Chagos, this involved specific tasks, and rewards including housing (such as it was), rations and rum, and a relatively distinct Creole society developed. Over the decades, Mauritian, Seychellois, Chinese, Somali, and Indian workers were employed on the island at various times in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, contributing to the Chagossian culture, as did as plantation managers and administrators, visiting ships’ crews and passengers, British and Indian garrison troops stationed on the island in World War II, and residents of Mauritius – to which individual Chagossians and their families traveled and spent lengthy periods of time.
Significant demographic shifts in the island population began in 1962 when the French-financed Mauritian Company, Societe Huiliere de Diego et Peros, which had consolidated ownership of all the plantations in the Chagos in 1883, sold the plantations to the Seychelles Company, Chagos-Agalega Company, which then owned the entire Chagos Archipelago, except for six acres at the mouth of the Diego Garcia lagoon. Thus, at no time did anyone living on the islands actually own a piece of real property there. Even the resident managers of the plantations were simply employees of absentee landlords.
In the 1930s, Father Dussercle reported that 60% of the plantation workers were “Children of the Isles”; that is, born in the Chagos. However, beginning in 1962, the Chagos-Agalega Company began hiring Seychellois contract workers almost exclusively, along with a few from Mauritius, as many of the Ilois left the Chagos because of the change in management; by 1964, 80% of the population were Seychellois under 18-month or 2-year contracts.
At this same time, the UK and U.S. began talks with the objective of establishing a military base in the Indian Ocean region. The base would need to be on British Territory as the U.S. had no possessions in the region. The U.S. was deeply concerned with the stability of the host nation of any potential base, and sought an unpopulated territory, to avoid the U.N.’s decolonisation requirements and the resulting political issues of sovereignty or anti-Western sentiment. The political posture of an independent Mauritius, from which the remote British islands of the central Indian Ocean were administered, was not clearly known, but was of a nature expected to work against the security of the base.
As a direct result of these geopolitical concerns, the British Colonial Office recommended to the UK Government in October 1964 to detach the Chagos from Mauritius.  In January 1965, the U.S. Embassy in London formally requested the detachment of the Chagos as well. On November 8, the UK created the BIOT by an Order in Council  On December 30, 1966, the U.S. and UK signed a 50-year agreement to use the Chagos for military purposes, and that each island so used would be without a resident civilian population. This and other evidence at trial led the UK High Court of Justice Queen’s Bench to decide in 2003 that the UK government ultimately decided to depopulate the entire Chagos to avoid scrutiny by the U.N.’s Special Committee on the Situation with Regard to the Implementation of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, known as the “Committee of 24”.
In April 1967, The BIOT Administration bought out Chagos-Agalega for £600,000, thus becoming the sole property owner in the BIOT. The Crown immediately leased back the properties to Chagos-Agalega but the company terminated the lease at the end of 1967, after which the BIOT assigned management of the plantations to the former managers of Chagos-Agalega, who had incorporated in the Seychelles as Moulinie and Company, Limited.
Throughout the 20th Century, there existed a total population of approximately one thousand individuals, with a peak population of 1,142 on all islands recorded in 1953. In 1966, the population was 924. This population was fully employed. Although it was common for local plantation managers to allow pensioners and the disabled to remain in the islands and continue to receive rations in exchange for light work, children after the age of 12 were required to work. In 1964, only 3 of a population of 963 were unemployed.
In the latter half of the 20th century, there were thus three major strands to the population – Mauritian and Seychelles contract workers (including management), and the Ilois. There is no agreement as to the numbers of Ilois living in the BIOT prior to 1971. However, the UK and Mauritius agreed in 1972 that there were 426 Ilois families numbering 1,151 individuals who left the Chagos for Mauritius voluntarily or involuntarily between 1965 and 1973. In 1977, the Mauritian government independently listed a total of 557 families totaling 2,323 people – 1,068 adults and 1,255 children – a number which included families that left voluntarily before the creation of the BIOT and never returned to the Chagos. The number reported by the Mauritian government in 1978 to have received compensation was 2,365 – 1,081 adults and 1,284 minor children. The Mauritian Government’s Ilois Trust Fund Board certified 1,579 individuals as Ilois in 1982.
The entire population of the Chagos, including the Ilois, was removed to Mauritius and the Seychelles by 27 April 1973.
In early March 1967, the British Commissioner declared BIOT Ordinance Number Two. This unilateral proclamation was called the Acquisition of Land for Public Purposes (Private Treaty) Ordinance and enabled him to acquire any land he liked (for the UK government). On 3 April of that year, under the provisions of the order, the British government bought all the plantations of the Chagos archipelago for £660,000 from the Chagos Agalega Company. It has been suggested that the plan was to deprive the Chagossians of an income and so encourage them to leave the island voluntarily. In a memo dating from this period, Colonial Office head Denis Greenhill (later Lord Greenhill of Harrow) wrote to the British Delegation at the UN:
The object of the exercise is to get some rocks which will remain ours; there will be no indigenous population except seagulls who have not yet got a committee. Unfortunately, along with the seagulls go some few Tarzans and Man Fridays that are hopefully being wished on Mauritius.
Another internal Colonial Office memo read:
The Colonial Office is at present considering the line to be taken in dealing with the existing inhabitants of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). They wish to avoid using the phrase ‘permanent inhabitants’ in relation to any of the islands in the territory because to recognise that there are any permanent inhabitants will imply that there is a population whose democratic rights will have to be safeguarded and which will therefore be deemed by the UN to come within its purlieu. The solution proposed is to issue them with documents making it clear that they are ‘belongers’ of Mauritius and the Seychelles and only temporary residents of BIOT. This devise, although rather transparent, would at least give us a defensible position to take up at the UN.
Advocates of the Chagossians (see links below) claim that the number of Chagossian residents on Diego Garcia was deliberately under-counted in order to play down the scale of the proposed depopulation. Three years before the depopulation plan was concocted, the British Governor of Mauritius, Sir Robert Scott, is said to have estimated the permanent population of Diego Garcia at 1,700. In a BIOT report made in June 1968, the British government estimated that only 354 Chagossians were third generation ‘belongers’ on the islands. This number subsequently fell in further reports. Later that year, the British government asked for help from the legal department of their own Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in creating a legal basis for depopulating the islands. The first paragraph of the FCO’s reply read:
The purpose of the Immigration Ordinance is to maintain the fiction that the inhabitants of the Chagos are not a permanent or semi-permanent population. The Ordinance would be published in the BIOT gazette which has only very limited circulation. Publicity will therefore be minimal.
The government is therefore often accused of deciding to clear all the islanders by denying they ever belonged on Diego Garcia in the first place and then removing them. This was to be done by issuing an ordinance that the island be cleared of all non-inhabitants. The legal obligation to announce the decision was fulfilled by publishing the notice in a small-circulation gazette not generally read outside of FCO staff.
Starting in March 1969, Chagossians visiting Mauritius found that they were no longer allowed to get on the steamer home. They were told their contracts to work on Diego Garcia had expired. This left them homeless, jobless and without means of support. It also prevented word from reaching the rest of the Diego Garcia population. Relatives who travelled to Mauritius to seek their missing family members also found themselves unable to return.
‘A Memorandum of Guidance’ (1970)
In 1970, British MP Tam Dalyell heard about what was happening to the Chagossians and gave notice that he intended to ask a number of questions in Parliament. Within days of Dalyell’s notification, Eleanor Emery, head of the Indian Ocean Department at the FCO, drafted a ‘memorandum of guidance’ for internal circulation. The reason for the memorandum, she stated, was ‘a recent revival of public interest in the British Indian Ocean Territory’.
She then stated:
We shall continue to try to say as little as possible to avoid embarrassing the United States administration.
Apart from our overall strategic and defence interests, we are also concerned at present not to have to elaborate on the administrative implications for the present population of Diego Garcia of the establishment of any base there.
We would not wish it to become general knowledge that some of the inhabitants have lived on Diego Garcia for several generations and could, therefore, be regarded as ‘belongers’.
We shall advise ministers in handling supplementary questions to say that there is only a small number of contract workers from the Seychelles and Mauritius, engaged to work on the copra plantations.
Should an MP ask about what would happen to these contract labourers in the event of a base being set up on the island, we hope that, for the present, this can be brushed aside as a hypothetical question at least until any decision to go ahead with the Diego Garcia facility becomes public.
U.S. Navy personnel arrive
The Chagossians help United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency personnel bring equipment ashore in 1971. Photo by Kirby Crawford.
On 23 January 1971, a nine-man advance party from the U.S. Navy’s Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 40 (NMCB-40) landed on Diego Garcia to confirm planning information and conduct a survey for beach landing areas.
At 5 p.m. local time on 9 March 1971, the USS Vernon County (LST-1161) arrived at Diego Garcia. The next day, she began underwater and beach surveys in preparation for beaching. Two days after that, the ship beached and began offloading men and construction equipment for construction of a U.S. Navy base on Diego Garcia.
Construction continued for the remainder of the summer, with the completion (28 July 1971) of the first runway on the island (3,500 ft in length).
The last Chagossians are removed
In March 1971, a BIOT civil servant traveled from Mauritius to tell the Chagossians that they were to leave. A memorandum related that:
I told the inhabitants that we intended to close the island in July. A few of them asked whether they could receive some compensation for leaving ‘their own country.’ I kicked this into touch by saying that our intention was to cause as little disruption to their lives as possible.
By 15 October 1971, the Chagossians on Diego Garcia had been evacuated to the Peros Banhos and Salomon plantations by ships chartered from Mauritius and the Seychelles. In November 1972, the plantation on Salomon atoll was evacuated, with the population allowed to choose whether to be taken to Seychelles or Mauritius. On 26 May 1973 the plantation on Peros Banhos atoll was closed and the last of the islanders sent to Seychelles or Mauritius, depending on their desires.
Those sent to the Seychelles received a severance pay equating to their remaining contract term. Those sent to Mauritius were to receive a cash settlement from the British Government distributed through the Mauritian Government. However, the Mauritian Government did not distribute this settlement until 1977, and the Chagossians on Mauritius were not compensated until that date.
The case has not been heard by any international court of law as no appropriate venue has been found to accept the case. The 2012 rejection of an Application for Trial by the European Court of Human Rights stated that no right of petition exists for residents of the British Indian Ocean Territory before that court.
According to Article 7(d) of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court which established the International Criminal Court (ICC), “deportation or forcible transfer of population” constitutes a crime against humanity if it is “committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack”. The ICC is not retroactive: alleged crimes committed before 1 July 2002 cannot be judged by the ICC.
In 1972, the British Government allocated £650,000 for compensation to the 426 Ilois families displaced to Mauritius. This money was intended to be paid directly to the families, and was given to the Mauritian government for distribution. The Mauritian government, however, withheld the money until 1978. In response to litigation by islanders, the British Government contributed an additional £4 million, which was again turned over to the Mauritian Government, which distributed it in a series of disbursements between 1982 and 1987.
The Chagossians had been left homeless in an island where unemployment already stood at 20 percent. Moreover, their trade was copra farming which was not translatable to the local economy as Mauritius’s chief crop was sugar cane. The Chagossians also spoke a patois with an accent unique to Diego Garcia, and claimed they were discriminated against on Mauritius because of that.
A few of the literate exiles put together a petition that they presented to the British High Commissioner, asking for a house and a plot of land for each family, so that they could support themselves. The Commissioner immediately delivered this petition to the Mauritian Government.
Mauritian opposition party the Mouvement Militant Mauricien (MMM) began to question the validity under international law of the purchase of the Chagos and the removal of the Chagossians.
Passenger terminal at Diego Garcia airport, with functioning red British telephone booth
In 1975, David Ottaway of the Washington Post wrote and published an article titled “Islanders Were Evicted for U.S. Base” which related the plight of the Chagossians in detail.
This prompted two U.S. Congressional committees to look into the matter. They were told that the ‘entire subject of Diego Garcia is considered classified’.
In November 1975, the Sunday Times published an article titled “The Islanders that Britain Sold”.
That year, a Methodist preacher from Kent, Mr George Champion, began a one-man picket of the FCO, with a placard reading simply: ‘DIEGO GARCIA’. This continued until his death in 1982.
In 1976, the government of the Seychelles took the British government to court. The Aldabra, Desroches and Farquhar Islands were separated from the BIOT and returned to the Seychelles as it achieved independence in 1976.
US Navy radome on Diego Garcia
In 1978, at Bain Des Dames in Port Louis, six Chagossian women went on hunger strike and there were demonstrations in the streets (mainly organised by the MMM) over Diego Garcia.
In 1979, a Mauritian Committee asked Mr. Vencatassen’s lawyer to negotiate more compensation. In response to this, the British Government offered £4m to the surviving Chagossians on the express condition that Vencatassen withdraw his case and that all Chagossians sign a “full and final” document renouncing any right of return to the island.
All but 12 of the 1,579 Chagossians eligible to receive compensation at the time signed the documents. The document also contained provisions for those that could not write, by allowing the impression of an inked thumbprint to ratify the document. However, some illiterate islanders claim that they were tricked into signing the documents and that they would never have signed sincerely had they known the outcome of their signatures.
Developments since 2000
The headquarters of BIOT police (2005)
In 2000 the British High Court granted the islanders the right to return to the Archipelago. However, they were not actually allowed to return, and in 2002 the islanders and their descendants, now numbering 4,500, returned to court claiming compensation, after what they said were two years of delays by the British Foreign Office.
On 10 June 2004 the British government made two Orders in Council under the Royal Prerogative forever banning the islanders from returning home, to override the effect of the 2000 court decision. As of May 2010, some of the Chagossians were still making return plans to turn Diego Garcia into a sugarcane and fishing enterprise as soon as the defence agreement expired (which some thought would happen as early as 2016). A few dozen other Chagossians were still fighting to be housed in the UK.
On 11 May 2006 the British High Court ruled that the 2004 Orders-in-Council were unlawful, and consequently that the Chagossians were entitled to return to the Chagos Archipelago. An action in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia against Robert McNamara, the former United States Secretary of Defense, was dismissed as a nonjusticiable political question.
On 23 May 2007, the UK Government’s appeal against the 2006 High Court ruling was dismissed, and they took the matter to the House of Lords. On 22 October 2008, the UK Government won on appeal, the House of Lords overturned the 2006 High Court ruling and upheld the two 2004 Orders-in-Council and with them the Government’s ban on anyone returning.
In 2005, 1,786 Chagossians made Application for a Trial of the issues with the European Court of Human Rights. The Application claimed that the British Government violated their rights under the European Convention on Human Rights, specifically: Article 3 – The prohibition against degrading treatment; Article 6 – The right to a fair trial; Article 8 – The right to privacy in one’s home; Article 13 – The right to obtain remedy before national courts, and; Protocol 1, Article 1 – The right to peaceful enjoyment of one’s possessions. On 11 December 2012, the court rejected on the Application’s request for a trial ruling that the B.I.O.T. did not come under the jurisdiction of the ECtHR, and that in any event, all claims had previously been raised and settled in the proper national, that is British, courts.
Diplomatic cables leaks
According to leaked diplomatic cables obtained by Wikileaks and released in 2010, in a calculated move in 2009 to prevent re-settlement of the BIOT by native Chagossians, the UK proposed that the BIOT become a “marine reserve” with the aim of preventing the former inhabitants from returning to their lands. The summary of the diplomatic cable is as follows :
HMG would like to establish a “marine park” or “reserve” providing comprehensive environmental protection to the reefs and waters of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), a senior Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) official informed Polcouns on May 12. The official insisted that the establishment of a marine park — the world’s largest — would in no way impinge on USG use of the BIOT, including Diego Garcia, for military purposes. He agreed that the UK and U.S. should carefully negotiate the details of the marine reserve to assure that U.S. interests were safeguarded and the strategic value of BIOT was upheld. He said that the BIOT’s former inhabitants would find it difficult, if not impossible, to pursue their claim for resettlement on the islands if the entire Chagos Archipelago were a marine reserve.
On 5 March 2012, an international petition was launched on We the People section of the whitehouse.gov website in order to ask the White House in the United States to consider the Chagos case.
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 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 non-committal 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.
“Thank you for taking the time to raise this important issue with us.”