The Chagos Islands 40 years on remain a black mark on Britain

By 1973, the entire indigenous population of the Chagos Islands was forcibly deported to Mauritius, to make way for a US military base. This month marks the fortieth anniversary of an outrage committed under wraps by the British, still fighting to prevent the return of the Chagossians. 

Peter Presland
2 April 2012

Falklands-Malvinas & the next 30 years

By 1973, the entire indigenous population of the Chagos Islands was forcibly deported to Mauritius, to make way for a US military base. This month marks the fortieth anniversary of an outrage committed under wraps by the British, still fighting to prevent the return of the Chagossians. 

Thirty years ago today, Argentina invaded the Falklands (Malvinas) Islands, sparking a 74-day war with Britain. While less in the headlines, this month also marks the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the US military base on Diego Garcia, the largest island of the British Indian Ocean Territories comprising the Chagos Archipelago.

At the time of each event, the islands had settled populations of British subjects numbering around 2,000 each. It is salutary to mark the anniversary of the first by setting out the background of the second.

Diego Garcia is the largest island of the Chagos Archipelago situated about 5,000 nautical miles from London in the Indian Ocean. Until 1966 the archepelago was part of the self-governing British colony of Mauritius, when it was purchased for the princely sum of £3 million as part of the Mauritian independence settlement. The terms of the purchase allow for return to Mauritian sovereignty 'when the islands are no longer needed for defence purposes' [3]

Historically, there are many documented sightings by Western navigators (notably Spanish and Portuguese) dating back to the 1500's, together with various transient settlements as early as the late 18th century. Diego Garcia became a British colony following the Napoleonic wars, as part of the treaty of Paris in 1814. By the 1960's the population could claim continuous settlement dating back to at least the mid-nineteenth century (the same kind of time span as the Falkland Islanders), most notably - and convincingly - from inscriptions on their ancestral tombstones [4]

The eviction of the Chagossians

At the height of the Cold War the search was on for a US military base location capable of facilitating control of the main Indian Ocean shipping lanes and the approaches to the Persian and Arabian Gulfs. In 1961, by arrangement with the UK Foreign Office, this search brought Rear Admiral Grantham of the US Navy to Diego Garcia to survey its suitability. The visit was the precursor to a series of secret, jointly planned events and agreements that would, by 1973, see the entire indigenous population of the Islands dispossessed and forcibly deported to Mauritius over 1,000 miles away. John Pilger described the attitude of British officialdom throughout the period as one of "imperious brutality and contempt" for the Chagossians, a description amply evidenced in his award winning 2004 documentary "Stealing a Nation" [12] and in official documents subsequently released by the UK and US governments.

Terms for a US lease on the prospective military base area were negotiated and agreed at $1 per year. They required the islands to be 'swept and sanitised' so as to be handed over uninhabited. In return, the UK was to receive continued support for its so-called 'independent nuclear deterrent' and a £14 million discount on the supply of its submarine launched Polaris ICBM system. As part of its 1968 UN mandated independence demands and in ignorance of the US/UK negotiations, Mauritius agreed to sell the archipelago to the UK. It became the new 'British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT).

The deal was thus completed and the torment of the Chagossians began.

From then onward, the Islanders were subject to what amounted to officially sanctioned psychological warfare. Among the many pressures brought to bear on a population, a few stand out in their utter callousness:

  • On orders from the then Governor Sir Bruce Greatbatch, the Islanders were required to deliver their pet dogs (some 1,500 in total) to a large building with no explanation of the reason. Once delivered they were sealed in and gassed with the exhaust fumes from two US military jeeps and under the supervision of American and British officers.
  • Anyone who embarked on a visit to Mauritius for medical treatment or other necessity was forcibly barred from returning.
  • The regular supply ship bringing post, fresh milk, dairy products, sugar, salt, oil, medications and other basic supplies was barred from docking at the islands.

By 1973 only some 250 of the indigenous population remained. Allowed to take just one suitcase each, they were forcibly embarked into the holds of the SS Nordvaer, on top of a cargo of bird fertiliser (the decks being reserved for horses) and transported to the Seychelles where they were held in prison cells before being transported to Mauritius. There, in similar fashion to the relatives, friends and fellow Chagossians who had preceded them, they were dumped penniless on the quayside. The Mauritian authorities were paid £650,000 to compensate for the assistance required of them. 

British justifications for the evictions

There were no public attempts at justification by the British until the episode became more widely known through legal disclosure of documents during litigation by the Chagossians and following routine release of classified government papers around the turn of the century. There was no need since the entire project had, by design, been carried out with the utmost secrecy and deceit. 

The papers amply confirm the conspiratorial nature of the entire project to hide the true nature of island population. They also illustrate Pilger's characterisation of its architects as imperious, brutal and contemptuous of the people whose lives they so casually destroyed.

In "Web of deceit' Mark Curtiss says:

The reality that was being concealed was clearly understood. A secret document signed by Michael Stewart [Foreign Secretary] in 1968, said: "By any stretch of the English language, there was an indigenous population, and the Foreign Office knew it." A Foreign Office minute from 1965 recognises policy as "to certify [the Chagossians], more or less fraudulently, as belonging somewhere else". Another Whitehall document was entitled: "Maintaining the Fiction". The Foreign Office legal adviser wrote in January 1970 that it was important "to maintain the fiction that the inhabitants of Chagos are not a permanent or semi-permanent population". [13]

Here are a few more examples:

  1. Memo dated 1965 from Sir Bruce Greatbatch, Governor of the Islands, to the Foreign Office in the context of the US having made depopulation of the Islands "virually a condition of the agreement": "These people have little aptitude for anything other than growing coconuts.... they are unsophisticated and untrainable,” [14]
  2. Memo dated 1965. "There IS a civilian population. In practice however, I would advise a policy of 'quiet disregard'. In other words, lets forget about this one until the UN challenges us on it. [15]
  3. Memo dated August 1966 from Sir Paul Gore Booth to diplomat Dennis Greenhill apropos the implications of the purchase of the archipelago from Mauritius: "We must surely be very tough about this. The object of the exercise was to get some rocks which will remain ours... There will be no indigenous population except seagulls who have not yet got a committee (the Status of Women Committee does not cover the rights of birds).....The United States Government will require the removal of the entire population of the atoll by July.” [16]
  4. At the bottom of the item 3 memo there is a handwritten note by Dennis Greenhill, later Baron Greenhill of Harrow: "Unfortunately, along with the birds go some few Tarzans or Men Fridays whose origins are obscure and who are hopefully being wished on to Mauritius etc. When this has been done I agree we must be very tough and a submission is being done accordingly.’". [17]

Throughout, then, there are private indications of unease and misgivings about the project. But the primary concern that motivates them in the documents is less about fate of the unfortunate population, rather it is over fear that the British officials involved might be found out.

Diego Garcia

UK Court proceeding initiated by the Chagossians since 2000 are labyrinthine in their complexity and, in spite of notable judgements asserting, at minimum, a qualified right of return, successive British governments have continued with determined and thoroughly deceptive stratagems to prevent any return. 

For a thorough description and a summary of the legal position up to the summer of 2006, there is the High Court Judgement of 11 May 2006 [19] which unambiguously affirms their full right of return with a memorable description of the eviction as "...illegal, repugnant and a breach of accepted moral standards".

The judgement is also notable for the comparisons it draws with the case of the Falkland Islands.

The two principle UK government stratagems employed since 2000 are:

  1. Commissioning a feasibility study on resettlement which controversially provided precisely the conclusions the government wanted and which it used in 2004 as the basis of an 'Order in Council' (an arcane procedure to by-pass both the Courts and Parliament) to overturn a 2000 judgement giving a qualified right of return - ie excluding Diego Garcia.
  2. Declaration of a Marine Preservation Area (MPA) effective from 1 April 2010 which effectively excludes the possibility of return on viability and pollution grounds. There are over 200 scientific papers cited in the bibliography of the Chagos Conservation Trust and used to justify the MPA. Not a single one addresses the impacts of ANY of the following [20]:
  • the massive jet fuel spills (totalling more than 1.3 million gallons) at the US military base on Diego Garcia in 1984, 1991, 1997 and 1998
  • the 31% observed increase in alien plant species unintentionally introduced in Diego Garcia since 1988 as a result of US military construction and naval operations, including Leucaena leucocephala (listed by IUCN among the top 100 worst invasive species of the world)
  • radiation leakages in the Diego Garcia lagoon from US nuclear-powered naval vessels and submarines regularly transiting or permanently stationed there since 1979, and from the transit of 550 tonnes of low-grade uranium in the lagoon in 2008
  • harm to marine mammals caused by the US Navy's continued low-to-medium frequency sonar used for submarine monitoring and long-distance underwater sound propagation programmes at its Diego Garcia Ocean Surveillance Station since 1974 (the Chagos Archipelago is part of the International Whaling Commission's Indian Ocean Sanctuary)

Here is a quote from a sworn affidavit by the Chagossian Jaques Gervais Florian:

“I was on the crew of the Mauritius vessel Le Gentilly which left Mauritius for a [properly licensed] fishing campaign on 5 June 2001. The vessel reached the Chagos waters on or about 10 June 2001 and we began fishing on 12 June 2001.

On the same day, we were near the Chagos island called Six Islands. A group of us, all native Chagossians, decided to step on the island to get some coconuts. The group included Pierre Willy Jaffa, Vitalingum Soopramanien, Roselin Permal, France Louis, Felix Flore, Luc Azie. We had been on the island about ten minutes when we saw a ship, the Pacific Marlin, rushing towards us. The officer on board, Glen Quelch, approached us and ordered us off the island immediately. He spoke in a threatening and condescending manner causing us all to feel belittled. We politely informed Mr. Quelch that we were all Chagossian and had been allowed by the High Court of London to be on the Chagos islands. He replied that the judgement was not binding on him and that he was the one to decide whether we could be on the island or not. He then stated that he had decided that if we did not leave the island in three minutes, we would be prosecuted and liable to pay a fine of £200,000. [21]

After the last Chagossians were forcibly removed from their homeland, the giant American military base that was to take over their homeland and replace them was officially named "Camp Justice".



  1. The Falklands War- Wikipedia article accessed March 2012
  2. Diago Garcia- Wikipedia article accessed March 2012
  3. Mauritius History
  4. 42 Flags Over Diego Garcia- March 2012
  5. UK regret over Falklands dead- BBC 1 April 2007
  6. Are you enjoying the day?- Memorial site accessed March 2012]
  7. Falkland veterans claim suicide toll- BBC 13 January 2002
  8. Aftermath of the Falklands War- Wikipedia
  9. The Falkland Islands - a background- History learning site. March 2012

10.  South America and South Atlantic Islands- UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office web site. March 2012

11.  Diego Garcia: Paradise Cleansed- John Pilger. Guardian 2 October 2004

12.  Stealing a Nation- 2004 John Pilger documentary

13.  ISBN 0099448394 - Web of Deceit by Mark Curtis. Vintage 2003

14.  Diego Garcia: Paradise Cleansed- John Pilger. 4 October 2004

15.  British officials discuss population problem on Diego Garcia- History Commons accessed March 2012

16.  US Has Made Depopulation of Chagos Islands ‘Virtually a Condition’'- History Commons accessed March 2012

17.  High court decision in favour of the Chagossians- 11 May 2006

18.  Argentina Takes Aim At Falklands Oil Firms- Sky News 15 March 2012

19.  High court decision in favour of the Chagossians- 11 May 2006

20.  Diego Garcia Legal Black Hole- Peter H Sand. Journal of Environmental Law

21.  Jaques Florian affidavit- sworn before the Mauritius High Court 9 January 2002

22.  Yachting in the Chagos Islands- 'Simply Appalling' 24 May 2006

23.  Consiglieri and Capofamiglia- Wikipedia article


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