Sails & Tales | Essays

Chagossian Exile: Lest We Forget

Clay Appell

The Chagos Archipelago is located in the Central Indian Ocean. The largest island, Diego Garcia, currently serves as a secret, yet strategic United States military base. The island chain was uninhabited until 1783, when slaves were brought there from Africa’s mainland. After emancipation, indentured Indian people arrived on the island of Diego Garcia. The mixture of former African slaves and newly arrived Indian labourers aided in the establishment of an interesting culture, and a first people known as the Ilwa. In 1960, the U.S. Navy approached the United Kingdom, and asked about constructing a military base on Diego Garcia. Secret negotiations commenced between the two countries, and in 1964, the United States expressed its desire to take absolute control of Diego Garcia. This plan involved expelling 1,500 local inhabitants (Chagossians), and the United Kingdom eventually agreed to this request. In 1966, the United States leased Diego Garcia for a 50-year period, with renewal to be granted every 20 years. During that same year, the United Kingdom agreed to remove island residents in exchange for $14 million in compensation, which was hidden from U.S. Congress. In 1970, the U.S. Navy deceived Congress, and told them that the islands had no permanent population, because they wanted to make it seem as though Chagossians were merely “transient workers”, and not natives and residents of the islands. In 1975, the Washington Post published a story that highlighted Chagossians living in poverty in Mauritius, but soon after the story was published and one congressional hearing was heard, little attention was paid to the case. In 1982, Chagossians held hunger strikes and protests in the U.K., and the U.K. conceded to pay compensation to them, and each resident received approximately $6,000. In 2000, the U.K. High Court ruled that the expulsion of the Chagossians was ‘illegal’. This landmark ruling effectively allowed for Chagossians to return to their homeland, but in 2004, the U.K. government issued a Queen’s “Orders in Council”, stipulating that the Chagossians were not in fact allowed to return home. In 2008, two further Low Court rulings found the expulsion to be illicit, but this time the High Court overturned both decisions. In 2015, the U.K. released a study that gave credence to the viability of Chagossians returning home. In 2016, the U.K. denied Chagossians the right to return, and instead offered money totalling 40 million pounds: the Chagossians refused the compensation and continued their fight. In 2017, Chaggosians gave support to the Government of Mauritius at the United Nations, where the United Nations General Assembly voted to have the International Court of Justice (ICJ) make a ruling on Mauritius’ challenge to U.K. sovereignty over the islands. In 2018, the ICJ heard the Mauritius-U.K. case, and three Chagossian suits proceeded to court, with Mauritius disputing “1. U.K. denying resettlement; 2. The MPA; and 3. The exclusion of Chagossians in the Seychelles from receiving compensation”. In 2019, the ICJ ruled in favor of Mauritius, and ordered the U.K. to give the islands back to Mauritius “as rapidly as possible.” Even after the important ruling made last year, there is still profound uncertainty regarding the future of the case, and the Chagossians are still fighting for their right to return home. 

Short Op-ed on Future Opportunities for Chagossians

If Chagossians are successful in winning the right to return home, I propose that for them to become a prosperous territory/nation/autonomous region, that they consider a few options. First, Mauritius will very likely have sovereignty over the Chagos archipegalo if Chagossians win the right to go back home. I propose that Chagossians unite to become an independent, sovereign country, as this would give them autonomy over their own affairs. This would involve seceding from Mauritius, which may prove to be difficult in the short-term, but I contend that this would be beneficial in the long-term. If the Chagos archipelago gains independence, Chagossians can make a concerted effort to protect their natural environment, establish a large exclusive economic zone (EEZ), and create a thriving economy based on (restrained) exploitation of natural resources, mainly derived from the ocean. The islanders could also consider establishing a tourism industry on the island after they create the necessary infrastructure for such an undertaking; and it would likely thrive, given the tropical climate, lush vegetation and biodiverse marine environment surrounding the islands. An additional strategy for the islanders is to form an alliance with the people of the Maldives, which is an island chain in the Indian Ocean not too far northeast of the Chagos archipelago. Perhaps the two neighbours could endeavor to form a union, and could even exchange citizens for much needed skilled labour in both places. The future possibilities are endless if Chagossians win the right to return home, and it is vital that if this occurs, that the islanders make proper decisions that help ensure prosperity in the near and distant futures.