Chagossian man harvesting coconuts, photographed shortly before the first United States encampment, 1971.
|Regions with significant populations|
|Chagossian creole · Mauritian Creole · Seychellois Creole · English · French|
The Chagossians (also Îlois or Chagos Islanders) are a Creole ethnic group native to the Chagos Islands, specifically Diego Garcia, Peros Banhos, and the Salomon island chain, as well as other parts of the Chagos Archipelago, from the late 18th century until the middle of 20th century. Most Chagossians now live in Mauritius and the United Kingdom after being evicted by the British government in the late 1960s and early 1970s so that Diego Garcia, the island where most Chagossians lived, could serve as the location for a United States military base. Today, no Chagossians live on the island of Diego Garcia, as it is now the site of the military base Camp Justice.
The Chagossian people's ancestry is mostly African, particularly from Madagascar, Mozambique and other African nations including Mauritius. There is also a significant proportion of Indian and Malay ancestry.[full citation needed] The French brought some to the Chagos islands as slaves from Mauritius in 1786. Others arrived as fishermen, farmers, and coconut plantation workers during the 19th century.
The Chagossians speak Chagossian Creole, a French-based creole language whose vocabulary also incorporates words originating in various African and Asian languages and is part of the Bourbonnais Creole family. Chagossian Creole is still spoken by some of their descendants in Mauritius and the Seychelles. Chagossian people living in the UK speak English. Many settled in the town of Crawley in West Sussex, and the Chagossian community there numbered approximately 3,000 in 2016.
In 1793, when the first successful colony was founded on Diego Garcia, coconut plantations were established on many of the atolls and isolated islands of the archipelago. Initially the workers were enslaved Africans, but after 1840 they were freemen, many of whom were descended from those earlier enslaved. They formed an inter-island culture called Ilois (a French Creole word meaning Islanders).
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In 1965, as part of a deal to grant Mauritian independence, the Chagos Archipelago was split off from the Colony and came to form the British Indian Ocean Territory. The territory's new constitution was set out in a statutory instrument imposed unilaterally without any referendum or consultation with the Chagossians and it envisaged no democratic institutions. On 16 April 1971, the United Kingdom issued a policy called BIOT Immigration Ordinance #1 which made it a criminal offense for those without military clearance to be on the islands without a permit.
Between 1967 and 1973, the Chagossians, then numbering over 1,000 people, were expelled by the British government, first to the island of Peros Banhos, 100 miles (160 km) away from their homeland, and then, in 1973, to Mauritius (for the relationship between the Chagos Archipelago and Mauritius, see Chagos Archipelago). A number of Chagossians who were evicted reported they were threatened with being shot or bombed if they did not leave the island. One old man reported to Washington Post journalist David Ottaway that an American official told him, "If you don't leave you won't be fed any longer." BIOT commissioner Bruce Greatbatch later ordered all dogs/pets on the island to be destroyed. Meanwhile, food stores on the island were allowed to deplete in order to pressure the remaining inhabitants to leave. The Chagossians owned no real property on the islands and lived in housing provided for farm workers by the absentee landowners of the plantations. The forced expulsion of the Chagossians after the acquisition of the plantations from their absentee landlords by the British Government was for the purpose of establishing a United States air and naval base on Diego Garcia, with a population of between 3,000 and 5,000 U.S. soldiers and support staff, as well as a few troops from the United Kingdom.
In early April 2006, in an excursion organised and financed by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, a group of around a hundred Chagossians were permitted to visit the British Indian Ocean Territory for the first time in over thirty years.
In April 2006, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit rejected a lawsuit by Louis Olivier Bancoult and other Chagossians, finding that their claims were a non-justiciable political question, i.e. a question that U.S. courts cannot handle because it is properly the business of the Congress to address it legislatively.
On 11 May 2006, the Chagossians won their case in the High Court of Justice in England, which found that they were entitled to return to the Chagos Archipelago. It remained to be seen how this judgment might be implemented in practice. However, in June 2006 the British government filed an appeal in the Court of Appeal against the High Court's decision. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office put forward an argument based on the treatment of the Japanese Canadians following the attacks on Pearl Harbor.
After the Court of Appeal had upheld the decision of the High Court, the British government appealed successfully to the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords. On 22 October 2008, the Law Lords reached a decision on the appeal made by the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, David Miliband. They found in favour of the Government in a 3–2 verdict, ending the legal process in the UK and dashing the islanders' hopes of return. The judges who voted to allow the government's appeal were Lord Hoffmann, Lord Rodger of Earlsferry, and Lord Carswell; those dissenting were Lord Bingham of Cornhill and Lord Mance.
In 2016, the British government denied the right of the Chagossians to return to the islands after a 45-year legal dispute.
Marine nature reserve and government communications leak
In April 2010, the British Government—specifically, the British diplomat Colin Roberts, acting on the instructions of David Miliband—established a marine nature reserve around the Chagos Islands known as the Chagos Marine Protected Area. The designation proved controversial as the decision was announced during a period when the UK Parliament was in recess.
On 1 December 2010, a leaked US Embassy London diplomatic cable dating back to 2009 exposed British and US calculations 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". [sic?] Richard Mills concludes:
Establishing a marine reserve might, indeed, as the FCO's Roberts stated, be the most effective long-term way to prevent any of the Chagos Islands' former inhabitants or their descendants from resettling in the [British Indian Ocean Territory].
However, the cable also mentions that "there are proposals (for a marine park) that could provide the Chagossians warden jobs". As of 2018, no such jobs exist. The cable (reference ID "09LONDON1156") was classified as confidential and "no foreigners", and leaked as part of the Cablegate cache.
Armed with the WikiLeaks revelations, the Chagossians launched an appeal, seeking a judgement that the reserve was unlawfully aimed at preventing them from returning home. Although United States Army soldier Chelsea Manning had been arrested nearly three years previously for the leaks, the UK government felt unable to confirm to the court that the leaked documents were genuine. It was made clear to the court that the government's inability to confirm was for two reasons: firstly, to protect itself from the charge that it created the reserve to prevent the islanders from ever returning home and, secondly, out of a purported fear that the US government might get angry if the cables were acknowledged as genuine. Despite the contents of his cable being known—"a marine park would, in effect, put paid to resettlement claims of the archipelago's former residents" [sic?]—Roberts denied, when questioned in court, that there was an "ulterior motive" behind the reserve's establishment. Lord Justice Richards and Mr. Justice Mitting then refused to accept the documents as evidence, declaring that to do so would breach diplomatic privilege. The Guardian described their decision as having "far-reaching consequences" and "a severe setback for the use of material obtained from leaks or whistleblowers". In June 2013, the pair of judges turned down the appeal brought by the Chagossians, ruling that the reserve was compatible with EU law.
It emerged in 2014 that—for three decades, in violation of environmental rules—the American navy had dumped hundreds of tonnes of sewage and waste water into a protected lagoon on Diego Garcia. In response to the revelations, the chair of the Chagos Refugees Group UK Branch, Sabrina Jean, noted:
When we Chagossians lived on our islands, the seas and lagoons were pristine.…For many years we have been pressing BIOT to conduct an environmental audit of the effects of the US occupation. This has been consistently refused, with the explanation that the impact of the occupation is minimal. We can now see that throughout this period there have been no controls on the pollution.
Discourse about the Chagossians
The WikiLeaks cables revealed diplomatic cables between the US and UK about the Chagossians. A cable written by D.A. Greenhill on 24 August 1966 to a US State Department official refers to the Chagossians as "some few Tarzans or Man Fridays".
Similar language appears in a 2009 US State Department cable (09LONDON1156), which offered a description of the UK government's views about the effect of the Marine Protection Act:
However, Roberts stated that, according to the HMG's current thinking on a reserve, there would be "no human footprints" or "Man Fridays" on the BIOT's uninhabited islands. He asserted that establishing a marine park would, in effect, put paid to resettlement claims of the archipelago's former residents.
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 then-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 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.
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- UK Chagos Support Association
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