In 1966, in the height of the cold war, America was looking for a military base to counter the Soviet threat. The middle of the Indian Ocean seemed like an excellent strategic position from which to observe the world. Up stepped plucky Harold Wilson, always careful to preserve the pound in his pocket, and struck a deal with the yanks. They got Diego Garcia, the largest of the islands in the archipelago and in return Wislon’s* government got a discount on Polaris. The fact that the Americans wanted a deserted island and that Diego Garcia had over 2000 inhabitants was a minor fly in the ointment. A 50-year lease was duly agreed and the indigenous population was removed.
This isn’t some mad old hippy talking here, by the way. Under the 30-year rule documents from the FCO show us all the facts, and oh dear me, how those documents reveal Britain’s jaded and cynical viewpoint of the world. Those 1960s Sir Humphreys** describe the islanders as “mere Tarzans and Men Fridays” with “little aptitude for anything except growing coconuts”. They wrote that “there will be no indigenous population except seagulls”. The deportations would be “ordered and timed to attract the least attention”. They connived with the Americans to label the islanders as “migrant contract labourers” with no right of abode – even though their families had lived there for generations.
To tidy it all up and keep the whole episode away from public glare Wislon’s* government used Orders in Council to rush the deal through, with no parliamentary discussion. Mauritius was pushing for independence and to prevent it from having any claims on the archipelago good old Britain created a new colony – the British Indian Ocean Territory. Islanders were then forcibly removed through: – trickery (if they left the islands to go to hospital or school in Mauritius they were not allowed back), – intimidation (all their dogs, cats and pets were killed), – force (plantations were closed, supply ships were warned off and menacing soldiers appeared on the islands). All of this was in violation of the UN Charter.
So began their new existence in Mauritius or the Seychelles. They died of “sadness”, malnutrition and disease. A pathetic compensation of £3,000 per head was awarded but most Chagossians saw none of it. In 2002 they were granted full British citizenship, which is why some now live in Crawley, the town nearest to Gatwick where they first arrived. Interestingly, despite full citizenship they have recently been denied any jobs or housing benefit. So began the legal battle:
In 2000 the divisional Court Ruled that the deportations were unlawful and “official zeal in implementing those removal policies went beyond any proper limits”. In 2004, after the war on terror had begun in earnest, the Government abruptly issued two Orders in Council, allowing it to bypass Parliament to negate the court ruling. In 2006 the High Court ruled that the Government’s move was unlawful and “repugnant” and, in May this year, the Court of Appeal agreed. It accused the Government of abusing its power: “The freedom to return to one’s homeland, however poor and barren the conditions of life, is one of the most fundamental liberties known to human beings.” The government will be appealing to the House of Lords in 2008.
I could go on for pages, but I won’t bore you here. Try our other website, www.peoplesnavy.com for further reading.