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The ethnic cleansing you haven’t heard about

Here’s a fascinating piece in The National by Justin Vogt about Diego Garcia, the little-known U.S. outpost in the Indian Ocean. Vogt retells the sordid tale of the island’s transformation from sleepy British colony to military way station: By 1963, when American planners resolved to build a base in the Chagos Archipelago, the islands were ...

Here’s a fascinating piece in The National by Justin Vogt about Diego Garcia, the little-known U.S. outpost in the Indian Ocean. Vogt retells the sordid tale of the island’s transformation from sleepy British colony to military way station:

By 1963, when American planners resolved to build a base in the Chagos Archipelago, the islands were home to roughly 1000 people, British subjects employed on the island’s coconut plantations. The Chagossians – also known as the Ilois – comprised a genuine indigenous community, descended from the African slaves and Indian indentured servants brought to the islands by 18th- and 19th-century French and British colonists. […] The Americans told the British that they wanted “exclusive control” of the islands – delivered “without local inhabitants”. In exchange, the United States forgave a $14 million bill for assistance it had provided to the British nuclear missile programme.

To meet their obligations to the United States, the British needed to remove the natives without appearing to violate the rights of colonised people enshrined in international law. The solution was a breathtakingly cynical act of bad faith. As a UK Foreign Office legal adviser described in an internal memo, all the British had to do was “maintain the fiction that the inhabitants of Chagos are not a permanent or semi-permanent population”. Thus, the Chagossians – a community whose roots on Diego Garcia stretched back for generations – were transformed into mere “transient workers”. Vine reveals that this bit of semantic dispossession was an explicit part of the secret agreements between the two allies regarding the fate of the islanders. The US embassy in London was instructed in a memo from Secretary of State Dean Rusk to use the term “migrant labourers” when discussing the Chagossians with the British, since “withdrawal of ‘inhabitants’ obviously would be more difficult to justify”.

Once the justification was in place, the depopulation could begin. In 1971, the United States began construction of the base on Diego Garcia. The British authorities announced to the stunned Chagossians that they would have to leave, and issued an ordinance making it a crime to be on the island without a permit. The plantations were shuttered, food deliveries ended, and transportation to and from the island eliminated. The Chagossians were shipped to Mauritius and the Seychelles, making the four-day journey exposed to the elements on the decks of overcrowded boats. A US Navy official in Washington worried in an internal memo about the potential for bad press. But Admiral Elmo Zumwalt – the highest-ranking officer in the Navy and the person charged with overseeing the plan – succinctly expressed US policy regarding the Chagossians in a three-word response attached to the memo: “Absolutely must go.”

Having left most of their possessions behind, the Chagossians arrived homeless, landless, jobless and mostly penniless. (Upon arrival in Mauritius, they were housed in a prison.)

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