• Anna Ellis

"The Tragedy of the Chagos Islands" Matthew Lee on Chagossian fight for justice

Bernadette Dugasse

Delayed Gratification writer and freelance journalist Matthew Lee recently published a fantastically comprehensive article on the history of the Chagos Islands and current campaign for justice. During the project the writer spoke with a range of Chagossians living with London and Crawley, even taking in a few Chagos Islands football team games.

We have put together a detailed summary of the article below, but you can find Lee's piece in a recent Delayed Gratification edition. If you are not a subscriber, you can read the article on Lee's personal website.

Lee begins by highlighting the story of Benadette Dugasse, an exiled Chagossian living in South London who like many of her compatriots grew up away from home in the Seychelles. Lee follows Dugasse’s story from her move away from Diego Garcia at the age of two, ‘her father had become embroiled in a dispute with the Mauritian plantation owners that ran the island…and was deported with his wife and children’. Shortly after, the the rest of the population was forced overseas, when ‘a deal was made by the British and American governments…to lease Diego Garcia to the US military for 50 years in exchange for a discount on the Polaris nuclear deterrent’. The deal was made on the condition of a “swept and “sanitised” island, Chagossian heritage whitewashed in order to disguise the permanent population living there.

The article also references the infamous correspondence between Foreign Office official, Sir Paul Gore-Booth and diplomat Dennis Greenhill in 1966; Gore-Booth emphasising that “the object of the exercise is to get some rocks that will remain ours”, with Greenhill agreeing, noting that “along with the birds go a free Tarzans and Man Fridays whose origins is obscure”. As Lee highlights, 1000 to 2000 people were forcibly removed from the Chagos Islands between 1967 and 1973, ‘without parliamentary or congressional oversight’. As official correspondence suggests, this was done without sympathy or respect for the people who had called the islands home since the end of the eighteenth century.

The history of the Chagossian people's relationship with their homeland is also explored. Lee begins by describing how the first inhabitants arrived as slaves and then ‘indentured workers from Africa and India’. He acknowledges the complex relationship with Mauritius where many Chagossians were deported after the sale of their island. Prior to Mauritian independence, the islands had been grouped together ‘in a quirk of colonial mapmaking’ despite being many hundreds of miles away across the Indian Ocean.

He suggests that current Mauritian sovereignty claims have been stained by their second rate treatment of Chagossians in exile, ‘dialects, ID cards and often their skin colour marked them as ilois (‘islanders’ in Creole) – and their lack of formal education made it hard to get jobs’. This treatment, along with the plurality of the Chagossian population spread across Mauritius, the Seychelles and the UK makes the question of Chagossian sovereignty ever more difficult.

The detailed legal battles between the Chagossian community and the UK Governmentof the past decades are effectively outlined by Lee, as are the hunger strikes in Mauritius that defined the return campaign in the early eighties.

Chagossian protestors in Mauritius in the early 1980s

Lee links these strikes to the Thatcher’s government decision to offer £4 million to be divided amongst the displaced islanders of Mauritius. Lee rightly adds though that in exchange, Chagossians were persuaded to sign forms, ‘written in a language most of them didn’t understand, waiving the right of return to their native islands’.

He references the Creole term Sagren often used by the Chagossian community, describing ‘the shock of displacement, the lack of hope and profound sadness’ experienced by the islanders. Sagren permeated the world of exiled Chagossians who experienced both material destitution and emotional turmoil in their lives away from home.

Turning to the 21st century again, Lee reflects that ‘on the 3rd November 2000, the British High Court ruled that the Chagossian people had the right to return to the Chagos Islands’. Lee describes this event, the first of many court rulings attempting to overturn each other in a battle of the islands. During the fifteen years following the British High Court’s decision the Chagossian community experienced a number of legal blows, including the use of archaic Royal Prerogative and the creation of a marine reserve in an attempt to ‘greenwash’ the issue of resettlement.

Lee highlights a number of reasons why the British government went to such lengths to prevent Chagossian return. He references David Vine, author of Island of Shame, who concludes that “the US is effectively calling the shots. If Britain made a unilateral decision to allow the Chagossians to return I feel confident that the US would retaliate in some way...indigenous populations could assert sovereignty, protest or cause trouble...returned Chagossians might assert their right to self-determination.”

Allen Vincatassin demonstrates the traditional way to grate coconuts to young Chagossians in Crawley

Today, many Chagossians live in what Lee coins “Little Chagos, Crawley” where he meets with a Chagossian community leader, Allen Vincatassin. Vincatassin explains how he, like many others journeyed to the UK in 2002, making use of a new opportunity to acquire British citizenship. ‘Vincatassin mobilised islanders in Mauritius to move en masse to Britain so they could enjoy a better quality of life and push harder for an eventual return to the archipelago.’

Vincatassin’s own story is reflective of the plural experience of Chagossians, born on the Chagos islands and raised in Mauritius by his grandparents, he was separated from his mother who was sent on a boat to the Seychelles, himself leaving Mauritius for the UK in search of a better life. Vincatassin is adamant that he ‘wants to live on Diego Garcia, the island of his birth, under the British flag’, but as Lee notes, ‘the community... doesn’t speak with a single voice’, others hoping to divorce themselves from Britain entirely.

Lee’s piece ends with a reflection on the future of the Chagos case. Vincatassin is hopeful, indeed, the publication of a recent feasibility study by KPMG ‘concluded that resettlement was economically viable’. This year marks the expiry of the US’s 50 year lease of the islands and ‘few doubt that a 20-year extension will be approved’. But ‘campaigners have long hoped that the UK would make Chagossian return a condition of renewal’, Lee reminds us that such a condition would not conclude the Chagossian story, ‘if the right to return is only offered to skilled, working-age people, which is one possibility, what will happen to the elderly native-born Chagossians, who dream of seeing the islands again before they die?... In the years since Chagossians began fighting for the right to return, hundreds of native-born islanders have died, their sagren never conquered’.

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