Who are the Chagossian people?

The Chagossian people evolved their own distinctive Creole language and their own culture. 

In 1776 a handful of French colonists were given permission by their government to develop coconut plantations in the Chagos islands on condition that they also establish a leper colony there. They brought in slaves from Madagascar, Mozambique and Senegal. Coconut palms and sugar cane flourished on the islands.

 

When British colonists took possession of the islands in 1835, after the Napoleonic Wars, one of them recorded that there was already a settled population when they arrived. The slaves were freed, became the plantation owners, and developed their own economy. The oil of the coconut was much in demand in the 19th and early 20th centuries in Europe and the Indian subcontinent. Bonded labourers, and their families, were brought in from Mauritius and the Seychelles. The workers were paid wages, mostly in goods (e.g. rice), but also in money. The money was retained by the plantation owners until a sufficient sum had been gathered to enable the worker to travel to Mauritius by the supply ship and buy goods for their household. This ship visited the island from Mauritius at intervals, bringing mail and supplies and collecting the coconut crop. The voyage took six days. Almost every adult person on the island worked in the plantations. Each family had their own ‘house’ and plot of land on which to grow fruit and vegetables and rear poultry. The men also fished, the favourite catch being lobster. Although the plantation work was hard, living conditions were good and there was general contentment.

 

The Chagossian people evolved their own distinctive Creole language and their own culture. The social system was matriarchal – almost certainly a legacy of the leper colony, as women survive leprosy better than men. The majority of the islanders are Christian in the tradition of the Church of Rome. There is a church on Diego Garcia, which, like the other main buildings on the island, is of coral rock – an enduring material. As the population grew, the outer islands were also settled. Visits took place between the islands, but only occasionally, as the smaller islands are all more than 100 miles from Diego Garcia. There was a schoolhouse on Diego Garcia, but little, if any formal education and no understanding of a cash economy.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, this unique and peaceful way of life came to an abrupt end.

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