The Chagos Archipelago is a group of about 60 atolls located in the Indian Ocean. An atoll is a ring- shaped island, including a coral reef that encircles a lagoon. The archipelago includes Peros Banhos, Diego Garcia and the Solomon Islands. Since the French colonised Mauritius in the 18th century, Chagos has been an integral part of Mauritius. It was during the Napoleonic wars that the French ceded Mauritius alongside Chagos to the British. The Treaty of Paris, signed in 1814, officially made Mauritius – and hence Chagos – part of the British Empire. Chagossians became British citizens.
After illegally detaching Chagos from Mauritius in November 1965, the British turned Chagos into a new colony called The British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). This is its flag (on the right).
French colonisers introduced coconut tree plantations in Chagos. They were run by companies such as the Chagos-Agalega Company and maintained by enslaved people from Madagascar and Mozambique. The flesh of dried coconut known as copra was used to produce coconut oil, skin oils and soap and were exported to Mauritius and across the Indian Ocean. Chagos Islands were hence referred to as the “Oil Islands.” Chagossians are the descendants of east African slaves and of contracted labourers.
The right to return home
What is the fundamental injustice faced by Chagossians today?
The Chagossians, who were forcefully and unlawfully deported from their islands from 1967 to 1973 by Britain, have not yet been allowed to resettle back home permanently. This is despite a clear-cut and unequivocal advisory ruling from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 2019 which concluded that Chagos had been unlawfully detached from Mauritius by Britain and incorporated into a brand new colony known as the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) in 1965. The United Nations’ General Assembly voted overwhelmingly in favour of the ICJ’s ruling.
Mauritius is still fighting for its full decolonisation
The origins of this unlawfulness stems from the times when many countries in the British Empire were fighting for their independence after World War Two. Mauritius was one of them. Since the 18th century, Chagos “belonged” to Mauritius, meaning that if Mauritius was to ever obtain its independence it would automatically have led Chagos to its independence too.
However, this never happened because Britain infringed international law known as Resolution 1514, which is about decolonisation without breaking up a territory. In the 1960s, it was voted on and agreed by the United Nations’ General Assembly.
The first Mauritian Prime Minister, Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, leader of the Mauritian Labour Party, recalled how the British Prime Minister Harold Wilson invited him to Lancaster House in 1965.
An ultimatum was given: Mauritius would only obtain its independence after the detachment of Chagos. Ramgoolam refused “detachment”, but was open to leasing Chagos. The British and Americans eventually got what they wanted. Britain gave Mauritius £3 million and various trading concessions as compensation for getting Chagos.
Why did Britain and America want Chagos in the first place?
Following Britain’s reluctance to join the American proxy war in Vietnam, British Prime Minister Harold Wilson gave Diego Garcia – one of the Chagos islands – to the Americans to compensate for the fact that he did not want Britain to join the war.
Since then, America has spent a huge amount of money transforming Diego Garcia into a military base in the Indian Ocean. Diego Garcia was the island from which the first bombs were transported to bomb Iraq during the Iraq war in 2003 and for rendition (the handing over of people suspected of breaking the law from one place of law to another with a different jurisdiction) after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre. Chagos is currently under British and American rule.
Many Chagossians who were British citizens were deported from their islands to horrific and atrocious conditions in Mauritius and Seychelles. The British were able to do this, because they named the Chagossians as contracted labourers rather than permanent inhabitants of the Chagos Archipelago. Overnight, Chagossians lost their right to British citizenship.Throughout recent history in the UK, there have been further examples of British citizens who are People of Colour, easily losing their citizenship, such as with the Windrush generation and Shamima Begum, which brings highlights a significant concern with how British citizenship can be withdrawn. In 2002 the British government gave British citizenship to many Chagossians who moved to Britain. They faced hardship upon their arrival, including sleeping at the airport for days due to the lack of preparedness from state and local authorities. In the UK, there is a Chagossian community in Crawley, Sussex and in Manchester.
The war in Ukraine
The British government started to engage with the Mauritian government about the sovereignty of Chagos in 2022 but the struggle for decolonisation continues. This willingness to engage started after the war in Ukraine began, after African countries like South Africa – who have a historic connection to the Soviet Union and Russia in fighting western colonisation – highlighted the hypocrisy of Britain condemning an illegal invasion whilst illegally occupying Chagos.The 2003 British and American invasion of Iraq was also used as an example of this hypocrisy.
Chagossians in exile
The Chagossian people in exile in Mauritius faced harsh discrimination and abject poverty. They were given poor housing accommodation and there were severe delays by the Mauritian government in providing compensation to exiled Chagossians.
Activists and resources
True admiration and respect for the many Chagossains activists such as Olivier Bancoult and Liseby Elyse for their tireless, committed and persistent fight for justice and freedom.
A huge thank you to Philippe Sands’ book entitled “The Last Colony”, Florian Grosset’s book entitled “The Chagos Betrayal” and Priya Hein’s book entitled “Riambel”.
All of your writings about Chagos, Mauritius and the social injustices faced by many islanders in the Indian Ocean inspired me so much to write this blog and I absolutely love your work.
This blog was written by Tania Aubeelack, a Mauritian citizen. She was born Mauritius in 1995 and moved to the United Kingdom when she was 13 years old. Her interest in politics, social justice and human rights started at secondary school.