“When the final time came and the ships were chartered, they weren’t allowed to take anything with them except a suitcase of their clothes. The ships were small and they could take nothing else, no furniture, nothing.”
– Marcel Moulinie, owner of a crop plantation on Diego Garcia.
Quite amusingly, in a story full of unamusing anecdotes, is the name of an American military base on the island of Diego Garcia, in the Chagos Islands of the Indian Ocean named ‘Camp Justice’. The irony of this name becomes apparent as you learn of the history of the island.
In the murky depths of British foreign policy and international relations lies a story that quite frankly shames the Country I call home.
Diego Garcia sounds like an Argentinian Football player. No one knows what it is. We haven’t heard of it. It isn’t in the news. It’s whereabouts are not known, and yet it is the sight of one of the most undemocratic, and anti-freedom forceful exiles, by the UK and US in a very very long time.
During the 1960s the US Government was searching islands throughout the Chagos for a potential military base that could be used in it’s ongoing non-war with the Soviets. They scouted many islands, and Diego Garcia was their eventual proposed location. The problem was, it was inhabited by a population that since it’s colonisation by the British; had developed its own sense of self including a unique culture and a unique language.
The inhabitants of Diego Garcia originated from around 1800, when the French owned Mauritius and the surrounding islands, including the Chagos Islands. The islands were surrendered to the British in 1814, the slave trade to and from the islands continued until around the mid 1830s, when all slaves became freed men. Their ancestors lived on Diego Garcia for about 150 years after the abolition of slavery, as free men. The island was a mixing pot of Indian, Mauritian, Somalia and Seychellois cultures, and it worked. A military film shot by US military personnell investigating the Island in the early 1960s, shows a local population who are more than happy with their lives, and are at home. Far away from Britain, far away from the United States. Far away from Western privilege, and people who know little if anything about this island, the people who inhabited it, considered it their home.
When Mauritius gained its independence from Britain in the 1960s, plans were already underway to lease Diego Garcia to the U.S and so Britain could not afford to let the Island find its independence. To counter this, the “British Indian Ocean Territory” was created especially to keep Diego Garcia under the control of the British. When Mauritius gained its independence, the Mauritian Prime Minister agreed to sell any link Mauritius had to Diego Garcia and all the islands in the area, for a measely £3,000,000. Quite ridiculously, the same Prime Minister was then given a Knighthood.
By 1966, work had begun to rid the island of its inhabitants, in order to make way for a Military base for the U.S. Firstly, all plantations were closed down so work was very scarce. The idea was to make the inhabitants leave the island voluntarily to find work. As was food, which the British stopped from being shipped to the Island. Secondly, anyone from Diego Garcia who had travelled to Mauritius for work, or to use the hospital or other health facilities were refused entry back to their homes. Their houses were left, their possessions now belonged to Britain. They were not allowed to even contact family on the Island. Thirdly, the local population had developed a sense of family that included two children, a wife, a husband, and a dog. Every family had and cherished their pet dog. Sir Bruce Greatbatch MBE, Governor of the Seychelles ordered all dogs were to be killed. John Pilger in “Stealing a Nation” notes that families of the islanders he had spoken to, had said they remember as children watching the British walk away with their dogs, and throwing them into a room to be gassed. The dog deaths was used as a warning to let the locals know that they had to leave, or they would suffer the consequences. It was a Western imperial intimidation technique.
One lady from the Island recalls:
American soldiers had already started building the base.They backed several of their big vehicles against the brick shed where the coconuts were prepared; hundreds of dogs had been rounded up and imprisoned there. Then they gassed with a tube from the truck’s exhaust. You could hear them crying.
A Mauritian lawyer acting on behalf of those evacuated, said:
They were absolutely destroyed by the fate reserved to their dogs, and many of them told me it was clear to them that if they offered any objection to the depopulation they would suffer the same fate.
A Colonial Office Memo from the time reads:
They wish to avoid using the phrase ‘permanent inhabitants’ in relation to any of the islands in the territory because to recognise that there are any permanent inhabitants will imply that there is a population whose democratic rights will have to be safeguarded and which will therefore be deemed by the UN to come within its purlieu. The solution proposed is to issue them with documents making it clear that they are ‘belongers’ of Mauritius and the Seychelles and only temporary residents of BIOT. This devise, [sic] although rather transparent, would at least give us a defensible position to take up at the UN.
A lady who had been removed from the Island told Pilger recently:
I left in 1967. My husband was very ill and I decided to take him to Port Louis to get the special treatment he needed. When we were ready to return, we went to Rogers and Company – they ran the boats – and asked for our tickets. They said they had instructions not to let us go back. They told us Diego had been sold. Diego was my bird in the sky that was taken from me. I was sent to live in a slum, in rooms previously inhabited by goats and pigs.
Clearly people inhabited the islands, and called the island of Diego Garcia; home. But to get around the UN’s Special Committee on Decolonization rules, the British had to suggest that those islanders did not live on Diego Garcia, and were actually just working there, and were from Mauritius. The Head of the Indian Ocean Department in the 1960s, Eleanor Emery sent a memo to colleagues in Government stating:
We would not wish it to become general knowledge that some of the inhabitants have lived on Diego Garcia for several generations and could, therefore, be regarded as ‘belongers’.
We shall advise ministers in handling supplementary questions to say that there is only a small number of contract workers from the Seychelles and Mauritius, engaged to work on the copra plantations.
In the 1960s, the British Government used, through dodgy dealings, dog murders, and underhanded techniques to manoeuvre away from scrutiny by the UN’s Special Committee on Decolonization; leased the Island of Diego Garcia to the U.S in exchange for a huge reduction on the cost of nuclear subs. The decolonisation of Diego Garcia was not known to both Parliament in the UK and Congress in the US. In 1975 the Defence Department in the UK said:
“there is nothing in our files about inhabitants or about an evacuation”.
A blatant lie to cover up the entire episode.
Throughout the 1980s, 90s and 00s, the ex-islanders brought lawsuits against the British government and that of Mauritius, demanding compensation and the right to return to their homes. All lawsuits have ended in failure for them. The House of Lords and Blair when he was PM denied any wrongdoing and stated that the islanders do not have the right to return. In April 2010, the British government set up the MPA (Marine Protected Area) around Diego Garcia, meaning that commercial fishing and other extractive industries are prohibited in the area, a clear attempt to limit any kind of commerce islanders may have restarted had they moved back, in the hope that it would convince them not to keep brining lawsuits.
British foreign secretary Michael Stewart and the US secretary of state Dean Rusk in the mid-1960s came up with the plan to lie to the World that the inhabitants of the island were merely labourers and not inhabitants, in order to advance the deal between the two Countries.
Whilst the UK directed the deportations (many who were sent away on the British boats, had to sleep in cabins full of bird shit), the US is also massively responsible. A UK 1965 Foreign Office file reads that Washington made full deportation:
virtually a condition of the agreement when we negotiated it
And Stewart himself did not do too well in covering up what he knew. In 1968 he wrote:
by any stretch of the English language, there was an indigenous population, and the Foreign Office knew it
He then advised the PM (Wilson) that to get around the UN, they should lie, with:
by present[ing] any move as a change of employment for contract workers . . . rather than as a population resettlement
In 1970, a civil servant travelled to Diego Garcia to oversee the expulsion of the last few inhabitants. When they asked him if they would receive help resettling in Mauritius and compensation, the civil servant told them that they would. Yet, the only compensation paid, was £650,000 to the Mauritius Government to offset the cost of resettlement. About £3000 per person. The Mauritius government did not use it to resettle and has said it is not their responsibility. Hence most of the inhabitants of Diego Garcia ended up in overcrowded slums, sleeping in sheds with pigs and goats.
The economy of Mauritius had no place for the inhabitants of the newly proclaimed “Camp Justice”. Their trade was copra farming, which had no room in Mauritius. Nor did the language of the new crowd, or their culture. Unemployment in Mauritius was already standing above 20%. For all intents and purposes the depopulation of Diego Garcia is surely considered a crime against humanity; and yet legally, apparently it isn’t. When America and Britain do it, it’s legal. When two Congressional Committees attempted to delve further into the matter, they were told it was all considered classified and they couldn’t look further into it.
A terrible stain on the history of Britain and America. We continually act like victims, because others “hate our freedom“. What utter shit. We aren’t victims. We are the instigators. We plant the seeds and then complain when the plant grows. There should be no military base on Diego Garcia and the people should be back home, without any American or British person in sight. There is no Cold War any more. It’s over. We should act like the apparent advocates of freedom that we apparently like to suggest we are, and get out of the area. The Bush Administration said that Diego Garcia as a base played a vital role in the war on terror. What this translates to is; We need it because we have delusions of imperialist grandeur. It is a human rights issue, and the human rights of the people of Diego Garcia were vastly undermined. There is no two sides to this story. There are those on the right side and those on the wrong side, and the wrong side happens to include the UK and US. It is not subjective because it is not justifiable, what happened on that island.
Why haven’t the media had any say on the matter? Surely this should be a bit of a scandal? I can guarantee if a Muslim country did the same, the national newspapers would be outraged. Fox News would say it is clear that Islam is dangerous, and the overly protective pro-American/British media would treat us in the West like the heroes.
Jeanette Alexis lived on the island as a child. She says:
“We were crying, we were hanging onto our mothers’ skirts crying, because although we were very young we understood that we were leaving something very valuable behind, and that was our home.”
I wonder how America would react if the British tried to tell everyone on Rhode Island that they had to all leave their homes, their dogs would be killed, they would be resettled 2000 miles away, and they would be compensation about $2000 for it. I can’t imagine it’d be so easy.