“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
Chagos is an archipelago located in the Indian Ocean and made up of over 55 islands and 5 atolls, including the world’s largest, ‘The Great Chagos Bank’. It is also known as the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), it forms one of the UK’s 14 Overseas Territories. The archipelago contains an astonishing diversity of life including over 300 corals, 800 varieties of fish, rays, skates and sharks. The islands provide shelter to breed for not only turtles, but also sea birds and resident populations of coconut crabs. BIOT and other organisations are involved in conserving and protecting the area. In fact in 2010, 640 000 km² has been designated a protected area and no commercial fishing is allowed to take place. Chagos is restricted and visas and associated fees have to be paid and applied for in advance to go there. Private yachts are allowed to visit for a period of one month as part of crossing the Indian Ocean as long as they have visas and appropriate insurance and research vessels.
The history of Chagos can be seen from two perspectives the British/American and the Chagossian.
History of Chagos – The British Perspective
The Chagos Archipelago was uninhabited until 1973, when the French established copra plantations using save labour. However, Britain gained control of the archipelago, Mauritius and Seychelles in 1814. In the 1950s and 1960s contract labourers were brought from Mauritius and the Seychelles to work the copra plantations. Those that worked there had licenses to reside there, but were not allowed to own land or property.
In 1965 the UK paid Mauritius a £3 million dollar grant and built an airport in the Seychelles to recognise the two countries detachment from the Chagos Archipelago. It was also understood that when Chagos was no longer required for defense purposes, that it would be returned to Mauritius. In 1966 the United Kingdom entered into an agreement with the US government that would allow the US to use Diego Garcia for defensive purposes for a period of 50 years, which could be extended a further 20 years.
The BIOT Administration acquired the land used by the copra plantations in 1967 and over a few years closed all the plantations. The people affected by these closures were Mauritian and Seychellois contract workers and their families. They were given the choice to return to either Mauritius or the Seychelles, most chose Mauritius. It is believed that between 1400 and 1700 people were removed from the islands. In 2002, many Chagossians automatically became British Citizens. Money was also provided to Mauritius to help Chagossians to resettle. The UK government facilitates visits, almost annually, to the Chagos archipelago for the eldest Chagossians.
History of Chagos – Chagossian’s Perspective
The Chagos Archipelago was the home to 1500 – 2000 indigenous people of mostly African, Malagasy and Indian origin, who were brought the the islands to work the Copra plantations in the 18th century.
In the 1960s, Chagos belonged to the UK, but was governed by Mauritius. It was during this time that a UK/US terror campaign began to forceably remove the Chagossians. The Chagossian people were cut off from supplies like milk, dairy, sugar and medication that were brought into the islands and this resulted in many leaving. Threats to bomb the island and the removal of pet dogs who were later gassed resulted in the Chagossians being rounded up and placed on the ship, ‘The Nordvaer’ with only one suitcase to carry their belongings. The ship took the Chagossians to the Seychelles, where they were placed in prison until they could be transported to Mauritius. They arrived in Mauritius without money, adequate housing, jobs, water, food or any support. Unfortunately many Chagossians died from malnutrition, disease, drugs and sadness. The Chagossians have been fighting ever since to return home.
In February, the United Nations highest court ordered the UK to return the Chagos Islands to Mauritius as soon as possible. What happens remains to be seen.