“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 defence 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 forcibly 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.
Our Time in Chagos
We spent a month in Chagos, probably the only place where there is no shops so your money is worthless. There is no electricity, no internet, the only fresh water is from the old wells and there are no permanent residents, except for the military personnel on the Diego Garcia, which you can not go anywhere near.
View of the anchorage from the island
Our first few weeks were spent anchored off of Boddam Island in the Salomon Atoll. The kids raced to finish school work each day, so they could meet up with the other kids on the island in the afternoon, where they would spend hours swimming and playing. The adults met up frequently for sun-downers at the yacht club. The yacht club is a reclaimed building where yachties have added nautical decorations like floats and life rings and other adornments like flags, hammocks and a few chairs. There were a couple of pot luck dinners on shore too. As the sun went down though, the clicking of crab claws grew louder as the coconut crabs crept ever closer to those on shore and the odd rat would run buy, at that point it was time to return to the safety of the boat.
A couple of days into our stay in Chagos, tragedy struck. About 2 am a call came over the radio, from Pipistrelle asking for help, that they were stuck on the reef. The mooring buoy had broken loose and the boat had drifted onto the reef. The dynamic duo, Andrew and Jamie were the only two who responded to the radio call, it appears every had turned their radios off overnight. Off they went into the inky, blackness with their head torches to assess the situation. They soon realised it would take more hands to help and resorted to banging on people’s hulls to get them. Everyone eagerly did what they could. The wait was on for high tide, before the boat was moved. By the time they finished in the afternoon, Andrew was exhausted having spent most of the day in the water, while Jamie directed and organised Pipistrelle to get them off the reef.
Some people with boat building experience then helped to remove the rudder and set about fixing it. People donated epoxy and fibreglass for the cause and the rudder was filled with coconut husks and fibre glassed over before being returned to place. The boat safely made it to the Seychelles, where further repairs were made.
Boddam Island has not only coconut cabs but also hermit crabs, I’ve never seen so many. The kids would collect them and draw a circle in the sand and choose a crab each to place in the middle of the circle. The first person’s crab that crossed outside of the circle was the winner. No harm was done to the crabs and they were all left onshore.
Andrew and I spent a few hours wandering around Boddam Island. Following the path you pass many abandoned homes, churches all of which originally formed the Salomon Village, home to the residents prior to their removal to Mauritius. It is amazing how in a period of 60 years the houses have fallen into such disrepair and been overtaken by jungle, particularly the banyan trees.
Its hard to believe that this church was only built in 1935 and since the residents left in 1973, mother nature has taken its roof and the coconut crabs reside in burrows both in and around it.
Homes overtaken by jungle and banyan trees
Memorial cross to the Chagossians
Andrew’s favourite past time while we were there was fishing. The dynamic duo, Jamie and Andrew led many fishing expeditions quite often dragging Ian and Tristan along with them, but they caught plenty of fish to keep everyone fed. The trick to fishing in Chagos is to get the fish up quick before the sharks get them, there were a few fish caught with only the head left. Andrew ate fish for breakfast, lunch and dinner during our stay. Tristan also enjoyed fishing. He had a very memorable time when Ken from Code Zero took him out fishing, they caught plenty of fish and were gone for about 8 hours, returning a little sunburned.
The dynamic duo
Fish, fish and more fish
After about 3 weeks we were all ready for a change and so we picked up anchor and moved a short distance to Fouquet Island. The most notable site on Fouquet Island is a 70 foot wrecked catamaran. The wrecked catamaran, ‘The Black Rose’ is supposedly owned by a French pop star who was having it delivered across the Indian Ocean. The boat broke loose from her anchor in 2012 and washed up on the island. Obviously the owner did not have wreck removal insurance or perhaps that is why all yachts coming to Chagos now have to have wreck removal insurance. Apparently a Danish boat had stripped usable things from the boat and now she gathers sand and is slowly breaking apart.
What remains of the once luxury cat, ‘Black Rose’
During the 10 days we spent in this part of the atoll we did some snorkelling with the kids. I particularly like the snorkelling trip over a submerged wreck. off Fouquet Island.
Andrew taking the kids snorkelling
The wreck that is in shallow water making it very easy to snorkel around.
By the time we had arrived at Fouquet Island, a boat named ‘Shakespeare’ from Reunion Island had arrived, with four women sailors. They very quickly organised afternoons of either volleyball or soccer on the beach, followed by sun-downers. It was during one of these afternoon soccer sessions, that Andrew decided to try to take on Josh to get the soccer ball and soon discovered he was no competition with Josh’s size 12 feet. A broken toe or two later, I think he will be reluctant to play barefoot soccer with his eldest son anytime soon.
The boys in particular, decided they wanted to have a ‘man vs wild’ experience and video it. They built a shelter of sorts, made a campfire and manage to find a few small crabs that they cooked for dinner. They survived the night and returned reeking of smoke and pretty hungry, but they had enjoyed themselves.
If you look really closely you can see the crabs on the log of wood
Andrew and the kids loved the month in Chagos and will tell you it was one of their favourite places they have ever been. I will truthfully admit I really struggled being there for a month, as I’m not really a beach person or into fishing and missed having the internet. I was really glad to go and get back to civilisation.
The kids loved Chagos and they thought it was one of their favourite places