The island of Diego Garcia was once a paradise to its natives, but four decades ago they were ousted from their land for good.
On a paradise island in the Indian Ocean, the traditional way of life is crumbling fast. It’s 1968, and British and American colonialists have begun expelling the inhabitants from their beloved home. Within five years, not a single native will remain on this remote atoll. And more than four decades later, the islanders will still be fighting to return to their land.
Just a few years earlier, the land comprising Diego Garcia was sold from beneath the islanders’ feet and traded off to the United Kingdom – even as the rest of the region was gaining its independence. Now, the steady erasure of the native culture has begun. Those who take trips away are the first to go, as they are barred from returning home. And then the rest of the citizens are secretly turfed from the atoll en masse.
Soon, those who once called this island home will be spread across a diaspora stretching from Mauritius and the Seychelles to the United Kingdom. In their place, a vast, mysterious complex is set to spring up between the white sand beaches and shady palms. But what is the real story of Diego Garcia? And why has it been kept a secret for so many years?
Located more than 2,000 miles east of the African continent and over 1,000 miles from the southern coast of India, Diego Garcia is the biggest island in the Chagos Archipelago. And with its picture-postcard beaches and sparkling blue waters, the atoll would not look out of place in any luxury tourist brochure.
However, unlike places such as the Maldives – located some 730 miles north, along the Chagos-Laccadive Ridge – Diego Garcia has never welcomed seaplanes full of honeymooners to enjoy its tropical charms. Only a select few have gotten to experience the destination’s beauty, in fact. And even today, the island’s dark history casts a shadow across its groves and bays.
According to records, Diego Garcia was first stumbled upon by Europeans back in 1512, when the Portuguese explorer Pedro Mascarenhas reached the Chagos Islands. Before this, it’s believed that the atoll had occasionally hosted lost sailors from other shores. But it’s not thought that it had yet supported a native population of its own.
That all changed in the 18th century, however, when the French colony of Mauritius assumed ownership of Diego Garcia. Then, after the British East India Company tried and failed to sustain a settlement on the island, it became known for its coconut plantation. And in order to harvest the valuable crops, the owners began shipping in slaves from the African nations of Mozambique and Madagascar.
Then, in 1803, the Napoleonic Wars broke out, with the French Empire battling against the United Kingdom and its allies. After Napoleon was defeated, the Treaty of Paris was drawn up to redefine the borders of France. And among the changes that were heralded by the document was the ownership of the Chagos Islands, which were subsequently handed over to the British in 1914.
For the following 150 years, then, the Chagos Archipelago functioned as a dependency of Mauritius, which was by then a colony of Great Britain. And over time, the workers who were brought to the islands developed their own culture and communities. Apparently, while their contemporaries elsewhere suffered unbearable conditions, the Chagossians enjoyed an idyllic way of life.
On islands such as Diego Garcia, Chagossians founded villages, opened schools and even created their own local dialect – a variation on the Creole language that’s spoken in Mauritius. What’s more, when World War I plunged much of the planet into chaos, the islanders apparently remained largely unaffected by the conflict.
However, World War II was a different story, with 1942 seeing the opening of a British Royal Air Force station on Diego Garcia. And throughout the conflict, the tiny island played a small yet significant role on the global stage. Then, a year after the war ended in 1945, the outpost shut its doors.
By this point, though, the usefulness of the Chagos Archipelago as a military asset had been established. So, when the British began leaving the region in the 1960s, they struck a deal with the United States. The agreement permitted the establishment of an American naval base on one of the islands. And ultimately, both countries decided that Diego Garcia would be the perfect spot.
However, there was one issue. The U.S. wanted an uninhabited island – but Diego Garcia had a small yet thriving local population. In their typical colonial manner, then, the British dismissed the citizens of the atoll out of hand. “Unfortunately, along with birds go some few Tarzans… whose origins are obscure and who are hopefully being wished on Mauritius,” one diplomat wrote in 1966.
Despite the presence of the Chagos islanders, then, the British pushed ahead with their deal. And in 1965 they bought the entire archipelago from Mauritius for around $3.8 million. Dubbed the British Indian Ocean Territory, this new kingdom was handed over to the United States the following year as a site on which to build and maintain a military base.
According to records, the terms of this agreement were loose: they permitted the U.S. to keep a military presence on Diego Garcia for as long as it might need. The deal was reportedly due to last until at least 2016, with a 20-year extension to automatically follow. And in return, the U.K. received a hefty $14 million discount on some recently ordered missiles.
But why were American authorities so keen to secure Diego Garcia, a remote speck of land in the midst of the Indian Ocean? “At the outset, the U.S. didn’t particularly know what they would do with [the island],” author David Vine, who wrote a book about the Chagos Archipelago, told CNN in March 2019. “It was a hedge for the future.”
But although the U.S. was unsure of what role Diego Garcia might play for them, it was certain of one thing: the locals had to go. And not just from this one tiny island, either. With the territory secured, officials set about systematically banishing all 3,000 Chagossians from their homes.
And so, in 1968, the enforced depopulation began. “Initially, people who went for special medical treatment to Mauritius were just never allowed to come back,” Chagossian Pierre Prosper told CNN. “So, a mother who gave birth would be left in Mauritius, while the rest of the family would be in Chagos.”
But for those who were left on the islands, life became increasingly tough. For instance, the U.S. apparently employed a number of tactics that were designed to drive the locals away. And horrifically, these included the slaughtering of their family pets. The Americans are thought to have placed restrictions on food and medicine, too, hoping that the remaining population would simply have no choice but to leave.
Eventually, in 1971, the U.S. began construction work on Diego Garcia. And at around the same time, the plantation in the area was shut down, with its workers being shipped off to other islands. But by then, Mauritius had secured its independence, and the British were forced to pay the nation resettlement fees amounting to more than $800,000.
Over the next two years, then, the depopulation of Diego Garcia continued, with islanders being placed on cargo ships and taken en masse to the Seychelles and Mauritius. There, they apparently encountered conditions that were even more difficult than those they had left behind. And meanwhile, the Chagossians’ villages were left to disappear.
“People were living in cemeteries or in cattle houses – anywhere they could get roofs over their heads,” ex-islander Isobel Charlot told CNN. “The Chagos Islands were beautiful. Going to Mauritius abruptly made them depressed; many became alcoholics.” However, the U.S. was ultimately successful in its endeavors, and by 1973 none of the archipelago’s original residents remained.
That same year, workers finished building Diego Garcia’s new naval base. Then, in 1975, the end of the Vietnam War – along with other military developments around the world – prompted the U.S. to begin expanding the facilities on the island. And soon enough, the outpost that had once been a gamble proved itself to be a smart investment.
In 1979 the monarchy of Iran was overthrown, and Western powers moved to ensure that oil continued to flow through the region. In response, the base at Diego Garcia underwent a large-scale development. The expanded facility boasted two runways, each stretching for 12,000 feet, and a lagoon that was equipped with anchorages for 20 vessels. Plus, there were extensive port facilities and enough accommodation for thousands of staff.
Meanwhile, the exiled Chagossians were struggling to come to terms with life away from their island home. And on Mauritius, many reported facing discrimination as they tried to adjust to their new surroundings. As a result, they often chose to socialize in groups, reminiscing about the paradise that was no longer theirs.
But despite the dissatisfaction with their new lives, the Chagossians were not able to return to their homes. In fact, in the 1980s some 1,300 former islanders accepted payments from the U.K. government totaling more than $5 million – on the condition that they forgo any rights to live on their native lands again.
While the Chagossians were struggling, however, the military base on Diego Garcia was going from strength to strength. After the terrorist attack on New York City that infamously took place on September 11, 2001, even more U.S. forces arrived at the strategically located facility. And to accommodate them, a vast complex – dubbed Camp Justice – was built on the island.
Today, Diego Garcia remains firmly under the control of the U.S. military. It’s one of 800 centers that the country operates overseas. And according to experts, America’s presence in these nations is vital to its continuing influence on the global stage. “There are hundreds of points in foreign countries that the U.S. controls which are really important in protecting its power today,” history professor Daniel Immerwahr told CNN.
Apparently, the base on the Chagos Islands would also be significant should U.S. forces ever need to expand their reach to the stars. “If there is any type of conflict in space, Diego Garcia is important in the physical sense and the communications sense,” Cedric Leighton, who is a military analyst, told CNN.
Frustratingly, however, the vast majority of the Chagos Islands remain deserted even as their exiled natives long to return home. Diego Garcia is in fact the only part of the archipelago that is inhabited today. Apparently, there are anywhere between 3,000 and 5,000 personnel and support staff stationed at the base at any given point in time.
These days, life on Diego Garcia is seemingly very different from the laid-back existence that the native Chagossians once enjoyed. Reportedly, for instance, the new inhabitants do not take advantage of the island’s resources for sustenance. Instead, they choose to dine on imported American specialities such as burgers and beer. And in their spare time, they apparently forgo simple sunsets in favor of pastimes such as bowling and golf.
However, it is not only the displacement of thousands of Chagossian islanders that has cast a dark shadow over this slice of paradise. There are also rumors, you see, that the non-military personnel employed at the base – largely migrant workers from the Philippines – are subject to exploitative conditions.
New Internationalist, these workers on Diego Garcia are intentionally drawn from locations where jobs are difficult to come by on the assumption that they will accept lower wages. Some employees reportedly take home income from an hourly wage of as little as $2, in fact. What’s more, there have been stories of individuals pulling 12-hour shifts every day of the week.
Apparently this is not all, either. There are also rumors that the CIA has used Diego Garcia for secret operations in the past. And even though the organization has denied such claims, there is a paper trail linking detainees to the base. Moreover, a former U.S. official has alleged that the island was once the site of clandestine interrogations.
But whatever the truth behind the rumors, it seems as though the U.S. government wishes to keep what happens at Diego Garcia firmly under wraps. In fact, there is reportedly a ban on journalists setting foot on the island – a security measure that’s stricter than those enforced at the notorious Guantanamo Bay.
Meanwhile, many former Chagossians long to return to the land from which they were banished. “Back home was paradise,” Samynaden Rosemond told the BBC in February 2019. At 36 years old, he left the islands and settled in Mauritius with his wife. “If I die here, my spirit will be everywhere; it wouldn’t be happy,” he explained. “But if I die there, I will be in peace.”
Almost 50 years after the exile began, Chagossians around the world were offered a glimmer of hope in June 2017. That month, the United Nations General Assembly ruled to hand the dispute about custody of the Chagos Islands over to the International Court of Justice. And in February 2019 officials declared that the archipelago should be given back to Mauritius.
According to the International Court of Justice, you see, the U.K.’s move to separate the Chagos Islands from Mauritius was unlawful. And the time has now come to rectify that decision. However, officials have been quick to point out that the ruling does not mean that Britain is legally obligated to comply.
In February 2019 the U.K. Foreign Office announced that the judgement would be given careful consideration. “The defense facilities on the British Indian Ocean Territory help to protect people here in Britain and around the world from terrorist threats, organized crime and piracy,” a spokesperson explained. Meanwhile, the issue looks set to return to the General Assembly, where it will be the subject of more debate.
For the Chagos Islanders, then, this is a step in the right direction. And while some merely want to be allowed to visit their former homes, others dream of being permitted to permanently return. “Already, Diego Garcia has people living there,” Charlot pointed out after the ruling was announced. “So why can’t I?”