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Britain fights for control of its last African colony

On Monday, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague began public hearings that may determine the fate of the Chagos Islands — Britain’s last remaining African colony.

Twenty-two nations have applied to take part in the proceedings. Supporting Britain in its bid to retain control of the islands are the United States, Australia and Israel. The United States maintains a large and strategically important naval base on Diego Garcia, the largest of the Chagos Islands.

Opposing Britain’s continued rule over the Indian Ocean archipelago is Mauritius, which argues that the Chagos Islands should fall under its sovereignty.

Seventeen other nations support Mauritius’ claim of sovereignty: Belize, Botswana, Brazil, Cyprus, Germany, Guatemala, India, Kenya, the Marshall Islands, Mauritius, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Serbia, South Africa, Thailand, Vanuatu and Zambia. The African Union will also be making representations in support of Mauritius.

The ICJ took on the case after the United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly in favour of a Mauritius-backed resolution to seek a legal opinion from the court. Its verdict will be advisory, and not legally binding.

‘British agents gassed their dogs’

The Chagos Islands is the territory that decolonisation forgot.

Over 250 years ago, people began settling on the Chagos Islands — mostly slaves from Africa and indentured labour from India. During the colonial period, it was considered to be part of Mauritius, and administered from there. Given their tiny size and lack of natural resources, the islands did not receive much attention.

Things changed dramatically as the Cold War began to heat up. The United States recognised that the Chagos Islands’ isolated geography was the perfect location for an Indian Ocean military base. The United Kingdom, a key ally, was happy to cooperate, eventually signing a sweetheart deal that gave the Americans a 50-year lease on Diego Garcia, for the sum of just $1 per year, along with a discount on nuclear technology.

There was one snag, however: this was also Africa’s independence era, and in 1968 Mauritius was about to be granted its own independence. Could a new government in Mauritius be relied upon to grant access to the base?

Taking no risks, the United Kingdom unilaterally annexed the Chagos Islands, and forcibly removed all 2 000-plus Chagos Islanders — referred to by officials at the time as “Tarzans” and “Man Fridays” — the better to preserve security around the base.

The removals took place over several years and were brutal.

According to anthropologist David Vine: “British agents, with the help of Navy Seabees, quickly rounded up the islanders’ pet dogs, gassing and burning them in sealed cargo sheds. They ordered … the remaining Chagossians onto overcrowded cargo ships. During the deportations, which took place in stages until May 1973, most Chagossians slept in the ship’s hold atop guano — bird crap. Prized horses stayed on deck. By the end of the five-day trip, vomit, urine and excrement were everywhere. At least one woman miscarried. Arriving in Mauritius and the Seychelles, Chagossians were literally left on the docks. They were homeless, jobless, and had little money, and they received no resettlement assistance. In 1975, the Washington Post broke the story in the Western press and found them living in ‘abject poverty’. Most remain deeply impoverished to this day.”

Justice delayed

Over the subsequent decades, the evicted islanders — most of whom settled in Britain or Mauritius — have repeatedly taken the British government to court, demanding compensation and the right to return to their homeland. 

In 2000, a British High Court ruled in their favour, ruling that the mass evictions were illegal and the Chagossians should be allowed to return home. This verdict was overturned by ‘royal prerogative’ — a little-used quirk of British law that allows the Queen to set aside court judgments she doesn’t like.

More recently, Britain’s Supreme Court denied the islanders’ right to return on the basis that it would be prohibitively expensive to do so. To further frustrate the islanders’ efforts to return, in 2010 Britain declared that the Chagos Islands to be a ‘Marine Protected Area’. In the words of a US official in a diplomatic cable leaked by Wikileaks: “… former inhabitants would find it difficult, if not impossible, to pursue their claim for resettlement on the islands if the entire Chagos archipelago were a marine reserve”.”

In parallel, the Mauritian government has been pressing its claim of sovereignty, culminating in this week’s hearings in The Hague. But Britain is hanging on tight to its last African colony.

“While we do not recognise the Republic of Mauritius’s claim to sovereignty of the archipelago, we have repeatedly undertaken to cede it to Mauritius when no longer required for defence purposes, and we maintain that commitment,” said a foreign office spokesperson.

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Simon Allison
Simon Allison
Simon Allison is the Africa editor of the Mail & Guardian, and the founding editor-in-chief of The Continent. He is a 2021 Young Africa Leadership Initiative fellow.

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