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The Last Colony exposes a deep injustice at the heart of the British state

Fifty years ago the UK forcibly removed the inhabitants of the Chagos Islands. Will they ever be allowed to return?

By Hannah Rose Woods

In 1973, 20-year-old Liseby Elysé, newly married and pregnant with her first child, was rounded up by the British authorities and, permitted a single suitcase, ordered to board a boat that would transport her a thousand miles away from her home. No one explained why.

She was one of the 1,500 inhabitants of the Chagos Archipelago who were forcibly removed from their homes and deported between 1967 and 1973. The mass eviction followed Britain’s decision to detach the islands from Mauritius and create a new colony halfway between east Africa and Indonesia, known as the British Indian Ocean Territory.

This decision was made as a result of an agreement to lease to the US the largest of the islands, Diego Garcia, in order to establish a US military base – subsequently named, with terrible irony, Camp Justice. Fifty years later, the islanders are still trying to return.

Elysé’s life is at the heart of Philippe Sands’ story of Britain’s “last colony”. Like his previous work, East West Street, which explored the origins of the legal concept of “crimes against humanity”. The Last Colony interweaves personal stories with global politics and the development of international law. It culminates in a case heard at the International Court of Justice in The Hague in 2019, in which Sands successfully represented Mauritius against the UK. The court handed down an advisory opinion that Britain’s administration of the Chagos Islands was, and remains, unlawful, and must end “as rapidly as possible” – a ruling that the UK continues to ignore.

[See also: British diplomacy in the dock]

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This, then, is the story of the rekindling of Britain’s colonial instinct in the latter half of the 20th century and into the 21st. During this period, according to the official narrative, the UK peacefully let go of its empire, recognised which way the “wind of change” was blowing and helped to shape a new international order based on the right to self-determination.

In 1945, Sands writes, Britain and the US had “committed themselves” to a “vision of decolonisation and human rights, then shredded their own commitments”. At the same time as Britain was congratulating itself for accepting the inevitability of the end of empire, it was creating a new colony in the Indian Ocean and forcibly displacing the territory’s entire original population.

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Following the twin threads of the making of modern international law and Elysé’s experience, Sands takes us from secret meetings between Churchill and Roosevelt during the Second World War through to the Cold War, the “War on Terror”, and then to post-Brexit Britain, to explain how Britain and the US led the way in developing a “rules-based international order”, then broke the rules to their own advantage.

In the 1940s the US was urging Britain to confront fascism by working together to free people from a “backward colonial policy”. After 1945, as ideas circulating in the Nuremberg trials and around the forming of the United Nations and the Geneva Conventions cross-fertilised, Britain was at the forefront of supporting international laws that established deportation as a “crime against humanity” and prohibited the “forcible transfer” of peoples. But under the exigencies of the Cold War, the US started to plan new military bases as part of a global contest between the “free” and communist worlds, many on remote islands that were – and needed to remain – in the hands of its allies.

These islands would take on new strategic significance in the 21st century with the “War on Terror” – Diego Garcia among them. The base in the Chagos Islands was used to launch bombers during the Iraq War and as a “transit site” where terrorism suspects were interrogated. Even now, in the wake of withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, the UK insists that allowing the Chagossians to return to their homes would compromise national security, while the US asserts the need to “stay in control”. “What if we are attacked by aliens?” was the stated rationale of one US representative at the UN.

As late as 2004, the government was still creating new colonial legislation – by order in council, a royal prerogative not subject to the usual process of parliamentary scrutiny and debate – to prevent the Chagossians from returning to the islands. Challenged in the High Court, the 2004 order was judged to be “irrational” and “unlawful”, an abuse of power of colonial governance.

The government appealed to the House of Lords, which overturned the judgement. The Lords ruled that “Her Majesty in council” was “entitled to legislate for a colony in the interests of the United Kingdom”, and that, in the event of a conflict of interest between the UK and the colony, was entitled “to prefer the interests of the United Kingdom”. Amid the ongoing culture wars over British history and the legacies of empire, Sands’ book is an urgent reminder that Britain’s colonial rule isn’t our past. It’s our present.

If this version of Britain’s postwar imperial history is unfamiliar to us, it is in part because of the dishonesty with which the UK separated the Chagos Islands from Mauritius in the 1960s. The plans for a military base at Diego Garcia were carried out by the UK and the US with the utmost secrecy, bypassing domestic legislative oversight, while withholding their intentions from the Mauritian leaders – with whom Britain was in the process of negotiating Mauritius’s independence.

Knowing full well that its conduct was illegal, Britain lied to the UN that the Chagos Islands “have virtually no permanent inhabitants”. “The object of the exercise is to get some rocks which will remain ours,” noted a Foreign Office official in the 1960s; Chagos, Britain claimed, was a place with “no indigenous population except seagulls”. Denis (later Lord) Greenhill added to this fiction that “along with the birds go some few Tarzans or Men Fridays whose origins are obscure”.

[See also: How the housing crisis shaped Britain]

The language of “Men Fridays” would resurface again in 2009, in a cable from the American embassy in London to the State Department in Washington. Released by WikiLeaks, the document described proposals announced by the then foreign secretary David Miliband to create an environmental protection area around the supposedly uninhabited islands of the British Indian Ocean Territory. This would, the cable suggested, not coincidentally provide the UK with a rationale to prevent the Chagossians from returning. The environmental lobby was “far more powerful” than the Chagossians’ advocates, it noted approvingly.

The details of the Chagossians’ treatment at the hands of the British are shocking. Liseby Elysé lost the child she was carrying. “For me, it was because I was traumatised on that ship,” she tells Sands of her deportation. “People were dying of sadness in that ship.” Others jumped overboard to their deaths. Upon arriving in Mauritius, they were housed in an abandoned building, with “no windows, no doors”, four or five to each room.

Elysé and her family lived there for the next 14 years. In order to obtain a reparations payment of just a few hundred pounds, she was asked by the British government to endorse a document renouncing all claims related to her removal from the Chagos Islands. She signed with a single thumbprint, not knowing what the document contained, having never learned to read.

For Sands, the case of the Chagos Islands goes “to the heart of any system of justice, how the rule of law protects the weak and vulnerable from the excesses of the powerful”. He is just the kind of “activist lawyer” that government ministers have in mind when they protest that their policies are being thwarted by the judicial system. Sands is a humane and generous presence, acknowledging his personal investment in the issues at stake as he lays out his case, but also illuminating the experiences of “real people, real lives” behind the bureaucracy of international law.

At times, international law can seem to operate with a kind of butterfly effect, with a ruling against South Africa in the 1960s, for instance, allowing Gambia to bring a case against Myanmar for alleged genocide over five decades later. But it is hard not to feel hopeless in the face of the UK government’s decision to ignore the 2019 International Court of Justice ruling – as well as a UN resolution that same year condemning Britain’s occupation of the islands – and its increasingly cavalier attitude to the rule of law. Yet, as Sands writes, “Every act, and every written word, is capable of having consequences, however unexpected or unintended.” I hope The Last Colony has the consequences he intends.

The Last Colony: A Tale of Exile, Justice and Britain’s Colonial Legacy
Philippe Sands
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 224pp, £16.99

Philippe Sands will be in conversation with Gavin Jacobson of the New Statesman at Cambridge Literary Festival on 20 November. Tickets are available here.

[See also: Reviewed in short: New books from Steve Brusatte, Selby Wynn Schwartz, Katy Hessel and Seán Hewitt]

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This article appears in the 31 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Liz Truss Doctrine