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23 June 2008

Britain’s worst gift

Ahead of a key House of Lords hearing, Sean Carey reflects on the disgraceful way Britain annexed a

By Sean Carey

Reciprocity – “the obligation to give and the obligation to receive” – as the French sociologist, Marcel Mauss, noted in his hugely influential work 1923 work Essai sur le don, is the basis of social life.

Mauss observes that gifts and hospitality (which often involve considerable material sacrifice) are imbued with moral purpose simultaneously engaging the “honour” of both giver and receiver.

They create and sustain relationships – sometimes equal, sometimes not — and are, as he puts it, almost “magical” in their effects. “The objects are never completely separated from the men who exchange them,” he says.

It’s a proposition that’s hard to argue with – think of the importance attached to the exchange of Christmas presents among family members.

But Mauss’ theory is not simply relevant to an analysis of seasonal gift-giving but can also shed some light on important aspects of recent international foreign policy.

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A good example concerns the manner in which the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia was handed to the US for use as a military base in order to keep the “special relationship” on track in a secret Cold War deal by Labour’s Harold Wilson.

But how did this come about? In his famous speech to the South African parliament in Cape Town in 1960 ex-UK premier, Harold Macmillan, declared that the old map of the British Empire had to be redrawn – and quickly. “The wind of change is blowing through this continent. Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact,” he said. But even as it looked towards a post-imperial future the old colonial power was still able and willing to indulge in some last-minute trickery to tie up a few loose ends.

Arriving in London a few years after Macmillan’s speech, the negotiating team led by Mauritius’ first Prime Minister, Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, was dumbfounded to be told by Foreign Office officials independence would only be secured if he agreed to cede the islands of the Chagos Archipelago – integral to its territory since 1814 – to Britain.

Although this land grab was in clear contravention of UN resolution 1514 of 1960 which states that “all peoples have an inalienable right to complete freedom, the exercise of their sovereignty and the integrity of their national territory” the Mauritian delegation calculated that it had no option but to agree to British demands.

The result was that in 1965 the Chagos Islands became part of a new space on the world’s political map, the British Indian Ocean Territory. Mauritius was given £3 million in compensation and Ramgoolam was knighted.

Despite this fairly clumsy attempt by the British government to square the circle no-one in Mauritius has ever been convinced that this was a free, fair or – indeed – legal exchange.

To make matters worse, the process of Mauritian independence involved additional and wholly unwilling sacrificial victims – the 2000 or so Chagos islanders whose slave ancestors had arrived from Madagascar and Mozambique in the late 18th century to work on the coconut plantations on the larger islands like Diego Garcia, Peros Banhos and Salamon. They were never once consulted about their future.

Instead, they were forcibly removed from their homes between 1971 and 1973 by the British authorities to Mauritius and the Seychelles in a manner which has become seared into the islanders’ collective memory. “They do not forget the appalling journeys in which they suffered, in boats that were over laden with people, which they were obliged to share with horses in the hold and where bad weather made people vomit, women miscarry and some to jump overboard and commit suicide,” observed London-based solicitor, Richard Gifford.

They were moved because the Americans had made it clear that they did not want a “population problem” on any of the islands in the Archipelago.

Predictably enough, the Chagossians, with a few conspicuous exceptions, have languished at the bottom of the social and economic heap of both Indian Ocean islands, with all too many lives blighted by drugs and alcohol.

But rather than owning up to the social and cultural chaos the UK had caused, successive British governments did their best to cover their tracks by pretending that the Chagos islanders were merely contract workers repatriated to their places of origin.

On Diego Garcia, for example, from where two thirds of the islanders originate, there was a well developed infrastructure consisting of villages, Roman Catholic churches, a school and a hospital – all hallmarks of a long-settled community rather than the claimed transient workforce.

Little wonder, then, that since 2000 seven senior British judges have found against the government for an “abuse of power” and ruled in favour of the islanders’ right of return. “Few things are more important to a social group than its sense of belonging, not only to each other but to a place. What has sustained peoples in exile, from Babylon onwards, has been the possibility of one day returning home,” was how Lord Justice Sedley summed it up in the Court of Appeal last year.

But with the conspicuous exception of the late Robin Cook (who was then removed from his post) the Chagossians’ journey back to their homeland has been blocked by successive British foreign secretaries – Jack Straw, Margaret Beckett and the current incumbent David Miliband who has appealed to the House of Lords to clarify the legal position of the use of “orders in council” – obscure legal devices made in the name of the British monarch which avoid parliamentary scrutiny. They apply in the governance more than 13 British overseas territories.

All this legal manoeuvring is not really about the noble search for constitutional clarity; rather it is designed to put off for as long as possible the day when Britain might have to ask the US to allow the 900 Chagos islanders to return to their ancestral homeland. Why? Well, Great Britain clearly feels its honour, reputation and relationship with the US are of greater importance than all other obligations – including those associated with fairness and justice.

Which brings us neatly back to Mauss who neglected, wholly understandably it’s true, one crucial point about giving and receiving and that’s how we should view the giving of stolen items.

In the case of Britain’s gift of an island to America it’s hard to see just how the “honour” of both giver and receiver was engaged when it was at the expense of Mauritius and a people who had lived in the Chagos Archipelago for generations.

Without doubt this episode must rank as one of the most shameful and squalid in recent colonial history.

The Law Lords have the opportunity to address at least part of the problem – the fate of the Chagos islanders – when the case begins on 30 June.

Dr Sean Carey is Research Fellow at the Centre for Research on Nationalism, Ethnicity and Multiculturalism (CRONEM), Roehampton University. Click here to find out more about the Chagos Islanders

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