From Paradise to Crawley: Supreme Court to decide fate of Britain’s Indian Ocean islanders

Judges will decide whether leaked material can be used in case over eviction of islanders from Diego Garcia in the 1970s.

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This is one of the sorrier stories of Empire: how some 1,500 people were expelled from one of Britain’s remotest territories in 1971 to make way for a United States military base. The plight of the islanders will be before the Supreme Court, who have a judgement to make which will have far-reaching implications. The Law Lords will have to decide whether leaked material is admissible in court.

The islands in question – the Chagos archipelago – are situated almost midway between Africa and India. Consisting of some 60 atolls, with wonderful names like “Sea Cow” and “Danger Island” they are best known for the island of Diego Garcia.

Ceded to Britain by the French following the defeat of Napoleon in 1814, the archipelago was governed from Mauritius. London took little interest in the remote territory, allowing companies to manage (and mismanage) the islands to grow copra and vegetable oil. But their location in the middle of a vast ocean attracted American interest.

In 1957 the Colonial Office wrote that the US had expressed a “passing interest” in establishing a naval supply depot on Diego Garcia. The American interest waxed and waned, but by the 1960’s it was clear that Washington didn’t only want a base; they wanted the population to be excluded from the island. At first it seemed they might be resettled elsewhere on the Chagos, but deportation from the entire archipelago became the preferred option.

In 1965 Harold Wilson, keen to placate the Americans for not sending troops to Vietnam, agreed the request for a base. The then Mauritian leader, Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam visited Downing Street in September of that year to discuss the independence of his country and was – apparently – convinced that the “detachment” of Diego Garcia was no more than a “detail.” “There was no difficulty in principle,” noted the Colonial Office.

In November 1965, the UK purchased the entire Chagos Archipelago from the then self-governing colony of Mauritius for £3m to create the British Indian Ocean Territory. The following year Diego Garcia was provided as a military base for the US, via an exchange of notes between the two countries. There just remained the small problem of the population of the Chagos.

The people had been softened up over time. In early 1967, the British Commissioner issued a proclamation, enabling the British government to purchase any land it wished to. On 3 April of that year, London bought all the plantations of the Chagos archipelago for £660,000 from the Chagos Agalega Company. The aim was to deprive the Chagossians of an income, to encourage them to leave the islands.

Finally, in 1971, the unfortunate population – some 1,550 strong – was loaded on board ships and deported to Mauritius. There many remained: some in poverty, while others moved to Britain. Many made a home in Crawley, where the population today is estimated at around 3,000.

The depopulation of the Chagos has been raised repeatedly in the United Nations, and was a subject passionately pursued by the late Labour MP, Tam Dalyell.

The Supreme Court ruling

The plight of the Chagossians (or Ilois, as they are also known) will be before the Supreme Court on Thursday. They will rule whether Foreign Office correspondence, which is publicly available, is admissible in court.

The case turns on the creation of a marine park around the British-controlled islands by the last Labour government. Even though they were exiled, some Chagossians continued to fish off the islands under license.

This was raised at a meeting between the British and Americans on 12 May 2009 at which the creation of a Marine Protected Area was discussed. According to the leaked document this was a simple ruse to keep the Chagossians out of the archipelago for all time. Among the Foreign Office officials at the meeting was Colin Roberts, then Director for Overseas Territories and Commissioner of the British Indian Ocean Territory, of which Diego Garcia is a part.

This is from the notes of the meeting.

“7....Roberts stated that according to the HGM's [sic] current thinking on a reserve, there would be no 'human footprints' or 'Man Fridays' on the BIOT's uninhabited islands. He asserted that establishing a marine park would, in effect, put paid to resettlement claims of the archipelago's former residents...

    15. Establishing a marine reserve might indeed, as FCO's Roberts stated, be the most effective long-term way to prevent any of the Chagos islands' former inhabitants or their descendants from resettling in the BIOT”.

Lawyers for the Chagossians argue that the reserve was established for an “improper purpose”  – since it was designed to keep the islanders away from their former homes. But their case rests mainly on the leaked document. The Court of Appeal ruled that it was inadmissible. Now it is up to the Supreme Court to decide the question – which clearly has ramifications for any similalr case that would wish to use leaked material.

 

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. His most recent book is a biography of Robert Mugabe with Sue Onslow.