This is an essential read for everyone who calls themselves Chagossian (or Ilois) and their collaborators in the fight for them to return home. It provides the definitive history of human discovery and habitation of the Chagos archipelago up to the point of de facto possession by the USA’s military. It has been meticulously researched and, although academically rigorous, it is a compelling read because its vivid narrative transports us back in time to a land far removed from our experience of modernday civilisation.
What started as hazards to be avoided, became welcome anchorage for replenishing ships’ supplies and then plantations that reduced Mauritius’ dependence on imported coconut oil. At first leased by the Crown and then sold to and owned by a succession of Franco-Mauritian companies, the archipelago’s strategic location was, from the beginning, recognised by military powers and utilised by them during clashes of empires, especially World War Two. It was not long before even a small human presence led to the overexploitation of marine life for food, notably sea cows and green turtles.
Imported slaves, originally from Mozambique, Madagascar and Mauritius, were liberated by the British, who struggled to ensure that their Franco-Mauritian masters treated them with dignity. At their companies’ expense, magistrates were sent to the islands and eventually missionaries, teachers, nurses and midwives. Depending on the character of their overseers, life could be delightfully simple or simply desperate, but always remained incredibly rudimentary.
The workers remained utterly dependent on the companies for almost every necessity, including clothing, shelter and a major part of their food supply. Even the pittance of a pay could only be spent in company shops or on rare trips to Mauritius aboard company ships. It is unsurprising that some voluntarily left the islands to be replaced by contract workers from Mauritius and later the Seychelles. Indeed it was only the objections of the Franco-Mauritian owners that prevented the administration being transferred to the Seychelles, which were both geographically closer and economically similar, in terms of coconut exploitation.
Mismanagement and lack of investment periodically plagued the plantations. The situation became critical just as the American military signalled its interest in the islands. They were willingly sold to the British government and leased back until the US was ready to move in. By then Mauritius had been granted independence at a price: the loss of sovereignty over the archipelago. The book ends in 1973 with the removal of the last Chagossians and readers are directed to other sources that catalogue their ongoing legal battles for the right to return to the place they call home.
Would coconut oil production have remained viable once vegetable oils replaced it in Mauritian cuisine? Would economics have forced the plantations to close and the Chagossians to leave anyway?
Diego Garcia remains the only militarised island in the archipelago. It is hard to imagine a civilian settlement there without significant income generation or subsidy to provide adequate housing, schooling and the other amenities of modern civilisation, even assuming the Americans allowed access to their port, airport and medical facilities. An alternative would be to exploit the other islands for their fishing and tourism potential, which would require major investment and development. This would inevitably devastate the pristine state that the corals surrounding them have returned to during the prolonged hiatus of human disturbance.
Does righting a wrong against a people justify a crime against nature? Where do corals have a better chance to adapt to climate change, free from other anthropogenic threats? And if they do, could we learn how to save some of the most productive ecosystems on our planet that countless coastal communities around the world depend upon for their own existence?