Nigel Wenban-Smith and Marina Carter
WHAT THIS BOOK IS ABOUT
The Chagos Archipelago is some 1,200 nautical miles distant from the island of Mauritius. Until 1965 it was administered as a Lesser Dependency of the latter. Then it was reconstituted as part of the newly created British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), an entity brought into being for the defence purposes of Britain and the United States. Within eight years, the existing population of the Archipelago had been removed and construction of what is now a major air and naval base had begun. These events have been the subject of major controversy ever since.
This book sets the closure of the Chagos islands' coconut plantations and the expulsion of their inhabitants in their long-term historical context. Its first part surveys the slow process of the Archipelago's discovery, bringing to light much new information about the beginnings of human settlement in the late eighteenth century. It explains how this settlement was prompted by the objectives of competing European nations - initially
the Portuguese and Dutch, followed by the French and British.
The second part goes on to examine how and by whom the islands were exploited, mainly to produce coconut oil and copra, and how the workers introduced to the islands were themselves exploited, initially as slaves and later as contractual labour. The very gradual emergence of an island-born community - the Ilois - is recounted, along with the consolidation of individually held concessions into a single company having proprietorial rights over the whole Archipelago. This part ends with the company's collapse in 1961.
In its third and final part, the book explains how the Archipelago's new owner's projects were upset, as American military plans developed in great secrecy. The separation of the Chagos islands from Mauritian jurisdiction, agreed in the context of that colony's progress to independence, was followed by successive delays in announcing and implementing those plans. During this time (1966-1970), the islanders, the Mauritians, the British parliament and the United States Congress were all kept in the dark, with damaging consequences for all concerned. Between 1971 and 1973, all the remaining civilian inhabitants were removed. Readers are left to reflect on the causes of a long-gestating tragedy, in which geographical isolation, human incompetence and greed, administrative neglect and repeated episodes of strategic rivalry all played a role .... and the weakest went to the wall.
In a brief epilogue, the authors point to major issues that remain to be resolved.
11 September 2016