Uprooted from paradise – and the fight to return

Review: Vivien Horler

The Last Colony: a tale of exile, justice and Britain’s colonial legacy, by Philippe Sands (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

Unless you’re Mauritian or have been playing close attention to cases before the International Court of Justice in the Hague, you may never have heard of the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia. You may not have heard of the Chagos Archipelago either.

It’s an astonishing story. When Mauritius was a British colony, Chagos, a series of specks in the ocean closer to the Maldives, was administered as a dependency of Mauritius.

The largest of the islands is Diego Garcia where, back in the 1770s, a Frenchman had a concession to run a coconut plantation, worked by slaves brought from Mozambique and Madagascar.

The population of the archipaelago, around 1 500 people, was descended from these slaves. One of them was Liseby Elysé who was born on Peros Banhos in Chagos in 1953 and lived there until her 20th year.

As a witness for the Mauritian delegation at the International Court of Justice in September 2018, she told the court: “Everyone had a job, his family and his culture. All that we ate was fresh food. Ships which came from Mauritius brought all our goods. We received our groceries. We received all that we needed. We did not lack anything. In Chagos everyone lived a happy life.”

Then one day, without warning, she and her fellow islanders were rounded up by the British authorities, allowed a single small trunk and ordered to board a ship to take them to Mauritius 2 000km away. They were told the islands were “being closed”, with no explanations offered.

“No one mentioned a new military base the British had allowed the Americans to build on … Diego Garcia,” writes author and lawyer Philippe Sands. “No one told her that Chagos, long a part of Mauritius, had been severed from that territory and was now a new colony in Africa, to be known as the ‘British Indian Ocean Territory’.”

In the early 1960s, while Britain was shedding colonies in Africa, Mauritius demanded its independence. But Britain resisted, because it was plotting with the US,  its World War 2 ally, to give it the use of a cleared Diego Garcia. Although not required by the Americans, Britain cleared all the other islands in the archipaelgo too.

The secrecy was because of UN General Assembly resolution 1514, passed in December 1950. It said: “All people have the right to self-determination”, with domination and exploitation by one country of another to be regarded as a denial of fundamental human rights.

The resolution also supported the principle of territorial integrity, so that in allowing independence to a country, bits of it could not be hived off or detached.

However, in the creation of the British Indian Ocean Territory, this is exactly what happened to Chagos.

In the years that followed, Mauritius and its Chagossian population never stopped fighting to get Chagos back. Sands, author of the acclaimed East West Street about the Nuremberg Trials, became one of Mauritius’s legal representatives at the International Court.

Just the effort to get the case on the roll took many years and many fights, with Britain obdurate.

But eventually it came down to the question: had Britain and the US broken international law by detaching Chagos, clearing its population, and keeping it as its last colony?

A simple Google search will provide the answer to this question, but I’m not going to spoil the story here. After the debacle of SA’s voting abstentions regarding Ukraine in the General Assembly over the past eight months, it is comforting to report that our country, with vivid memories of the pain of forced removals here,  staunchly supported Mauritius’s rights over the archipaelego, and the hopes of the Chagossians to return.

This is a somewhat dry account, dealing as it does with General Assembly resolutions and formal court applications and judgments. But  through foregrounding the experiences of Liseby Elysé Sands has tried to give it a human face, and it is an extraordinary story, well worth reading.

*The Last Colony was one of Exclusive Books’s top reads for October.









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