They Bent to Their Knees and Kissed the Sand
Half a century ago, the British government forcibly removed 2,000 people from a remote string of islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean. They’ve never stopped struggling to return.
When Olivier Bancoult boarded the ship that was to take him 1,000 miles across the Indian Ocean to the Chagos Archipelago—his childhood home, from which he and his fellow islanders had been expelled 50 years earlier—he carried five wrought-iron crosses. Most of them bore a short inscription, hand-lettered in white paint, memorializing the return of Chagossians to their birthplace. The crosses were to be driven into the ground of Peros Banhos and Salomon, two of the archipelago’s once-inhabited atolls. But one cross was different. It was inscribed with the name of Bancoult’s grandfather Alfred Olivier Elysé, and it was destined for an island cemetery. Elysé had died in 1969, as expulsions from the archipelago were under way.
The expulsions were part of an international bargain, though not one that the 2,000 people of Chagos had any say in. The short version: For many years, the archipelago was a faraway administrative appendage of the British colony of Mauritius, an island off the coast of Africa. When Mauritius sought independence, in the mid-1960s, Britain decided to keep Chagos for itself. It did so primarily to sequester one of the atolls, Diego Garcia, for use by the United States—part of a global American ambition, at the height of the Cold War, to establish military outposts in strategic places. Chagos itself was nowhere, but it was equidistant from everywhere: Draw a long line from Madagascar to Indonesia, and another from India to Antarctica, and stick a pin in the blue at the intersection. The catch for Britain was that under international law, the archipelago could be separated from Mauritius only if it had no “permanent population.”
Chagos did have a permanent population—it had had one for centuries. The Chagossians harvested coconuts and they fished. They had churches of stone. Mossy gravestones go back many generations. But a world away, in the offices of Whitehall and the clubs of St. James’s, this was a technicality. That the islanders involved were Black made decisions even easier. The conversations might reasonably be imagined, but they don’t have to be. Foreign and Colonial Office documents from the period state that, for official purposes, people living in Chagos were to be referred to as transitory “contract laborers.” The archipelago was described as having “no indigenous population except seagulls.” Internal documents freely admitted that all of this was a “fiction.” A few years before Alfred Olivier Elysé was laid to rest in the Catholic cemetery on Île du Coin, one of the Chagos islands, a comment scrawled on a British document by an official named Denis Greenhill captured the government’s outlook: “Along with the Birds go some few Tarzans or Men Fridays whose origins are obscure.”
One thing at least was true: Governmental fiat had the power to turn fable into fact. For reasons of state, the permanent inhabitants of the archipelago were removed, often with little warning, and typically allowed to bring only a single bag or suitcase or wooden box. The United States, which wanted and endorsed the expulsions, built its military base. The archipelago as a whole—Diego Garcia and some 60 other islands, mainly in the Peros Banhos and Salomon atolls—was reconstituted into a colonial entity known as the British Indian Ocean Territory, within which Diego Garcia could nest. Having been detached from Mauritius, BIOT would become both the newest British colony in Africa and the last remaining one.
Uprooted and desperately poor, the Chagossians formed small communities in Mauritius, the Seychelles, and the United Kingdom, with little support from any of those countries. As a remembrance, many kept sand from Chagos in small bowls in their home. On the balance scale of Cold War morality, the sand didn’t count for much. But the Chagossians never forgot where they’d come from—or, given that half a century has now elapsed, where their parents and grandparents had come from. Some hoped to return to Chagos, or at least to have that right. Some wanted a path to citizenship in Britain. Most wanted compensation commensurate with their loss.
Bancoult, who makes his living as an electrician in Mauritius, is the president of the Chagos Refugees Group. He left Île du Coin, in Peros Banhos, on March 30, 1968, at the age of 4, taking a small boat from the jetty to a bigger boat anchored in the lagoon. He has an islander’s way of using on rather than in to refer to where he comes from: “on my birthplace.” Bancoult is a large man with a large personality. He is friendly and he is forceful. In the register of his voice, the calm vivisection of British actions can mount by degrees into the more insistent tones of a man who has truth on his side.
Over the years, Bancoult has pressed the Chagossian cause with the Congressional Black Caucus and the pope. Starting in the 1990s, he began looking for cracks to exploit in the edifice of British law. Future historians sifting through musty files in the Public Record Office will find an impressive volume of litigation bearing the name Bancoult. The documents point the way to a tangle of episodes—in British tribunals as well as the International Court of Justice (or World Court) and the United Nations General Assembly. In 2019, to the surprise of many, the UN confirmed a finding by the World Court: The creation of the British Indian Ocean Territory had been illegal. The archipelago belonged to Mauritius. The Chagos islanders could turn their eyes toward home.
Which is why, earlier this year, Bancoult and a group of other Chagossians found themselves on a converted British minesweeper, now a private vessel named the Bleu de Nîmes, with those five homemade crosses. They’d also brought bouquets of flowers, asking the crew to keep them cooled. The five Chagossians on the ship were guests of the government of Mauritius, which had an additional agenda of its own for this voyage: to assert its sovereignty over the archipelago—to, quite literally, plant a flag. The voyage was hopeful, if uncertain. The World Court and UN notwithstanding, Mauritian sovereignty is something that London has yet to concede; for all anyone aboard knew, the British might seek to impede the trip in some fashion. Just out of sight, a British patrol vessel shadowed the Bleu de Nîmes when it entered Chagossian waters. Jagdish Koonjul, the ambassador of Mauritius to the United Nations, was aboard the Bleu de Nîmes; he smiled diplomatically when someone referred to him as a “human shield.”
We had departed from the Seychelles; typhoons made departure from Mauritius impossible. The ship slipped past the mega-yachts of oligarchs, anchored off Victoria. Mountains receded, then disappeared. Between the Seychelles and Chagos lies nothing but open sea, sometimes rough. Five full days elapsed before the first hint of land—shorebirds diving for fish. A few hours later, the Bleu de Nîmes reached Peros Banhos, anchoring in its lagoon. Like every atoll, Peros Banhos is the rim of an extinct volcano, this one about 10 miles in diameter. In places the rim emerges sufficiently above water to create a necklace of tiny islands, linked by reefs.
The Chagossians took a launch to Île du Coin, where three of the group had been born, and waded onto the smooth, coralline sand. The island is narrow and slightly curved, about a mile and a half long. The white beach was alive with small crabs. Coconuts bobbed in the surf. The Chagossians bent to their knees and kissed the sand, leaving a splay of palm prints. They stood and joined hands, closing their eyes and reciting the Lord’s Prayer in Kreol, the French-based language of the islands. They concluded the prayer and planted the first of the wrought-iron crosses.
Then they ventured into the dense vegetation—coconut trees heavy with green fruit, flame trees that bloom a brilliant red—to seek the remains of their civilization.
The fate of the Chagos Archipelago has rested for centuries in the hands of the Great Powers, whether those powers were moving in, moving out, or just trying to hold on—“to get some rocks which will remain ours,” as Sir Paul Gore-Booth, the permanent undersecretary at the Foreign Office, described his country’s intentions in the 1960s. The Chagos Archipelago spreads out across 250,000 square miles, an area the size of Texas; taken together, the islands have a landmass the size of Manhattan. In two weeks at sea, traveling to, from, and among them, we did not see another ship. The recorded history of the archipelago has chiefly been scientific and geopolitical rather than cultural or social. Charles Darwin sailed through in 1836, during the voyage of the Beagle, but his interest lay in coral. For all but one of the islands, there is no longer any human history to record: Everyone is gone. The exception, Diego Garcia, is inhabited by 2,500 American-military personnel and temporary foreign workers, mostly Filipino. That tiny atoll, a single V-shaped island with a central lagoon, is strictly off-limits. Those who have been stationed there describe a place that would resemble the base at Guantánamo Bay—gyms, fast food, television, snorkeling—if Guantánamo were on the moon and the moon were an ocean. Until their expulsion, more than 1,000 Chagossians lived on Diego Garcia. Many accounts of the island by Americans stationed there mention signs of previous habitation: a ruined house here, a crumbling church there, a handful of graveyards. Diego Garcia’s runway and “downtown” lie atop two village sites.
Chagos was chanced upon by Portuguese navigators in the 16th century. They mapped the islands and gave some of them, such as Peros Banhos, the names they retain. The Dutch came next, but didn’t stay. Chagos eventually came into the possession of France, as did Mauritius and Réunion. The French gave names to more of the islands. They imported enslaved workers from Madagascar and Mozambique, and later brought indentured workers from southern India, to labor in coconut plantations. After the defeat of Napoleon, Great Britain acquired Chagos and Mauritius.
Little changed for the people of the islands, who by then numbered in the several hundreds. In time, after abolition, slavery was replaced completely by indentured servitude; in the 20th century, indentured servitude became low-wage employment by corporate planters. The language of the people remained Kreol. The main religion was Catholicism. Cargo ships provided an occasional connection to Mauritius—at most, four times a year. In the 1960s, as Mauritius negotiated its independence, the Chagos islanders were working for a single company, Chagos-Agalega Ltd., which exported copra—the dried kernel of a coconut—along with the oil pressed from it. The Chagossians had created a distinctive society. They had their own houses, their own boats, their own gardens. Their form of sega music provided the soundtrack for our time at sea.
One evening on board the ship, Bancoult spread out half a dozen well-creased nautical charts, pointing to key features of the archipelago. Starting from the far north: Blenheim Reef, a treacherous marine structure about 20 miles in circumference that has caused the destruction of scores of ships; below that, Salomon atoll, with a dozen small islands around its rim; to the west of Salomon, the larger Peros Banhos atoll, with about 30 small islands; and finally, at the bottom, Diego Garcia, some 150 miles south of Blenheim Reef. Bancoult pointed to where the Chagossians on the ship, all now living in Mauritius, had been born. Suzelle Baptiste was from Diego Garcia. Rosemonde Bertin was from Salomon. Lisbey Elysé, Marcel Humbert, and Bancoult himself were from Peros Banhos.
When Chagossians look back at the life they recall, or the life they’ve heard about, they conjure an idyll—Garden of Eden meets Shangri-la. They use the word paradise. They talk of “la vie facile.” People ate fish from the sea and shared with one another. There was enough of everything to go around. Could it have been that good? Once, on deck, still a day out from Peros Banhos, I heard two of the Chagossians talking about the remoteness of island life, and how remoteness can produce contentment: “What you see is all you know.”
The plantation company paid workers both in cash and in food and supplies. It provided small pensions after retirement. There was a certain amount of infrastructure, including electricity in a few places. A Catholic priest traveled among the atolls. A number of islanders learned to read and write; others signed documents with a thumbprint. Photographs of special occasions from a century ago show people of the archipelago wearing dresses and suits.
The islands are certainly beautiful—thickly wooded atolls in a turquoise sea as pure as anywhere on Earth. The most startling creature is the coconut crab, which grows to the size of a cat and may drop suddenly from trees. Its claws can take off a finger. They are not a problem, Bancoult explained, “if you know how to pick them up,” and they are good to eat. Still, the work of the islanders was hard. The rows of tiny stone rectangles in the cemeteries of Chagos tell a story of death at an early age. And as events would show, the existence of the Chagossians as a people was at the mercy of forces beyond their control.
The deal between the United Kingdom and the United States was worked out in secret against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, which Britain had declined to support. As if to make amends, the government of Prime Minister Harold Wilson sought to accommodate Washington’s desire for a foothold in the Indian Ocean. In diplomatic memorandums, officials avoided the term military base; the preferred locution was joint communications facility. Diego Garcia seemed ideal. The atoll’s lagoon could shelter a small navy. The ribbon of land on the western side had room for miles of runway—an unsinkable aircraft carrier. The U.S. naval commander in the Pacific, Admiral John McCain, father of the future senator, described the atoll as the Malta of the Indian Ocean.
At the time, Britain was engaged in negotiations over Mauritian independence. Decolonization was occurring worldwide, and the United Nations had adopted rules—which Britain had endorsed—about “self-determination” and “territorial integrity.” When it came to Chagos, Britain finessed the self-determination argument through its claim that the islands had no permanent inhabitants, only a “floating population” of migrant workers. It finessed the territorial-integrity argument by inducing negotiators from Mauritius, meeting in London, to accept dismemberment. As the release of a Downing Street document later revealed, the idea, in dealing with the chief Mauritian negotiator, was to “frighten him with hope”: Independence could be had, but only if the Mauritians relinquished Chagos.
This approach had the desired effect. Mauritius became independent. Chagos was “detached.” Because the U.S. wanted no one nearby, the people of Chagos—who did not officially exist—were forced to leave. The entire population of Diego Garcia had been removed by the end of 1971. A military base had to be constructed, and the Americans needed the island “sanitized” and “swept,” a task that fell to the British. The people expelled from Diego Garcia were not permitted to take their animals; about 1,000 pet dogs had to be left behind. Many followed their owners to the beaches. In his meticulous book about Diego Garcia, Island of Shame, the anthropologist David Vine describes how, at the direction of Sir Bruce Greatbatch, an order came down to eliminate the dogs. Animals that could not be easily poisoned or shot were lured with meat into a copra-drying shed and then gassed with motor-vehicle exhaust.
Bob Hope arrived on the first jet to land on the runway, in 1972, using Diego Garcia to stage one of his Christmas shows for American troops. He flew in with Redd Foxx and Belinda Green, Miss World that year. A British naval officer remains nominally in charge of Diego Garcia and commands a small complement of Royal Marines. But the island is leased to the U.S. through 2036. Vehicles drive on the right.
As for the Chagossians who’d lived there, many were transported to Mauritius—crowded under tarpaulins on the merchant ship Nordvaer, or packed into the ship’s sweltering hold along with the copra and coconut oil—and more or less left on the docks to fend for themselves. Others made their way to Peros Banhos or Salomon, until an ongoing campaign of attrition made life on those atolls untenable. The plantation company was bought out by the British government and ultimately shut down. Supplies of rice and flour were curtailed. Anyone who made the mistake of leaving Chagos—to visit relatives, to see a doctor—would discover, without warning, that going home was prohibited. Bancoult had traveled with his parents, Rita and Julien, and his sister Noellie to Mauritius; Noellie needed urgent medical attention after her foot had been run over by the wheel of a cart and she’d developed gangrene. The medical care came too late, and Noellie died. The family prepared to return to Peros Banhos, but were prevented from doing so. Nor could they communicate with people back home: Mail delivery had been halted. Rita did not learn of the death of her father, still in Chagos, for several years. In 1973, those who’d clung to Salomon and Peros Banhos were rounded up. People had as little as a day to pack a bag.
The Chagos Archipelago, meanwhile, began its new chapter as the British Indian Ocean Territory. Rather than opening with something along the lines of “We the people,” the territory’s constitution declares, “No person has the right of abode.” Accompanied by British military personnel, small groups of Chagossians have in recent years been allowed brief “heritage visits” to some of the islands. A larger group, also under military escort, made a pilgrimage in 2006. On their visits, the Chagossians have used the limited time on each island—never overnight—to clear vegetation from the decaying churches and restore the crumbling graves of their loved ones. They have cleaned inscriptions. They have left flowers. And then they have had to depart.
The British Indian Ocean Territory came to possess all the outward trappings of a colony. Its head of state is Queen Elizabeth. It has a commissioner, in London, who also oversees the British Antarctic Territory. There is a flag. Coins have been issued: The silver 50-pence coin displays the Queen on one side and an orange anemonefish, like Nemo, on the other. The coins are legal tender within the territory, though there is really no place to spend them. British Indian Ocean Territory stamps have been designed and printed—for collectors, or for use at the post office on Diego Garcia. The territory has the internet country code .io—for “Indian Ocean”—created by an entrepreneur and used extensively by internet start-ups and online-gambling operations. Signs have been posted on some of the islands by the BIOT government. They signal to the very few visitors—mostly owners of mega-yachts—that they have stepped foot on British territory. Visitors are asked to refrain from littering.
All told, some 2,000 people were displaced from the Chagos Archipelago. At U.S. insistence, the islanders were even barred from working on Diego Garcia; instead, foreign laborers were brought in. The Chagossians had been promised housing and various kinds of assistance, but the promises were not kept. Some settled in the Seychelles, at the time still a British colony, where hundreds were lodged at first in a prison. Those who found themselves in Mauritius settled mainly in Port Louis, the capital. The Chagossians were treated badly—unwanted newcomers, and culturally different from everyone else. They were shunted into the worst urban districts, near garbage dumps and in neighborhoods with high crime. They had skills, but none that were highly valued. Drug use, prostitution, suicide—all became serious problems, reflected in sega lyrics and oral histories. The Chagossians were referred to collectively, and pejoratively, as les Îlois—“the islanders.”
Were they citizens of any nation? They seem to have thought so. Many of the poorest Chagossian homes in Mauritius displayed a pressed-tin portrait of the Queen. But the United Kingdom in the early 1970s was not generous with passports, especially for “Tarzans or Men Fridays,” nor is it generous with them now. Those who had been expelled from Chagos did become citizens of Mauritius, if that’s where they went, though it didn’t feel like home. In time, many also came to hold British Dependent Territories Citizenship, which entitled the bearer to the vague condition of British “subject” and to a passport, but not the right to live in Britain (or, in this case, to live in the dependent territory).
Only in 2002, after much agitation, did people born on the islands (along with their children, but not their grandchildren) get the right to apply for full British citizenship. Nothing about the status of Chagossians today is uniform: It varies from person to person, generation to generation, place to place. In March, the British government accepted an amendment to proposed legislation—which recently became law—that would streamline the citizenship process for anyone of Chagossian heritage, despite fears voiced by some about precedent. (The author of the amendment, Baroness Lister of Burtersett, responded, “We are not setting a precedent because I assume we are not planning to evict anybody else.”)
When Bancoult surveyed the domains of the Chagossians with his nautical charts, he left out Crawley, in West Sussex. A quarter century after the expulsion, many Chagossians decided that life in Britain, unfamiliar as it was, might be better than life anywhere else. The first small groups arrived on flights from Port Louis to Gatwick Airport, south of London, in 2002. There were no resettlement officials to meet them, no gift baskets of Marmite and Major Grey’s. Not knowing what else to do, they camped out in the airport arrival lounge, for days and even weeks. Gatwick is adjacent to Crawley, and the Chagossians began moving into town after the local council grudgingly found some housing.
With great persistence, the Chagossians in Crawley put down roots. Others followed. Today, the number of people in Crawley whose ancestry can be traced to Chagos is about 3,000. Chagossians can still be found at Gatwick—they are a mainstay of the service infrastructure that makes the airport possible, from handling baggage at the terminals to making beds at the hotels. But joblessness is high, as is the incidence of depression and other challenges. Chagossians use a word with the Kreol spelling dérasiné to describe the experience of being cut off from the past. They use another word, sagren, to capture a deep, wasting sorrow. The term may not appear in medical journals, but it is a diagnosis I heard more than once from Chagossians talking about friends, or about themselves.
During a recent trip to London, I took a train down to Crawley to meet members of the Chagos community, which extends two and even three generations beyond the one expelled from the archipelago. The town is not the kind of place one sees on tourist posters. Crawley grew quickly both because of Gatwick and because the government chose to build tracts of new housing there after the Second World War. The architecture is repetitive and nondescript. The heart of the town is the County Mall Shopping Centre, not some holy well or Norman keep.
The Chagossians in Crawley present no unanimity of opinion about Chagos and their future. Some have been more interested in rights and compensation than in resettlement, and in any case don’t harbor warm feelings toward Mauritius. This point of view is articulated on the U.K.-based website Chagossian Voices. Others in Crawley share the same desire for recognition and support, but their views are more in line with those of the Chagos Refugees Group. They are drawn emotionally to the idea of resettlement—even if not necessarily for themselves—and believe it could happen. They would like to set foot on the archipelago one day.
If Chagos possesses anything like a National Archives, it would be the iPhone of Evelyna Bancoult, one of Olivier’s daughters. She lives in Crawley with her two young children. Evelyna’s sister, Jessica, a mother of three, lives in Crawley as well. So do many relatives. When I came to visit, people converged on the home of a cousin of Evelyna’s to talk about their memories. On her phone, Evelyna pulled up black-and-white historical photos, grainy videos, and recent family pictures. Her grandmother, now deceased, spoke to the room from the phone. In soundless footage, military officers watched Chagossians descend a gangplank—the fading record of a heritage visit. Evelyna’s quick fingers found news reports, documentaries, press conferences, music. Children playing in the room paused to lean on her shoulder as she sat on a couch, pointing when they saw someone they knew.
The scene was enthusiastic but also serious. The people there felt that few in Britain had their interests in mind. They denounced xenophobic dithering in Parliament over immigration. Fingers jabbed toward my knee for emphasis. Then, calmly, more than one of those in the room brought up the subject of history—history in a narrow sense (our history) but also in a larger sense: the responsibility of nations to face their failures.
The Chagossians do not live in any single neighborhood of Crawley—and there are Chagossians in Manchester, Leeds, and other cities—but you cannot miss the glimmerings of shared identity. They cook from recipes handed down by their mothers and grandmothers, though certain ingredients are hard to find. They draw on extended family networks. The adults have been in England for years, most of them, and speak with a variety of London-area accents, but a cadence of elsewhere is unmistakable. In their homes, what you do not see, because the Chagossians were expelled so suddenly and allowed to bring so little with them, are mementos of life on the archipelago. If Evelyna loses her cellphone, the only physical evidence of the community’s origins may be chromosomes and grains of sand.
Though I’d be tempted to include the football jerseys. In 2014, a soccer team representing the Chagos diaspora became a member of Conifa, the Confederation of Independent Football Associations—a version of FIFA for soccer teams not affiliated with that body. Many of Conifa’s members have a claim to national distinctiveness. The Roma people field a team. South Ossetia, Kashmir, Kurdistan, Tibet, Cornwall, and Western Sahara each field a team. The Chagossian team draws on local players. In recent years, it has twice qualified for the Conifa World Cup.
When I met him in Crawley, Cedric Joseph, the very young goalkeeper—he is 19—showed me his gloves, painted with the orange, black, and blue of the Chagossian flag. Three people jumped in to explain the symbolism. The cross talk boiled down to this: Orange is for the plantations and the sun; black is for the dark times; blue is for the sea and the future. Joseph’s grandmother was born in Chagos; he said he felt sometimes that he was representing her. But really, it was great just to get out there and play. And the team was good. And so was he. He made fun of himself, slipping into a parody of a sports announcer’s voice: “The best, youngest goalkeeper in south England.”
Olivier Bancoult has been to Crawley many times, to visit his daughters and to advance the interests of the Chagos Refugees Group. The lawsuits he has filed on behalf of his people have almost all been brought in British courts. Search the internet for the name Olivier Bancoult, and you will scroll through a long list of entries that commence with the tagline Bancoult v. For brevity’s sake, lawyers refer to the various cases by the order in which they were filed: Bancoult 2, Bancoult 4.
What Britain did to Chagos provoked legal challenges along two broad tracks. The first—the Bancoult track—began in the 1990s. Whatever their private opinions, Bancoult and his lawyers have never sought to contest British sovereignty before the courts of England. Their focus is human rights under British law. They have contended that the Chagossians were wrongly evicted from their homes and that they have a right to return to their islands. Bancoult’s first lawsuit went so far as to invoke the Magna Carta, which prohibits forcible expulsion without what today would be called due process. In the face of stiff headwinds, and to general astonishment, he won the case, in 2000. Britain’s foreign secretary at the time, Robin Cook, announced that he would accept the High Court’s decision on the right of return.
But then, less than a year later, came 9/11. Tony Blair’s government—and a new, more compliant foreign secretary—had no desire to disturb the status quo on Diego Garcia or any of the other islands. The military base was being used as a waypoint for extraordinary rendition—and by some reports, as a detention and interrogation site—while the War on Terror ramped up. Bombing campaigns against Afghanistan and, later, Iraq would be launched from there. In 2004, the British government used a device called an Order in Council—an archaic procedure allowing ministers to bypass Parliament and wield regal powers that the monarch herself can no longer exercise, but to which she must assent—to quash Bancoult’s victory. None of his subsequent legal actions has been able to restore the right of return. But his follow-on cases have achieved something else: Through the process of discovery, they’ve dredged up a mass of historical documents that confirm the cynicism and lies of the government’s inner councils. Henceforward, British officials would have to preface remarks about Chagos with a throat-clearing admission that the government’s behavior had of course been “shameful and wrong.”
The second track was the international one: the attempt by Mauritius to get Chagos back from Britain, alleging that detachment had been agreed to under duress. Early efforts got little traction. But then the British government made a mistake. In 2010, Foreign Secretary David Miliband announced that the British Indian Ocean Territory would be turned into a “marine protected area” and placed off-limits to habitation and commerce (but not to U.S. military operations). Miliband’s decision was cheered by many environmental organizations. The archipelago encompasses the largest coral atoll structure on the planet—the Great Chagos Bank. Turtles and sharks abound. Fork-tailed frigate birds, among the fastest on Earth, skim by overhead. But Britain wasn’t thinking about a National Geographic documentary. A cable to Washington from the U.S. embassy in London quoted a British diplomat stating that “no human footprints” or “Man Fridays”—that language again—would be permitted within the protected area, and admitting privately that the move would “put paid to resettlement claims of the archipelago’s former residents.”
The marine protected area may have been intended as a clever way to cauterize all pending legal disputes involving a right of return, but it in fact gave Mauritius a new, if seemingly unlikely, line of attack through the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The government enlisted the assistance of a prominent international and human-rights lawyer named Philippe Sands. Sands is a longtime friend; when he first explained the case to me, a decade ago, he described all of the dominoes that would have to fall. He did not use the word quixotic. Over time, he assembled a legal team from Mauritius, Belgium, India, Ukraine, and the United States.
The legal battle for Chagos lacks the drama of Inherit the Wind or Twelve Angry Men. The dominoes fell, but in slow motion, one every few years. In accordance with the Convention on the Law of the Sea, Mauritius brought its case before a tribunal of international arbiters. The government argued that Britain had no standing to create the marine protected area; Chagos had been illegally detached from Mauritius, and Britain was therefore not the relevant “coastal state.” The arbitrators agreed unanimously that creation of the protected area was “not in accordance” with the provisions of the Law of the Sea convention but kicked the sovereignty question to the UN General Assembly, which then weighed in with a lopsided vote: Let’s see what the World Court has to say about whether the detachment of the archipelago was legal in the first place.
None of this involved the fate of the Chagossians—not directly—but many of them believed that if Britain’s sovereignty were upended, their efforts could be aided. Mauritius had not barred them from their homeland; Great Britain had done that. And the Mauritian government had indicated receptivity to the Chagossian cause. The World Court heard the case in September 2018, and it began by looking at the “factual circumstances” behind detachment and expulsion. Lisbey Elysé, expelled from Chagos when she was not yet 20, gave testimony before the justices. She was a little overwhelmed, she told me, and ever mindful of the fact that she had been chosen to represent all Chagossians. Fearful that she might be nervous speaking directly to the court, she asked for and was granted permission to present a video. It was three minutes and 53 seconds long. Elysé, then 65, spoke in Kreol. Seated next to Sands, she watched from a front-row seat in a black suit as the video, with English subtitles, flickered in the Great Hall of Justice.
We boarded the ship in the dark so that we could not see our island. And when we boarded the ship, conditions in the hull of the ship were bad. We were like animals and slaves in that ship. People were dying of sadness in that ship. And as for me, I was four months pregnant at that time. The ship took four days to reach Mauritius. After our arrival, my child was born and died …
I maintain I must return to the island where I was born and I must die there and where my grandparents have been buried. In the place where I took birth, and in my native island.
In the end, the World Court declared that Britain was in the wrong—the detachment of Chagos had indeed been illegal because “this detachment was not based on the free and genuine expression of the will of the people concerned.” The court’s opinion was ultimately affirmed by the UN General Assembly, with only six votes in opposition. The Mauritian case was strong. Jagdish Koonjul, its ambassador, made it well. The United Kingdom’s European allies were nowhere to be seen—Britain’s hasty, messy exit from the European Union had made sure of that.
The World Court’s opinion was advisory, and the U.K. has so far done its best to ignore it. A Royal Navy officer continues to serve as the titular commandant of Diego Garcia. Yachts wishing to transit the marine protected area are still directed to obtain permission from the colonial administration. The United Kingdom’s BIOT website is unflappably vague: “We remain open to dialogue on all shared issues of mutual interest.” A strategic rationale for the British position has not been advanced, other than the open-ended one that defense of the realm requires it. The psychological rationale is obvious—shedding the last bits of empire is hard to contemplate. It is the remote-island dynamic in reverse: “What you see is all that’s left.”
But Mauritius can now claim international recognition of its sovereignty over Chagos. As Sands, the Chagossians’ lead attorney, maintains in a forthcoming book, the British position is eroding, in small steps that may lead to larger ones. Citing the UN’s decision, the Universal Postal Union, which governs mail service among nations, has withdrawn recognition of Britain’s BIOT stamps. The .io domain name is under legal challenge, and the government of Mauritius has asked Google to relabel its maps. It seems inevitable that the International Civil Aviation Organization, which coordinates a variety of essential protocols, will recognize Mauritian control of the airspace over Chagos. The United States still takes Britain’s side; it is convenient to have an absentee landlord who allows almost anything. But there is a difficulty. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has argued forcefully that Beijing must accept a “rules-based order” when it comes to the South China Sea. Beijing has a ready response: What about Chagos? Ultimately, American wishes may not need to become an issue. Mauritius has stated repeatedly that it has no objection to the use of Diego Garcia as a U.S. military base. There would have to be a “status of forces” agreement, as there is for any base on foreign soil, which would set the rules and the rent. An agreement might even accommodate a partial resettlement of Diego Garcia itself; foreign nationals live close to other U.S. bases, sometimes in great numbers.
The time will come when Britain throws in the towel, and it may come soon. When the government of Mauritius decided in February to send a ship into Chagossian waters under its own flag—the ship I traveled on—London’s response was annoyed but restrained. It would not fight the Mauritians on the beaches; it would not fight them on the landing grounds. The BIOT patrol vessel that shadowed the Bleu de Nîmes kept its distance, though it was visible on radar. We never learned whether the loss of internet service, which started when the ship entered the BIOT zone, had anything to do with its presence. One purpose of the voyage—an oceanic survey of Blenheim Reef, relating to a boundary dispute with the Maldives—was a deliberate challenge: Mauritius shares a boundary with the Maldives only if the Chagos Archipelago is Mauritian territory. Mauritian officials also took the opportunity to pour some concrete, plant some flagpoles, and run up the Mauritian colors on Salomon and Peros Banhos. There were no statues to topple, but someone unbolted and took away a metal sign warning of arrest and imprisonment by the “BIOT government” for various infractions, such as overnight camping and “possession of crabs, dead or alive.”
For Mauritius, asserting a claim to Chagos was a main reason for this expedition. But that assertion dovetailed with the desires of the Chagossians. If the British were no longer in charge, then the prohibition against “right of abode” was a dead letter. For the first time in 50 years, the Chagossians could go home without asking permission.
The islands of Peros Banhos—5.3333° S, 71.8500° E—encircle a crystalline lagoon. From a distance they are low, green smudges that a swell can hide from view. Waves crash on submerged reefs between them. On February 12, as the Bleu de Nîmes sailed through a single open channel into the lagoon, Olivier Bancoult stood at the gunwales and began to name the bits of land. For once he seemed a little uncertain. He grabbed Marcel Humbert, a fisherman, to confirm the names. Humbert pointed to each island as he began turning in a circle: “Grande Soeur, Petite Soeur, Île Poule, Île Monpâtre, Île Anglaise, Île du Coin ...” The shore of Île Monpâtre was marked by a dull-red oblong, the overturned hull of a yacht, beached and bleached for decades. Bancoult had started the day wearing the bright home-field jersey of the Chagos soccer team, but by now he and others from the islands had changed into simple white T-shirts bearing words in black letters: Everyone has the right to live on his birthplace.
The Chagossians knelt on the sand as they came off the launch that had brought them to Île du Coin. Some of them held up birth certificates—destroyed in the course of a riot, they’d been told by British authorities, until Bancoult tracked the records down. The jetty many of them had walked when they left Île du Coin was now in ruins; only a small-gauge rail track, once used to transport barrels of coconut oil, held the concrete together. A pair of rusted wheels, joined by an axle, remained on the rails.
The Chagossians led the way inland with a rhythmic whack of machetes. The air was humid and earthy, the ground everywhere an ankle-turning carpet of fallen coconuts. We came to a place where a village had been. I had seen a photograph from the 1960s of the island administrator’s house—whitewashed walls, cool verandas, a monumental stone staircase ascending from a prim English garden. All that was left was the staircase, rising to nothing and held fast in a tangle of banyan roots, like a temple at Angkor Wat. The roofless stone church held a congregation of palm trees and coconut crabs. The Chagossians labored to clear the building—it remained a sacred space. Several of them had been baptized within its walls.
We put in the next day at Salomon atoll, this time on an island called Boddam, roughly the same size as Île du Coin. The ruins here were even more extensive—tin roofs rusted and collapsed; stone walls dank with moss and mold; trees and vines sprouting from windows and doors. From one beam a pair of recently discarded buoys dangled above broken liquor bottles. Crudely painted on the buoys were the names Olga and Ivan. The Chagossians again made their way to a roofless church. They cleared it of vegetation. In one chancel window, a few panes of colored glass had somehow survived unbroken, gleaming in a wooden lattice. Next door, in what had been a clinic, Rosemonde Bertin, born on Boddam, pushed through the foliage and found the dark, damp corner where she had given birth to her first child, in 1972—shortly before she and her family were forced to leave.
Later, half a mile away, in the island cemetery, Bertin poured water on an inscription and wiped it with leaves to bring out the name: Mme. Yvon Dyson, née Denise Rose. Denise Rose was the midwife who’d brought Bertin into the world; she herself died in childbirth not long afterward. The cemetery occupied a full acre. Bertin, Bancoult, and others splashed water on more of the weathered slabs to reveal the inscriptions. From 1880: Ici repose Dookie—just that single name, once known to everyone, now a cipher.
Is a repopulation of Chagos even possible at this point? The grandchildren in Crawley, watching Young Sheldon and reading Roald Dahl, may not see a path to the future that leads through Peros Banhos. A study conducted by the British in 2002 concluded that significant development of the islands would be impractical for a variety of reasons, including a possible insufficiency of fresh groundwater. (The study did not consider rainfall.) A second study, in 2015, came to a different conclusion, suggesting that an economy based on coconuts, fish, and a limited amount of tourism could be sustainable. History, of course, has already conducted its own experiment: Although climate change is unpredictable, these islands once supported a population of thousands. On our way to the graveyard on Boddam, a storm blew in with impressive speed, and it rained heavily for half an hour. Sheltering under a tree, machete in hand, Bancoult commented, “The British said there was not enough water.”
I don’t know how realistic any plans may be for Chagos. The Mauritian government has pledged to assist, but has avoided specifics. It’s easy to imagine some form of World Heritage Site coexisting with some form of modest development. I do know this: With every encounter, the Chagossians have sought to take the fate of the islands back into their hands—to possess the islands by word and deed. They have spent the few hours of every heritage visit tending graves and cleaning churches. On the extended trip in February, when Chagossians could at last travel freely and do whatever they wished, they did the same. They also trapped crabs and fished for red snapper and drank milk from coconuts. As if bouncing on a seesaw, Lisbey Elysé sat on the trunk of a coconut tree jutting out over the water. The Chagossians remembered old names and told old stories. As they talked, the rusting wheels on the jetty became a wagon again, rolling back on its track toward the oil press and the drying sheds and a world that was alive.
Mauritius raised flags over islands on this voyage; anthems were sung. The moments were moving: a legal and moral victory, even as Britain harrumphed. But the embrace of the islands by the Chagossians was something different. It had the intimate physicality of love.
This article appears in the July/August 2022 print edition with the headline “Back to Chagos.”