Chagos: The heart of an American empire?

The shameful history of the island’s local populations’ expulsion continues to hang heavily over the UK and the US.

Obama reacting to Egypt situation
The Obama administration's reaction to the Chagos Island case has been to remain silent [GALLO/GETTY]

Oxford, United Kingdom – In the middle of the Indian Ocean, a thousand miles south of India, the nearest landmass, about halfway between Africa and Indonesia and far away from everywhere, is a small group of coral islands called the Chagos Archipelago. Forty years ago, its people, the Chagossians, were unceremoniously removed from their homeland by a joint operation of the United Kingdom and the United States, and essentially left beached in Mauritius as human detritus. The reason for their expulsion was that the US and the UK had decided to use the islands as a joint military facility in the post-colonial world, as they feared being booted out or needing to repeatedly re-negotiate base facilities with non-Western governments coming to power in newly independent countries across Asia and Africa.

Technically a joint US-UK venture, Chagos now houses a massive US military base at Diego Garcia. It was used for reconnaissance in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and saw wartime use in the first Gulf War. After 9/11 it was key to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It may house nuclear weapons and may be a “black site” for detaining prisoners. It is more secretive than Guantanamo Bay – which is probably why most people have never heard of it.

101 East – Okinawa: The future of US military bases

Now an impressively researched book that details its secret history goes even further and argues that Diego Garcia, and what happened in the Chagos Islands, lies at the heart of a global American empire that employs some 1,000 bases outside the United States. Their purpose: To ensure that no matter who governs in Asia, Africa or around the world, the US military would be in a position to “run the planet” from its chain of strategic island bases.

For several decades, the shadowy presence of Diego Garcia and a whiff of its disreputable acquisition lurked in the misty fringes of Western security studies. David Vine’s meticulously researched Island of Shame: the Secret History of the US Military Base on Diego Garcia (Princeton University Press, 2011) enables us to engage with the “strategic islands concept” and its consequences for the Chagossians and others. It provides a level of information about both the US and British policymakers and the human beings at the receiving end of their global power ambitions that had not been accessible before.

Coincidentally, a stage production in London, A Few Man Fridays, directed by Adrian Jackson, charts the story of the Chagossians’ expulsion, destitution and desperation through the fictional character of an abandoned Chagos Islander child who washes up as a homeless man in Britain and “hears voices” from his past. I saw the production this week, it is a hard-hitting dramatisation of the duplicity, hypocrisy and complete callousness of the empire-builders – old and new – who thought nothing of breaking international laws and UN rules to stamp out a few indigenous people standing in the way of their militaristic fantasies.

In context

The Island of Shame is particularly interesting as it does not stop at merely charting in painful detail the forcible and duplicitous expulsion of the Chagossians by the British in order to provide the US with the “sanitised” islands they sought. It places the story of the couple of thousand Chagos Islanders in the context of larger global events: the expulsion of indigenous populations in many other places by the United States or other aggressive imperial forces; the worldwide chain of “strategic” bases built and maintained by the US; and addresses not just whether the US is an empire, but also what kind of empire it is when compared to those of bygone eras.

The people of the Chagos Islands are the descendants of enslaved Africans and indentured labour from south India brought to work on the coconut plantations in the 18th century. With the emergence of newly independent countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, the US, which was allied to the former colonial powers, was thought by some of its security analysts to be in need of an alternate strategy to be able to combat the Soviet Union’s reach around the world. The idea of a “strategic islands concept” was apparently dreamed up by Stuart Barber, in which American military bases would be located in remote islands under direct US or continuing Western colonial control.

Inside Story – Okinawa: Finding a compromise

The role of key figures such as Paul Nitze, who towered over American strategic analysis for several decades, in successfully pushing for a hyper-military version of global dominance and a ruthless approach to Diego Garcia, is a fascinating tale in itself. Barber himself later recanted and repented: In an unpublished letter to the Washington Post in 1991, he wrote of “the inexcusably inhuman wrongs inflicted by the British at our insistence on the former inhabitants of Diego Garcia and other Chagos group islands”. He supported the Chagossians’ right to return and compensation for their decades of suffering. Indeed, he did not think their eviction from the islands was necessary for having a base there.

What actually happened, as detailed in Vine’s book, is that the British and the US made secret agreements in the 1960s to deliver the islands “swept” of any people. The policy was pursued through means such as exchange of notes (rather than treaties), or Orders in Council, to avoid parliamentary and congressional scrutiny. The islands were detached by the British from Mauritius prior to its independence to form the “British Indian Ocean Territory”, using the archaic procedure of royal decree and violating UN rules on decolonisation. Supply of provisions was cut and Chagossians visiting Mauritius on vacation or for medical treatment suddenly started to be told they could no longer return home. Each island family used to have a number of dogs as pets, who would go fishing. In the final forcible expulsion, hundreds of these pet dogs were shut in a shed and gassed. Their owners were then herded into cargo boats and ditched in Mauritius and Seychelles.

Other aspects

Several other aspects of the mindset of the empire-builders emerge now and then in the story of the Chagos Islands. For instance, the plans for strategic island bases had included Diego Garcia (then part of British-controlled Mauritius), Aldabra in the Seychelles and Cocos/Keeling Islands of Australia. While US officials wanted the post-colonial (non-white) governments of Mauritius and Seychelles to give up sovereignty over Diego Garcia and Aldabra, they were willing to continue to have Australian sovereignty over the Cocos/Keeling Islands. Australia’s own notorious history with regard to indigenous peoples is well-known. Vine terms this Anglo-American-Australian alliance “the coalition of the pale” and points out that it endures to the present day.

Another curious fact is that while the US and UK authorities do not allow journalists or independent observers to visit Diego Garcia, two other groups of outsiders are allowed. Dozens of people sailing in yachts are allowed to visit the other islands of Chagos, far away from the military base. Several thousand workers from other countries such as the Philippines and Sri Lanka are also employed on the base. Chagossians could have been so employed instead of being expelled, but it appears “locals” are not favoured, in case they start demanding “self-determination” and “democracy”.

It is important not to think of the Chagossians’ fate solely as an exceptional tragedy that befell a small number of people. As Vine points out, powerful groups or states have displaced “native” peoples elsewhere for a variety of reasons. The US itself is built through a process of displacing and impoverishing its indigenous peoples. The Bikini Atoll was “cleansed” of its people in order to be used for nuclear testing. Vine argues that Diego Garcia belongs to another larger phenomenon as well: It sits at the heart of a system of strategic bases which serve as the instruments to project US military power.

Guantanamo detention centre is 10 years old

This in turn illuminates what kind of imperial power the US actually is. As he correctly points out, most Americans do not think of themselves as having an “empire” and indeed, the US is not a traditional territorially based empire. It emerged in the post-colonial age as an economic superpower and the world’s most successful “soft” power, with unparalleled intellectual and cultural hegemony. But its vast global base network, mapped by Vine with caveats about the uncertainties surrounding exact numbers and locations, may well beg the question: Who needs this and for what?

Reflection of today

The Island of Shame is a discomforting read, especially for British and American readers who will probably find themselves cringing at the well-documented account of the deceit and inhumanity, not only of their forbears in the past, but also of policymakers today. For many years, now the Chagossians have been fighting an uphill battle to obtain justice through the courts. Verdicts in the English courts had gone in favour of the Chagossians in 2000, 2006 and 2007 until the House of Lords overturned them all and ruled in favour of the British government. The Chagossians have now petitioned the European Court of Human Rights. Possibly as a pre-emptive action in case they win at the European Court, the last Labour government declared the Chagos Archipelago a “marine protection area”, which would restrict fishing and therefore human re-settlement. The Chagossians have had to take legal action against this “green” initiative as well.

The “government” is not a monolithic entity, however. Robin Cook, the former British Foreign Secretary, apparently had been in favour of the Chagossians’ right of return, but his successor reversed the policy. There is also the usual tendency of politicians to say one thing before an election and do something else later. Before the last British general elections leading Conservative and Liberal Democrat politicians in the UK had acknowledged that the Chagos Islanders’ case was a moral issue, but once in government they continued to fight the case in the European Court and support the “marine protection area”. David Vine describes the Obama administration’s response to the Chagos Island case as “silence”, though many former members of the US government have expressed to him their personal embarrassment over Diego Garcia.

The story of what happened to the Chagos Islands and the long struggle of its displaced people is more than a calamity that struck a small group of people who happened to be in the wrong place (their own homes) at the wrong time (the era of decolonisation and the Cold War). It is a documentation of how the long tentacles of slavery and colonialism endure and flourish in our times, in new avatars, amidst the distractions of the supposed global triumph of democracy and self-determination.

Sarmila Bose is Senior Research Fellow in the Politics of South Asia at the University of Oxford.

For more information: