The Remains of Chagos

Jessica Davis

For a population that is intertwined with so many news outlets, from television to social media, it’s pretty shocking how sheltered the American population is from the atrocities that the U.S. government commits. There are, of course, issues that have received attention, as they should, like the North Dakota pipeline situation, or the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Yet, even with those issues that are still ongoing, the ease of exiting a webpage about them because they don’t seem relevant or because they’re uncomfortable to read about is anything but harmless.

The reality is that when it comes to information, there is so much that we don’t know about because it’s easier to turn a blind eye. It’s easier to ignore those people whose lives have been torn to shreds because of a country whose power is so grand that it is seldom questioned how it achieved said power. Those realities don’t disappear when ignored, they just manifest. Despite the fact that American media has shown little interest in Chagos, one of many abominable and untold exploits, it deserves to be told and heard.

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Until the late 1960’s, the Chagos archipelago, a group of seven coral atolls made up of over 60 tropical islands, was inhabited by a Creole population of over two thousand people with an ancestry dating back to the 18th century. Their prospering and calm community, mainly on the largest atoll of the archipelago, Diego Garcia, was comprised of a school, hospital, railway, church, and a thriving agricultural economy, amongst other things.

For the Chagossian people, of the land they once called home, idyllic memories are all that remains of the Chagos archipelago.  In 1966, however, the once peaceful lives of the Chagossian people were silently ravaged when they were forced into exile under the undisclosed influence of U.S. politics. With the establishment of a treaty between the United States and Britain, the Chagos archipelago became what the pentagon calls “an indispensable platform for policing the world.” [1]

Before the occupation of the U. S military, French colonists established coconut plantations run by slave labor in the early eighteenth century. In 1793, Diego Garcia fell under the hegemony of the British government as a result of the Treaty of Paris. Almost 50 years later, in 1840, the slaves of African, Indian, and Malay ancestry, won their freedom and they became the first generation of Chagossian people.

Although the Chagossian people obtained their de jure freedom, they established their own culture and lifestyle while still under the rule of the British government: “Chagossian Creole (Kreol Sagos), a French creole language related to the creole spoken in Mauritius and Seychelles, emerged among the islanders. People born in Chagos became collectively known by the name “Ilois”(also spelled Ilwa, Zilois)–generally translated as “islander.”

Life in Chagos was mainly serene because everyone in Chagos was guaranteed work, given the abundance of rising industries including but not limited to coconut, guano, timber, honey, shipbuilding, pigs and cattle, seafood, maize and some vegetable crops, wooden toys, model boats, and brooms and brushes made from coconut palms.[2]

Nevertheless, in 1966, the military enforced exile of the Chagossian people to the island of Mauritius was implemented by the British government to prepare the island for its future as an American military base. The phases that the British government enforced for the systematic displacement started with the military occupation of the isles followed by the threats that were meant to inflict terror.[3]

Because these methods were not completely successful in removing all Chagossian inhabitants, the British government resorted to offering them monetary compensation in return for leaving the island, but most of the Chagossian people ended up being forcefully removed and forced to sign their name or stamp their thumbprint on a document indicating that they renounced their rights to the island.

The British government justified its actions towards the Chagossian people then and now through the fallacy that the Chagossian people were itinerant. In John Pilger’s documentary about the military enforced exile imposed on the Chagossian people, Stealing a Nation, Pilger provides that former British foreign secretary Michael Stewart was fully aware that Diego Garcia had a population going back at least two generations. Yet, he still suggested lying about that there was “no indigenous population” which was a lie later approved by former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson. In one interview in Stealing a Nation with Richard Gifford, a lawyer for the Chagossian people, Gifford stated that this type of “policy was made almost on the back of an envelope […] [the Chagossians] just didn’t exist as a political factor to take into account.”[4]

50 years later, on December 30th, 2016, the lease of the Chagos archipelago, to the United States was set to expire which created a glimmer of hope for the many exiled Chagossians expecting to return to their home. Nonetheless, the decision for the U.S. lease on the island to roll-over for another 20 years was finalized on January 1st, 2017.[5] Although the British government “will provide a further package of compensation to the islanders and [an] announcement will be accompanied by an official apology for the forced movement of 1,500 people,” the British Government has no intention of letting them return.[6]

While this “transaction” between Britain and the United States conserves the ever-supercilious attitude of Western colonizers, the decision still remains engraved within the consciousness of the Chagossian people. The responsibility of this action falls largely, at least in the opinion of the public eye, on the British government. But the reality is that two governments are responsible for the secret displacement of this population. The fact that Diego Garcia is within reach of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, and is being used as a military base is not coincidental and is the reason why the United States will not relinquish control over it. It is too vital, and in the eye of the U.S. government, it is more important that remedying a crime against humanity.

There really is no word that covers the full scope of what the British and U.S. governments did to the Chagossian people or what has been done to so many populations like the Chagossian people; for lack of a better word, “displacement” just begins to describe the exploitation that is moving an entire population. But “displacement,” like the word “dislocation” or like the word “removal” fails to recognize the human being obstructed behind the word: the human being that lives that “displacement” every day.

A cultural nonpareil that arose from the ashes of the Chagossian people is “sagren”:

“A Kreol word derived from the French chagrin, meaning a sense of profound sadness. A report for the World Health Organization describes sagren or le chagrin as: ‘The notion of le Chagrin has an important place in the explanative system for illness. Le Chagrin is in fact nostalgia for the Chagos islands. It is the profound sadness of facing the impossibility of being able to return to one’s home in the archipelago. For many people we met, this Chagrin explains illness and even the deaths of members of the community.’”[7]

Shenaz Patel[8], a Mauritius born author, captures the Chagossian sagren in her novel “Le Silence des Chagos,” which is the story of two people, Charlesia and Désiré, who live the same nightmare on the island of Mauritius despite being from two generations. In the end of her novel, Charlesia, a woman who was physically exiled from Chagos, tells Désiré, a young man growing up in Mauritius who questions his identity:

“Le souvenir, c’est un hameçon qui se fiche sous la peau. Plus tu tires dessus, plus il te cisaille les tissus et s’enfonce profondément. Impossible de le faire sortir sans inciser la chair. Et la cicatrice qui restera sera toujours là pour te rappeler la crudité de cette douleur. Mais tu n’arrêteras pas pour autant d’y revenir. Sans cesse. Car c’est là que pulse toute ta vie. Vois-tu, petit, c’est plus vivant encore que le souvenir. On appelle ça la souvenance.”[9]

“Memory, it’s a hook that cuts under the skin. The more you pull on it, the more it will shear the tissues and sink deeper. Impossible to get it out without cutting the flesh. And the scar that remains will forever be there to remind you of the rawness of this pain. But you won’t stop trying to return. Never. For that is what drives your whole life. You see, little one, it is even more alive than memory. This is called remembrance.[10]

“Memory, it’s a hook that cuts under the skin. The more you pull on it, the more it will shear the tissues and sink deeper. Impossible to get it out without cutting the flesh. And the scar that remains will forever be there to remind you of the rawness of this pain. But you won’t stop trying to return. Never. For that is what drives your whole life. You see, little one, it is even more alive than memory. This is called remembrance.”[11]

The call for decolonization in the Chagos archipelago is resonant, but remains unresolved. As aforementioned, the location of the United States military base is essential because it is within close reach of the Middle East, Africa, and Asia; this is, one of the reasons why reports about the Chagos archipelago as being uninhabitable, or at least unable to sustain human life have been released by the U.S. government.[12] Still, there has been overwhelming evidence that states the contrary of these reports based on the clean water sources and reports on the sand as indicating no invasive marine species or oil contamination. [13]

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In spite of that, the Chagossian people will not go back in the foreseeable future to Diego Garcia or any other atoll of the archipelago; everything that made the Chagos archipelago the home that the Chagossian people remember has been stripped away right down to its name. The Chagos archipelago, renamed British Indian Ocean Territory, has been isolated from the Chagossians, but despite the disappointment and betrayal they feel towards the British government, they have made one thing perfectly clear: they have no intention of stopping their fight.

The next step for the Chagossian people, as discussed by David Snoxell, the leader of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Chagos, will be led by “Chagos Refugees Group leader Oliver Bancoult [who] has launched a judicial review of that decision [to deny the Chagossians the right to return to Chagos], which will argue the decision did not have legal basis. He states, finance permitting, the case should be heard before the end of the year.” The Chagossian people have also won the support of the Mauritius government: “Mauritius has stated that they will raise their sovereignty claim over the islands with the UN General Assembly and International Court of Justice […] The Mauritian government has committed to supporting Chagossians to return to their homeland.”[14]

The determination of the Chagossian people is inspirational, to say the least. Their fight to return to their home, while postponed, is not impossible especially with the awareness and support of the American people. We cannot be ignorant to their fight because we have been for 50 years and the repercussions have been tragic. It’s time to make a change. It’s time to help them fight for what is rightfully theirs.

For more information, you can visit:

Chagos Refugees Group

UK Chagos Support Association

Let Us Return U.S.A

Jessica Davis is currently a student of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Iowa.


[1] Stealing a Nation (2004)

[2] Chagos: A documentary film

[3] In some reports, it is included that the military troops were obligated to kill all dogs on the islands as a warning, Islanders Pushed Out For U.S. Base Hope For End To 40-Year Exile” by Ari Shapiro

[4] Stealing a Nation (2004)

[5] Jamie Doward, Chagos islanders plead for end to 50-year exile as UK-US deal rolls over”

[6] Patrick Wintour, Chagos Islanders denied right to return home”

[7] David Vine, Island of Shame: The Secret History of the U.S. Military Base on Diego Garcia (155)

[8] Shenaz Patel, during her residency in the Iowa Writers Program at the University of Iowa, explained that it wasn’t until she was in college and saw a protest by the Chagossian people that she realized who the Chagossian people were and what they wanted: to return to their island. The protagonists of her novel inspired her to write it.

[9] Shenaz Patel, Le Silence des Chagos (149-150)

[10] Translated by me

[11] Translated by me

[12] Heather J. Koldewey, Potential benefits to fisheries and biodiversity of the Chagos Archipelago/British Indian Ocean Territory as a no-take marine reserve— “This paper reviews the increasing body of evidence to demonstrate that positive, measurable reserve effects exist for pelagic populations and that migratory species can benefit from no-take marine reserves,” in which no-take marine reserves are protected from invasive plants, animals, and human activity

[13] Charles Sheppard, Jerker Tamelander, John Turner, The Chagos Archipelago (British Indian Ocean Territory): Legal Black Hole or Environmental Bright Spot?—A Reply to Sand 1

[14] Diplomat David Snoxell speaks about future of Chagos Islands