Small Islands, Big Histories: Diego Garcia

Short dives into Earth’s diminutive islands that tell more than their size suggests

They cleared the island of its custodians and dropped a military base atop of where a society once lay. This secretive base is what Diego Garcia is known for today – it captivates the minds of spy-movie directors and shadow government junkies alike – it’s known for this because that is all there is now on this isolated atoll. This never used to be the case.

Recently, Diego Garcia’s past has at last received more attention for the violent eviction of its settled community – the Ilois – from its paradisiacal shores at the whim of the US and the UK. The history of Diego Garcia is of the forced creation and attempted destruction of a people, of decolonisation and the Cold War, and of how the history of an island is always a story that crosses oceans and continents.

Life is Elsewhere

Describing the island for its new American arrivals, the US Navy’s welcome pack calls Diego Garcia a “lush, tropical paradise.” It was not always seen in this way. In old Maldivian societies, the Chagos archipelago – of which Diego Garcia is the largest participant – was known as the isolated, mysterious place over the horizon met only by castaways and sailors lost.

Diego Garcia. Source: BBC

The lure of the tropics and the crops it might yield eventually brought explorers from further afield to Diego Garcia. In the 1500s, the island was discovered, forgotten, and rediscovered by Portuguese sailors busy building up their oceanic trading networks, and trying to make a name for themselves in the process. The name “Diego Garcia” eventually stuck – a conglomeration of those who’d decided to name the place after themselves or their friends upon landing, and of the saying “deo gracias.”

There was no native population then, fortunately. No population to trade with, to infect or to enslave. There were no major raw materials to exploit, aside from coconuts or crab meat. The Chagos Islands were, for the most part, passed by for more alluring prizes, until colonial competition hit fever pitch in the 1700s. The French and the British East India company both made abortive attempts to settle Diego Garcia, before the French decided instead to play on the atoll’s peripheral status and maroon Mauritian lepers there.

The lure of the land, however, proved too much. In 1793, the French opened a coconut plantation on the eastern portion of the island, and African slaves were spirited away from their homes to toil there. This was the same year that, thousands of miles away in the Caribbean, the slaves of Saint Domingue marched on Cap-Francois to demand their freedom. Their wish was granted and, the following year, pressed to prove that they truly believed in liberte, egalite, fraternite, the revolutionary government in Paris ceded freedom to all the slaves in the colonies.

However, thousands of miles away from the hotbeds of revolution, France’s Indian Ocean islands never honoured this proclamation, and the slaves of Diego Garcia remained in chains. Once again, a major colonial power exploited the Chagos Islands’ diminutive size and isolation to thwart convention and pursue their crimes unheeded. This would not be the last time. 

Isolated at the Centre of Things

1814. Mauritius and its associates transferred to Britain as spoils of war. The slaves remained bound to the masters of the coconut plantation until 1840, but their fate remained tied to the crop for much longer. After emancipation, the freed were joined by indentured workers from India. The population named themselves the Ilois – “islanders” in Chagossian Creole – and mainly settled at Minni Minni, north of the plantations, and across the lagoon at Point Marianne. By 1882 the plantations, still producing copra oil for European machines and lamps, were all owned by one company – the Société Huilière de Diego et de Peros; run in far off Mauritius.


Diego Garcia from entrance to East Point. Surveyed by Commr. F.C.P. Vereker … 1885. Natural Scale, 1 : 24,188. (Southern portion. Natural Scale, 1 : 72,560.) [Admiralty Chart]
Publisher: London. From British Library

In the 20th Century, as the great distances across oceans grew ever shorter, Diego Garcia once more became wrapped up in violent geopolitical struggle. Recolonisation began during the Second World War, when the British set up an airstrip to contribute to the fighting in South Asia. After the war, the increasing calls from the colonies for independence collided with the fallout of Cold War regional destabilisation. The breaking point came in the mid-1960s.

In 1966, the USA expressed interest in establishing a small naval base on Diego Garcia, and Britain was only too glad to discuss terms. The apocryphal tale is that the US picked up the island for a mere fistful of dollars, but the nominal fee masked the real bill; a $14m debt for nuclear secrets, wiped off.

There were still two hurdles for the US to overcome; The fear that the Chagos archipelago may yet fall to an independent Mauritius, and the Ilois, who continued to make a life on the coconut plantations. In 1965, the coalition dealt with the Mauritian issue with the ruthless ease of a gunboat diplomat. If you want your independence, Harold Wilson told Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam , you must cede your control of the Chagos Islands. He duly did and the Ilois were cast off from the Mauritian nation.

Lowland clearings

The US and UK, meanwhile, plowed on with their plans to build a base on an “uninhabited” island. With this mindset, a couple of thousand Chagossians represented no more than overgrowth to be cleared.

The plantations had in 1962 been bought a British colonial company – the Chagos Agalega Company – based in the Seychelles. Its directors took £600,000 of persuasion to relinquish control. The coalition then began a subversive campaign to dislodge the Ilois from their home. The first stage saw the ports closed; any Chagossian who left the island – usually to Mauritius or the Seychelles for medical treatment – was informed that they would not be allowed to return home. Next came a policy of terror and intimidation, designed to rip Chagossian families and communities apart. This culminated in Governor Sir Bruce Greatbatch’s order to massacre of Ilois family pets. Using chunks of meat, British officials lured pet dogs into an enclosure and gassed them.

Still, the British could not dislodge the community of this supposedly uninhabited island. But, mired in Vietnam, by the 1970s US ambitions for the base had grown from a small air strip to a fully-loaded Indian Ocean base. In 1971 the plantations were destroyed and the last of the Ilois were forced onto the beach and marched onto boats, boats that took them to other islands in the Chagos (soon to be cleared themselves), or west to Mauritius or the Seychelles. Boats that were not fit for human transport, boats they were crammed into, sharing a deck with piles of guano. After such scatological nightmares were endured, the Ilois were taken off the boats and abandoned at the ports, their lives in tatters.

These acts amounted to warfare against a people, approximating genocide. At best, the Ilois were Cold War collateral damage. At worst, the community was seen as little more than imperial jetsam. So wrote Denis Greenhill, who seemingly thought the whole thing funny;

“The object of the exercise is to get some rocks which will remain ours; there will be no indigenous population except seagulls who have not yet got a committee. Unfortunately along with the Birds go some few Tarzans or Men Fridays whose origins are obscure, and who are being hopefully wished on to Mauritius etc.”

The Footprint of Freedom

An island’s history nestles within its people. The Ilois were the only group to build a free, sustaining society on Diego Garcia. They are the island’s custodians, but since the 1970s the Ilois have been in complete diaspora, scattered across the planet. In 1972 Mauritius appealed for compensation from the UK so that they could provide for the refugees. Britain paid £650,000, for which the 426 Ilois families marooned there immediately sued. The Mauritian government were to cling onto this money until 1978.

Others made a new life in the Seychelles, and a few hundred moved to Britain. The Chagossians were ostracised wherever they went, with different skills, a different language, and a hostile welcome from their new neighbours. David Vine has studied the expulsions and followed the fate of the expelled. He describes lives of sagren – “profound sorrow and heartbreak over being exiled from their native lands.” His friend
Aurélie Lisette Talate told him “I had something that had been affecting me for a long time, since we were uprooted.” Talate died exiled in 2013. Vine maintains that sagren killed his friend.

Meanwhile, back in Diego Garcia, Navy Seebees arrived to build “Camp Justice” and remove any trace that a society ever existed on its shores. Bikku Bitti has gone; Point Marriane became the southern end of the island’s runway. The base is stacked upon the west side of the atoll, a place where soldiers played baseball and tennis whilst nearby prisoners arrived and departed under the yoke of extraordinary rendition.

In 1990, Britain decided to bequeath a flag to the British Indian Ocean Territory, in a strange masquerade that claimed this military sandbox was still a bona fide nation

There are now over 4000 people on the island, more than ever before. They are mostly US military, but there are also contractors – low-level service personnel from Mauritius and the Philippines – and British diplomatic types. None can stay permanently.

These visitors share the island with warrior crabs, geckos, donkeys and birds. The new Navy arrivals are not told of the evictions, only that the “plantations were closed.” They are informed, however, that “all residents make every effort to maintain the ecological integrity of Diego Garcia. As a result, all life forms on the island, including live shellfish, are protected by British law.” The Ilois and their descendants have never known such protection. They are not allowed to step foot on the island.

The British have renamed this ersatz territory the “British Indian Ocean Islands.” The Americans? They prefer the “Footprint of Freedom”.


Sagren has not stopped Chagossians from fighting tooth-and-nail to return home. In 2000 Ilois in Britain managed to get the British High Court to declare their expulsion from the islands as unlawful. The government responded by offering Chagossians British citizenship so long as they rescinded any claim to the islands. This mimicked an earlier policy granting Mauritian Ilois an additional £4m compensation in return to sign away any right to return.

Unfortunately, it’s now known that British citizenship can be made conditional with the stroke of the Home Secretary’s pen. Ilois in Britain have been caught up in the UK’s Hostile Environment policy that has demonised minorities. Their residence here is threatened.

By this time the British government had already betrayed the Ilois twice more. In 2004 the Blair Administration used Royal Prerogative to override the 2000 ruling and ban the Ilois from ever returning. The fight continued, but in 2008 the House of Lords finally settled the matter in favour of the government. The Ilois had lost again.

As if that wasn’t enough, in 2009 David Miliband (allegedly against the instructions of Gordon Brown) moved to declare the waters surrounding the archipelago a Marine reserve, cowering behind green politics to cling onto this fossil of a colony. The idea was to prevent any potential returning population from being able to fish. On this occasion the government were, thankfully, thwarted.

“A marine park would, in effect, put paid to the resettlement claims of the Archipelago’s former residents”

Reportably said by FCO employee Colin Roberts in 2009 according to wikileaks.

At last, last month, the International Court of Justice told Britain to give Diego Garcia and the rest of the archipelago back to Mauritius, giving a ray of hope to the dwindling population that had once been allowed to call it home. But the odds are still against them. The UK have no obligation to heed the ICJ’s request. Even if they did, there is no guarantee that Mauritius would support the Chagossians, let alone stand up to the USA and demand that the island be returned to their custody.

Source: The Guardian

In any case, the USA has little intention of abandoning their base that serves the global power with a strategic panopticon over East Africa, the Persian Gulf and South Asia. Recent tensions between India and Pakistan have only served to tighten the grip of the American boot stamping upon the footprint of freedom. Many Chagossians are pragmatic about this, and hope that they may instead, like other Mauritians, be allowed to work on the base as contractors.


There is another danger to the future chance that Diego Garcia may once more house a society. The island has a maximum height of 7 metres and is on average just over 1m above the Indian Ocean. A warming planet, bringing rising seas and unpredictable weather patterns, may yet render the island a victim of the anthropecine. And if the past is any measure, not enough will care when it, and its five-hundred years of history, drowns.

One thought on “Small Islands, Big Histories: Diego Garcia

  1. I recently published my first book, titled “Indian Ocean Invasion”, which covers the Chagos Archipelago, and it has an alternative idea of how this matter should be dealt with.
    Book available at Paperbark Merchants Bookshop, York Street, Albany, Australia.

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