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Context of 'January 24, 1971: Britain Says Diego Garcia Will Be Closed in July'

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Concerned about the prospects of Soviet expansion in the Indian Ocean, the US government asks Britain to find an uninhabited island where the US can build a naval base. [US Congress, 6/5/1975; Sunday Times (London), 9/21/1975; US Congress, 11/4/1975; BBC, 11/3/2000; Los Angeles Times, 11/4/2000; CBS News, 6/13/2003] In return, the US says it is willing to waive up to $14 million in research and development fees related to Britain’s Polaris missile program. [US Congress, 6/5/1975; US Congress, 11/4/1975; BBC, 11/3/2000; Los Angeles Times, 11/4/2000; CBS News, 6/13/2003] The US puts its sights first on the island of Aldabra, located north of Madagascar. But the island is a breeding ground for rare giant tortoises, whose mating habits would likely be disturbed by military activities. Fearing that ecologists would bring publicity to US activities on the island, the US looks for an alternative. The US decides on Diego Garcia, the largest island of the Chagos Archipelago. It is strategically located in the heart of the Indian Ocean just south of the equator. There is one problem, however. The islands have a population of roughly 1,800 people (who are known as Chagossians, but also referred to as Ilois) who have inhabited the 65-island archipelago for more than 200 years. [Sunday Times (London), 9/21/1975; BBC, 11/3/2000] Most of them are descendants of African slaves (see 1770s) and Indian plantation workers. [BBC, 1/10/2001] To deal with this “population problem,” British politicians, diplomats and civil servants begin a campaign “to maintain the pretense there [are] no permanent inhabitants” on the islands. They fear that if the international community learns about the existence of the population, it will demand that the Chagossians be recognized as a people “whose democratic rights have to be safeguarded.” [BBC, 11/3/2000]

Entity Tags: Chagossians

Timeline Tags: US-Britain-Diego Garcia (1770-2004)

The administrator of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), John Rawling Todd, tells the remaining inhabitants of Diego Garcia that Britain intends “to close the island in July.” The islands of Peros Banhos and Salomon will remain open for the time-being. [British Royal Courts of Justice, 10/9/2003]

Entity Tags: John Rawling Todd, Chagossians

Timeline Tags: US-Britain-Diego Garcia (1770-2004)

With the arrival of the first Americans at Diego Garcia, the largest atoll of the Chagos Archipelago, the island’s remaining residents are told they must leave. [BBC, 11/3/2000; CBS News, 6/13/2003; CNN, 6/18/2003] Recalling the massive forced relocation, Marcel Moulinie, the manager of a coconut plantation on the island, tells CBS 60 minutes in 2003 that he was ordered to ship the people out. “Total evacuation. They wanted no indigenous people there,” Marcel Moulinie explains. “When the final time came and the ships were chartered, they weren’t allowed to take anything with them except a suitcase of their clothes. The ships were small and they could take nothing else, no furniture, nothing.” To make it clear to residents that there would be no compromise, Sir Bruce Greatbatch, governor of the Seychelles, orders the killing of the Chagossians’ pets, which are rounded up into a furnace and gassed with exhaust fumes from American military vehicles. [CBS News, 6/13/2003; CNN, 6/18/2003; ZNet, 10/22/2004] “They put the dogs in a furnace where the people worked,” Lisette Talatte, a Chagossian, will later tell investigative journalist John Pilger. “[W]hen their dogs were taken away in front of them our children screamed and cried.” [ZNet, 10/22/2004] Marie Therese Mein, another Chagossian, later says US officials threatened to bomb them if they did not leave. [Self-Determination News, 1/28/2002; ZNet, 10/22/2004] And the Washington Post interviews one man in 1975 who says he was told by an American official, “If you don’t leave you won’t be fed any longer.” [Washington Post, 9/9/1975] The Chagossians are first shipped to the nearby islands of Peros Banhos and Salomon and then 1,200 miles away to Mauritius and the Seychelles. [BBC, 11/3/2000; CBS News, 6/13/2003; CNN, 6/18/2003] Before the eviction, the Chagossians were employed, grew their own fruit and vegetables, raised poultry and ducks, and fished. [Sunday Times (London), 9/21/1975; Self-Determination News, 1/28/2002; British Royal Courts of Justice, 10/9/2003; Tribune (Bahamas), 11/17/2003] On the island of Diego Garcia, there was a church, a school as well as a few stores. [Sunday Times (London), 9/21/1975] But now, after being removed from their homes and dumped into foreign lands without compensation or resettlement assistance, they are forced to live in poverty. [CBS News, 6/13/2003; CNN, 6/18/2003] The uprooted Chagossians find shelter in abandoned slums, which have no water or electricity. [Sunday Times (London), 9/21/1975; Church Times, 1/7/2005] Many commit suicide during and after the eviction campaign. [ZNet, 10/22/2004] Lisette Taleti loses two of her children. [Guardian, 5/12/2006] Describing the plight of the Chagossians at this time, the British High Court writes in 2003: “The Ilois [Chagossians] were experienced in working on coconut plantations but lacked other employment experience. They were largely illiterate and spoke only Creole. Some had relatives with whom they could stay for a while; some had savings from their wages; some received social security, but extreme poverty routinely marked their lives. Mauritius already itself experienced high unemployment and considerable poverty. Jobs, including very low paid domestic service, were hard to find. The Ilois were marked by their poverty and background for insults and discrimination. Their diet, when they could eat, was very different from what they were used to. They were unused to having to fend for themselves in finding jobs and accommodation and they had little enough with which to do either. The contrast with the simple island life which they had left behind could scarcely have been more marked.”

Entity Tags: Sir Bruce Greatbatch, Chagossians, Marcel Moulinie, Marie Therese Mein, Lisette Talatte

Timeline Tags: US-Britain-Diego Garcia (1770-2004)

The British government issues an Order in Council, reneging on an earlier decision (see November 3, 2000) to the former residents of the Chagos Islands that they would be permitted to return some of the islands in the Chagos Archipelago. The royal decree prohibits any of the islanders from returning to any of the islands. The Chagossians had been forcibly removed from their homes in the early 1970s (see July 27, 1971-May 26, 1973) so the US could build a base on Diego Garcia. The government claims that according to a feasibility study, which did not consult the former residents, the costs of resettlement would be prohibitively high, with an initial cost of about £5 million and annual costs of between £3 and £5 million. The study also claims that the islands are “sinking.” British Foreign Office minister Bill Rammell tells John Pilger: “The tax-payer is being asked to pick up the financial tab. You have to make choices about how you spend money.” [ZNet, 10/22/2004; Church Times, 1/7/2005]

Entity Tags: Bill Rammell, Chagossians

Timeline Tags: US-Britain-Diego Garcia (1770-2004)

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