It’s about damn time. This week, 5 members of the long-exiled Chagossian community were finally able to return to their islands without British supervision, for the first time in 50 years.
In 1965, the British Empire granted the Republic of Mauritius its independence. In doing so, like many of its other colonies from Anguilla to Cyprus, the Empire carved off a section of its territory and kept it under its rule. The Chagos Archipelago, now known as the British Indian Ocean Territory, became subject to the unilateral dictatorship of the British colonial system. The 1,000 people that called the islands their home were denied a democracy, they were even denied citizenship in the territory that they had continuously inhabited for hundreds of years.
The Chagossians, originally brought to the islands as slaves, had eked out an independent life following their emancipation, relatively free from the dictates of a state. But in the late 1960s, they came face to face with imperial authority, as the government of Harold Wilson looked at the islands not as a living community, but as fertile ground for the construction of a military base.
The British Empire declared the Chagossians to be outlaws on their own land, implementing a policy of ethnic cleansing to forcibly remove the islanders and deport them to lands they had no history in. Not even their pets were spared, with hundreds of dogs being ripped away from crying children and gassed to death. By 1973, this vile and contemptible act was completed. The Chagossians were now scatted between the Seychelles, Mauritius and Britain, banned from ever returning to their homeland. Meanwhile, the British Empire handed the archipelago to the American military, opening the gates for thousands of Americans to swarm the islands and litter their coasts with rubbish and debris.
This arrangement suited the British and Americans right down to the ground, as it created a situation of diplomatic ping-pong, where they could point at the other when the Chagossian community demanded a right of return. When the Chagossians successfully appealed to the courts for their right to return, the government of Tony Blair turned to the unelected House of Lords to reverse the decision. The subsequent Conservative-led government then permanentlydenied their right to return home, imperialism being one thing that Britain’s two main parties completely agree on.
All seemed bleak, until the international community finally stepped in. The International Court of Justice found the separation of the Chagos islands from Mauritius to be unlawful. The government of Mauritius, justifiably accusing the British of “crimes against humanity”, demanded that the territory be returned to their sovereignty, backed up by the United Nations.
The UK has attempted to divide and rule the Chagossian community, offering them supervised, temporary visits to the islands and promising them compensation – compensation which they would never receive. The British government’s true feelings towards the Chagossians were confirmed during the Windrush scandal, when a number of Chagossian exiles were faced with deportation to the Seychelles. The treatment of the Chagos islanders, up until this very day, remains grounded in centuries of British racism.
Weeks ago, a number of Chagossians decided to put a boot to British appeasement, themselves chartering a ship from the Seychelles to return to their islands, this time without British oversight. For the first time in 50 years, on 12 February 2022, these 5 exiles finally set foot on their place of birth. In open defiance of the crumbling British Empire, the delegation from Mauritius has now raised their flag over the islands.
This is truly an historic and wonderful moment, but it is worth keeping in mind that a brief visit of 5 people to the islands does not mean a right of return has been secured. Nor does Mauritius raising their flag mean that Anglo-American imperialism has been ousted from the islands. But hopefully it marks a turning point, the beginning of long-awaited justice for this community.
The UK Chagos Support Association commented on the developments that: "The ongoing injustices that face all Chagossians every day - whether that is the denial of the right to return, the denial of British citizenship rights or the refusal to deliver adequete compensation - will only be resolved by the UK and Mauritian governments working together and priortising the rights, needs and ambitions of Chagossians. We hope this trip, and the reaction to it, prompts the governments and all bodies involved to put the people of the Chagos Islands first."
The Chagossians need our support now more than ever. Now is the time to uphold justice for the victims of colonial oppression. Now is the time to take the British Empire to task for its crimes against humanity. Now is the time to prove that Chagossian Lives Matter.
If you are from the UK, you can help by getting involved with the UK Chagos Support Association, either by donating money, writing to your MP or a journalist, volunteering your time and skills, or raising awareness in your community. If you are an American citizen, you can also help by getting involved with Let Us Return USA. ■