The long-awaited death of the Queen on 8th September 2022 has unleashed a wave of
Review of The Chagos Betrayal: How Britain Robbed an Island and Made its People Disappear by Florian Grosset.
This beautifully informative and powerful new book by Florian Grosset tells in vivid pictorial form the story of the forced depopulation of the Chagos Archipelago.
The Chagos Archipelago is a collection of islands in the Indian Ocean. Britain had acquired the islands from France after the Napoleonic wars in 1814. On the 8th November 1965, Britain purchased the Chagos Archipelago for £3 million as a condition of Mauritius’ independence, and it became a new British colony: the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). In December 1966, Britain agreed to lease Diego Garcia to the US government for an initial period of 50 years (this lease was renewed in 2016). By 1974, Chagos had been totally cleared of all of its inhabitants - around 2,000 people in total. They had been forced to leave and were instead left in Mauritius and the Seychelles. The British government claimed that the Chagos Islanders were not permanent residents, and that they were ‘only’ sending home migrant workers. In reality, the Chagos islanders are descendants of the enslaved.
In giving this account, colour is used in the book to powerful effect. The beauty of the islands is rendered in luxurious shades of yellow and green. The relocation to the Seychelles and Mauritius is represented in sepia, expressing the drabness and melancholy of life away from home. In contrast, life for the Chagossians in Britain post forced exile is captured in black and white, as their world is now robbed of all colour, all vibrancy. The graphic novel is the perfect medium for conveying the distress and suffering of individual stories like Olivier Bancoult. It allows us to be more fully present alongside the islanders as their circumstances unfold.
Most of the fight for justice by the Chagossians has involved lengthy court battles. In 2000 the High Court found the expulsion of the islanders unlawful. In 2004 Orders-in-Council (a Royal Prerogative, one of the powers of the Monarchy) was used to ban the visiting of the Chagos Islands. In 2006 this order was held as illegal by the High Court. Six years later the court ruled that while the British government had acted shamefully towards the Chagossians, the Islanders had received ‘compensation’, which meant no further legal action could be taken. Most recently in 2019, 12 judges out of 13 of the International Court of Justice found the British Occupation of the Chagos islands under the form of the BIOT illegal, and stated that Britain had no right to separate it from Mauritius. Parallels can be drawn here between the forced expulsion of the Chagossians and the settler-colonial occupation of Palestine. Israel is frequently seen to be in breach of human rights laws or international law, yet nothing is done in light of this. This serves as a crucial reminder: international bourgeois law, including that of ‘human rights’, does not serve colonised and indigenous people. Far from enabling freedom or justice, such laws are themselves instruments and enforcers of oppression. They were never intended for liberation.
The lives of the islanders have been structured by the forces of imperialism and colonialism. They were brought to the islands as slaves by the French. Once apparently ‘liberated’, the Chagossians had no choice but to work for a plantation company which monopolised employment on the islands, and so, the islands became like a company town. The 1962 China-India war saw India request US assistance, and led to US interest in Chagos Islands as they realized they had no base in the nearby area. The Chagossians and their islands were used as bargaining chips between the US and Britain, as Britain took the islands for use by the U.S. in exchange for a discounted rate of $14 million for the Polaris missile system (the predecessor to the Trident nuclear missile system).
The US and Britain carried out successful settler colonialism by removing the inhabitants of the island and replacing them with the military at its base on Diego Garcia, the largest of the islands which is thought to house over 1,000 US troops. The US used Diego Garcia during the Cold War to track Soviet submarines, and was massively expanded after the 1979 Iranian revolution.
Diego Garcia represents a material alliance between British and US imperialism, as part of America’s 800+ military bases. Diego Garcia is equidistant from Africa, Asia and the Middle East, and therefore incredibly strategically useful - especially in this current era of Great Power Competition against China, with its proximity to the South China Sea. The deep bay allows for use of US naval power, aiding control of shipping lanes seen as economically important - particularly the strait of Hormuz, where the US repeatedly conducts aggression against Iran. The US has previously launched air assaults from the Island against Iraq and Afghanistan, and the island itself is known for being a CIA torture site.
The case of Chagos represents a clear example of the cruelty of imperialist racial capitalism. Every level of the British state has been brought to bear against the Chagossians. Those who have immigrated to Britain have faced repeated state violence coming up against the Hostile Environment policy and the brutal British border regime. Chagossians living in Britain have been pressured to leave, and local councils have ‘offered’ to pay them for flights back to Seychelles or Mauritius, rather than providing housing. Crawley council in West Sussex routinely classifies Chagossians as “intentionally homeless” for arriving in Britain. Emails document that this situation was known in the highest levels of government, and there are credible reports that journalists have been asked not to cover the story.
Both Tory and Labour governments have collaborated in continuing this ongoing injustice. The latter’s involvement should come as no surprise to us. It is possible to trace an unbroken chain running from the 1924 Ramsay Macdonald’s Old Labour government, in which secretary of state for the colonies J.H. Thomas is said to have introduced himself by saying: “I’m here to see there is no mucking around with the British Empire”, to Clement Attlee’s suppression of pro-independence communists in Malaysia in the late 1940s, to New Labour with Tony Blair’s invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. The Labour Party is a party of imperialism, and we must see it as such.
The British Monarchy has used its powers to prevent legal claims.We must also mention Britain’s decision in making 70 islands and 7 atolls of the Chagos Islands into a Marine Protected Area in 2010 under then Foreign Secretary David Miliband. A document leaked by WikiLeaks revealed that the US State Department commented that doing so would be the "most effective long-term way to prevent any of the Chagos Islands' former inhabitants or their descendants from resettling."
The book itself is an important and timely read for the way it tells the story of dispossession and removal, in a form that is both accessible and moving. We in Red Fightback extend our unwavering solidarity to Chagossians everywhere and demand the return of the Chagos Islands to those who were born on it and their descendants, and that both the US and British governments relish any claims to the Islands. Chagos, of course, is no aberration, but merely one example of the way British imperialism and colonialism functions. We see this pattern yet again with the people of Palestine and Kashmir, and Britain’s role in their dispossession, expulsion and displacement.
Our support for colonised peoples must go beyond mere rhetoric. It must be taken into our workplaces and unions, our communities, our rent strikes and our struggles against the pigs and the prisons. The abolition of racial capitalism and imperialism is a matter of life and death. As communists residing in the imperial core, we must do whatever it takes to achieve this.
For more information on Chagos and the Chagossian Islanders campaign in Britain, see https://www.chagossupport.org.uk/