June/July/Aug 2009

Tristes Tropiques

Jeff Stein


When one dreams of an island paradise, Diego Garcia probably isn’t in the picture. Unless, of course, you’re from Diego Garcia, and your family members were among the nearly two thousand people forced off that and neighboring islands a thousand miles south of India between 1968 and 1973 so Americans could pave it and put up a military base. For the Chagossians, as they are called, Diego Garcia was paradise then, replete with azure waters, white sand beaches, swaying coconut trees, and hurricane-free tropical weather, not to mention decent homes and plentiful food. And then the inhabitants were gone. The plights of the people of Diego Garcia and the rest of the Chagos Archipelago propel this revealing, sad, and sometimes enraging book by David Vine, an assistant professor of anthropology at American University in Washington, DC.

Vine was a graduate student in 2001 when the human rights lawyer Michael Tigar asked for his assistance in obtaining some kind of justice for the Chagossians in American and British courts. Vine then traveled to Mauritius, the island off southeastern Africa where most were forced to settle. There he gathered the oral histories that energize Island of Shame with gripping authenticity. But the punch comes from the material he dug up in British and American government archives about the cold decisions that turned Diego Garcia into what it is: a major US naval and air-force base, complete with its own faux American suburb and no discontented locals to worry about. The Chagossians weren’t even permitted to work there.

Their ancestors were black African slaves and indentured servants from South Asia who had been imported by French and later English planters, starting in the 1700s, to harvest coconut oil and dried coconut flesh. Over the centuries, conditions improved to the point that Diego Garcia became the ultimate company town. The Chagossians met their coconut-shelling quotas and in return received adequate food, clothing, and other necessities.

The British garrisoned the island during World War II, but Germany and Japan never threatened. It seemed that life would toggle back to normal. But with the cash-strapped British in full retreat from their colonies, American war planners began to worry about a power vacuum in the region. As it turned out, a bright young man named Stu Barber in the US Navy, inspired by the success of island-based bombers against Japan, already had a scheme for the US to project power into the region without interference from the natives: the Strategic Island Concept.

In 1963, Robert “Blowtorch Bob” Komer, a former CIA man on the John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson National Security Councils, seized on the idea. “This whole area from Suez to Singapore is heating up,” years later he would recall telling the White House. “I was saying, ‘Look, this is an area of the world that is becoming more volatile at the very time when the former strategic balance-holders, the British essentially, are pulling back and that projecting the trend, it’s a more important area.” Kennedy and Johnson both bought in. The British liked it, because they could keep their colony—in name, anyway—while somebody else paid for it. But they also had to answer the question of what to do with the people who’d lived there for centuries.

“HMG”—Her Majesty’s Government—“might feel it necessary to consider impact of large military installation on few inhabitants of this small island,” the British Foreign Office cabled Washington. Already, Whitehall was on a path to erasing the Chagossians by definition: “few inhabitants . . . small island.” Vine adroitly excavates the “Orwellian” memos by which British officials redefined the inhabitants as transient laborers so as to strip them of residency rights—and, no small point, to sidestep the declarations of universal human rights that Britain and the United States had endorsed at the United Nations.

Once the paperwork was tidied up, the boom was lowered. The Chagossians never had a chance. Vine tells the story of Rita Bancoult, who took her sick daughter on a four-day voyage to a hospital in Mauritius (where she died because care came too late). When Bancoult showed up at the dock for her return in 1968, she was turned away. “Your island has been sold,” she was told. “You will never go there again.” Everything she owned was there.

Actually, the British had been tightening the noose since it first struck the Diego Garcia deal with Washington in 1966 “under the cover of darkness,” Vine writes; all concerned parties took pains to conceal its true dimensions from Congress and Parliament. Pressure from the State Department, meanwhile, ensured that press reports on the shadowy project were spiked or sanitized. First, food shipments were slowed, then medical care was reduced. The last Chagossians were moved out in 1973. As the islanders waited to board the ship, British agents and US troops rounded up their abandoned dogs, put them in sealed sheds, gassed them, and burned them.

Between 1968 and 1973, all the island natives were sent to, or stranded in, Mauritius and the Seychelles. Most, struggling with unemployment and discrimination, their children mocked and bullied at school, slid into shantytown lives of depression, alcoholism, and drugs, dying prematurely of old people’s diseases such as heart disease and stroke. All they have left today are their stories and dreams, which Vine eloquently recounts. Island of Shame, indeed.

Jeff Stein, a writer based in Washington, DC, is the Spy Talk columnist for Congressional Quarterly.

30porcento

July 21, 2009
8:17 pm

Isn´t this the same title of Claude Levi-Strauss' travel book?

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