The Tragedy of the Diego Garcian People

By Donald Gutierrez

In his acceptance speech for the 2005 Nobel Prize for Literature, British playwright Harold Pinter made a crucial observation: while the hideous crimes of Joseph Stalin’s regime are very well known, those of American imperialism are virtually unknown in the West (and certainly, one might add, by many Americans). One heartbreaking example of this serious ignorance is America’s (i.e., Washington’s) and England’s(i.e., London”s) unknown crimes against the inhabitants of the tiny island of Diego Garcia, located in the middle of the Indian Ocean. We infrequently hear reports of American bombers taking off from the island to bomb democracy on Afghanistan and Iraq and virtually nothing about the American detainee-torture cell also located there.

But what and where is Diego Garcia island? Who lived there before it became an American base? How did the United States acquire and transform it into their fourth-biggest expeditionary base in the world?

Diego Garcia has been inhabited for well over 200 years by Creoles who were brought by the French from Madagascar and Mozambique as slaves late in the 18th century. The Chagos Islands, which include Diego Garcia, were later seized from France by England, the Chagossians thereby becoming British citizens entitled to all the rights accompanying that status. Nevertheless, in the late 1960s the Diego Garcians (pop. 2,000) were forcibly removed from their island—which had been to them a very habitable paradise for generations—by the British to render a deal: London would lease the island to the United.States (i.e., the Pentagon) for 50 years plus a 20-year automatic extension, in exchange for a $14 million reduction for a Polaris nuclear submarine.

To push this “deal” through involved a number of extremely secretive, illegal, criminal and morally outrageous offenses against the Diego Garcians. Among others, it involved ignoring and obliterating the British citizenship rights of this people by expelling them from Diego Garcia with a ruthlessness reminiscent of Nazi ethnic cleansing. The Diego Garcians, who loved their dogs dearly, helplessly beheld them either gassed or burned alive by American troops who already were ashore building airstrips, rec centers, a swimming pool, a bar and barbecue facilities, etc., for themselves. The treatment accorded their dogs was apparently intended to suggest to these islanders that their fate would be similar to that of their dogs if they did not cooperate with the British. The Diego Garcians (or Chagossians) were moved by ship under conditions akin to those imposed on African slaves: men were corralled in the bridge, women and children stuck in the hold with a cargo of fertilizer (bird excrement) for a bed, while horses, thanks to Sir Bruce Greatbatch, then Her Majesty’s British Governor of the Seychelles, were provided the most comfortable quarters on the ship for a five-day sea journey of 2,500 miles. According to one report, the horses were fed during the trip; the Diego Garcians were not.

The Chagos islanders were literally dumped in Mauritius, a British colony where they were unwanted and unemployable due to an already very excessive population and scarcity of work. Treated like tramps, they remain there to this day, living in abject misery and extreme need, some dying of wretched poverty or even of sadness for loss of their island home. When boldly confronting very high-placed officials in London and Washington, the well-informed Australian investigative journalist and documentary filmmaker John Pilger (to whose stunning recent book Freedom Next Time: Resisting the Empire this essay is much indebted) was told outrageous lie after lie, such as that the Chagossians have been paid for their removal, that they never lived in Diego Garcia, that the island was uninhabitable and thus unsafe for their return and habitation, that the Diego Garcians were temporary contract workers, that the conditions of the Cold War demanding a base surrounding the Soviet Union were more important than the fate of merely 2,000 “natives” (that excuse from arrogant, authoritarian former CIA Director and Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger) and so on. This monstrous, elaborate crime, covertly implemented by very high-ranking British and American statesmen against the Chagossians, was kept secret by Presidents Johnson and Nixon as well. Nor was either the British Parliament or Congress informed about the “deal.”

And even after the British High Court in 2003 repudiated a 1965 ordinance to expel the people of Diego Garcia and the Chagos Islands, the latter, when a few of them returned to their native land with passports, were nevertheless told by a British sea patrol to leave the island instantly, while, as Pilger with sharp irony mentions, “A hundred yards along the beach, a colony of Yachties and sailors, most of them not British, played volleyball on the beach. No one disturbed them.”

While these “Free-World” athletes were frolicking on the sand of one of the Chagos Islands, Muslim detainees at Diego Garcia’s Camp Justice, one of innumerable American Black Cells strung throughout the world, were likely being administered various kinds of “justice” including waterboarding, a mode of Bush-approved agonizing “coercive interrogation” that could lead, and sometimes has led, to death by suffocation or drowning. Chagossian heaven had become Rumsfeldian hell, but at least the British government had gotten an American nuclear sub relatively cheap. Further, a beautiful island that had for many generations perfectly fitted the modest subsistence needs of an indigenous people, had, as one senior American official demanded, been “swept and sanitized” of an indigenous people to, as Pilger states, accommodate “four thousand service personnel and support contractors, two of the largest bomber runways in the world, anchorages for 30 ships, two nuclear berths, space weapons tracking domes, shopping malls, nightclubs, a golf course, tennis courts, swimming pools and more”—and probably a brothel or two.

Meanwhile, the original Diego Garcia people continue to languish in Mauritius in their decades-long poverty and agony despite attempts on their part to secure legal justice (the British High Court again held—in 2006—that they had a legal right of return to their land, but matters are still pending). Bereft of their stolen island and home, they are the victims of a crime against humanity that almost no one even knows about.

(In a recent savagely ironic update, it was reported in the American press (Albuquerque Journal, Feb. 22, 2008) that the British are furious that Washington had lied to them about the US using British airspace or land (i.e., Diego Garcia island) for rendition-torture flights or purposes. US State-Department official Sean McCormack, the Journal states, “took pains to note that the United States had not violated any obligation it had towards Britain in using Diego Garcia for the flights at the time they occurred.” Only in 2003 did the two countries begin to work out a “mutual understanding” about using the island for renditions. Well, there are pains and pains. There is the pain of State Department official McCormack dissembling the Bush administration’s gross dishonesty towards its closest ally as an “administrative error,” the much greater pain experienced by detainee suspects at the hands of possibly both foreign and American torturers on Diego Garcia and elsewhere, and the incomparably deeper and ongoing pain of the Diego-Garcian people whose history of horrific mistreatment is totally buried under this flap between the two major powers who conspired to destroy this little nation for their own imperial ends.

Donald K. Gutierrez is professor emeritus of English at Western New Mexico University. Email

From The Progressive Populist, April 15, 2008

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