You could be forgiven for thinking that a label on a map—in this case the British Indian Ocean Territory, or BIOT, pronounced somewhat like “buyout”—is something you could take at face value. I own a coffee mug emblazoned with the territory’s coat of arms: a Union Jack, a crown, a palm tree, and some wavy lines representing water, all displayed on a shield supported by two sea turtles. I have seen coins and stamps from the territory, and have frequently come across the domain name .io (for Indian Ocean). This entity has a flag, a website, and a commissioner in London. And there is some dry land associated with the name: the 60 or so low-lying tiny islands of the remote Chagos Archipelago, spread across 6,000 square miles of sea, near the Indian Ocean’s geographic center. I stepped foot on several of the islands last year, bringing back a vial of fine white sand that I hoped customs authorities wouldn’t mistake for something else.
BIOT was created in the 1960s as a useful fiction. The Chagos Archipelago originally formed part of the British island colony of Mauritius, some 1,300 miles to the west. As Mauritius sought independence, Britain set out to detach Chagos from the colony’s administrative jurisdiction. Keeping it separate was important so that one of the archipelago’s islands, Diego Garcia, could effectively be leased to the United States for use as a major military base. Britain was in the process of a military withdrawal “east of Suez”; the U.S. was moving in, and Diego Garcia offered a strategic location. To make the detachment from Mauritius look legitimate in international eyes, Britain claimed, falsely, that the islands were populated only by transient “contract labourers” and that, as a result, no vexing issues of self-determination were involved.
In a tone of imperial languor, a Foreign Office memo in 1966 referred to those who lived on the islands as “some few Tarzans or Men Fridays whose origins are obscure.” For security reasons, the U.S. wanted them gone, and Britain was happy to oblige. The several thousand people of Chagos, whose enslaved ancestors had been brought to the archipelago mainly from Madagascar and Mozambique more than two centuries before, worked chiefly in the harvesting and processing of coconuts for their oil. In the late 1960s and early ’70s, they were forcibly expelled under the pretense that they hadn’t really been inhabitants at all. The new empty zone of atolls was renamed the British Indian Ocean Territory. The motto on its escutcheon reads In tutela nostra Limuria (“Limuria is in our charge”), the reference being to a mythical lost continent. The Americans occupied Diego Garcia, and when the airport runway was finished, the comedian Bob Hope arrived on one of his USO tours to entertain them.
By Philippe Sands
The Chagossians have been seeking redress ever since—some mixture of reparations, an apology, a pathway to British citizenship, and the right of return. Mauritius has been seeking redress too—it wants its islands back, and has declared that it would allow the Chagossians to return, if they so wished. Those who remember life on Chagos are now old, and they and their descendants are spread across Mauritius, the Seychelles, and Great Britain itself. They are not united in their outlook. By now, it is likely that relatively few would exercise an option to reside permanently in the archipelago; they would like to be able to visit, however. Many are more interested in better treatment in the places they now live, and in compensation. Affection for Mauritius is not always deep. But starting three decades ago, some of the Chagossians began bringing legal actions in British courts, even as the government of Mauritius began pursuing its own claims through international courts. Unexpectedly, both sets of plaintiffs secured some victories. Quiet negotiations are now under way involving Britain and Mauritius, and the U.S. can reasonably be assumed to be involved behind the scenes. In the next year or so, the sun may finally set on the British Indian Ocean Territory.
The international lawyer Philippe Sands tells this story, of the Chagossians’ long exile and their fight for some form of justice, in The Last Colony. His account ranges across history while giving voice to the living. He has himself been involved in some of the legal battles. I have known Sands ever since I helped publish excerpts from his investigation into the use of torture at the Guantánamo Bay detention facility and how U.S. government lawyers justified it. Sands went on to write East West Street, about the origins of the legal concepts of “genocide” and “crimes against humanity”—an account that intersects with his own family’s experience during the Holocaust. His book The Ratline, which had a parallel life as a popular podcast, centered on an SS Gruppenführer and war criminal who, after the war, took refuge in the Vatican and died there under mysterious circumstances.
The Last Colony does not cover the endgame of the Chagos saga, which continues to unfold, but the book is animated by the belief that an end may be in sight. International law is peculiar: It often doesn’t seem to matter until suddenly, after decades have gone by, it does. The legal process can be tedious, and not just for the lawyers—but this short book is not a treatise. Sands wisely builds some of his narrative around the life of Liseby Elysé. She had been born in the Chagos Archipelago—on Île du Coin, an island in the Peros Banhos atoll—and was barely 20, recently married, when, in 1973, she, her husband, and everyone else in the atoll were rounded up, given a few hours to pack a single suitcase each, and made to board a ship for Mauritius, a six-day voyage away. Elysé was pregnant, and would lose her baby after her arrival in Port Louis. All pets had to be left behind. They were hunted down and shot, or herded into coconut-drying sheds and gassed, events memorably chronicled by the journalist Simon Winchester.
Nearly 50 years later, in 2018, Liseby Elysé was the person chosen to describe the experience of expulsion to the World Court, in The Hague. Sands writes:
Madame Elysé’s statement was projected on two large screens that hung above the judges, words and images broadcast around the world. In faraway Port Louis, the capital of Mauritius, the proceedings were shown live on national television, as her friends gathered in a community centre to watch.
The Chagossians had been trying to leverage the legal system for decades. One effort was driven by a man named Olivier Bancoult, who was just a boy on Île du Coin when he and his family were forced to leave. Bancoult leads an organization called the Chagos Refugees Group and has argued in British courts that the eviction was illegal and that the victims have a right of return. He actually won his first case, in 2000, but the British government brushed it aside after 9/11—no point aggravating the Americans as they waged a war on terror. (Diego Garcia was reportedly used as a transit point for rendition flights.) The second effort—in the World Court—was driven by Mauritius, for its own purposes. Mauritius, represented by a team that includes Sands, argued that the detachment of Chagos by Britain had been based on blatant falsehoods and that the detachment and the expulsions were illegal. In 2019, the World Court ruled against Britain, a judgment endorsed by the UN General Assembly not long afterward. In February 2022, with those victories in hand, Mauritian officials and a group of Chagossians mounted a trip to the archipelago: Mauritius to assert a claim, the Chagossians to visit the islands of their birth—the first time they had done so without a British military escort.
The Last Colony includes maps and photographs that kindled my own memories of that trip, which I wrote about for The Atlantic last year. The islands of the archipelago are volcanic platforms tufted with palm trees and fringed by white sand. Sea turtles swim in the clear water of the lagoons. Giant crabs drop to the ground from trees. Ashore, the Chagossians hacked away at weeds and vines in cemeteries whose earliest gravestones bore dates from the late 18th century—a long way back for transient contract laborers. The stone churches stood roofless, each a tropical Tintern Abbey, palm trees sprouting in the naves, the floors covered thickly with coconuts. The Chagossians cleared them out, too.
The last photo in the book is of Liseby Elysé sitting on the trunk of a palm tree that leaned horizontally over a patch of sandy beach on Île du Coin. Like Sands, I remember seeing her there, bouncing gently. Whether from clear-eyed memory or the ache of nostalgia, the Chagossians often speak of the archipelago as a lost Eden. The sight of Elysé sitting on a tree trunk seemed to capture a moment from her long-ago youth, before the expulsion.
The final contours of a Chagos agreement, if there eventually is one, are still unknown. After the World Court ruling and the Chagossian pilgrimage to the archipelago, the British government seemed intent on keeping up appearances. When Queen Elizabeth died, in September 2022, the BIOT commissioner offered formal condolences “on behalf of the British Indian Ocean Territory,” as if there were something and someone to speak for. But, as Sands notes, the wider world has already begun to treat a settlement as inevitable. The Universal Postal Union has banned BIOT stamps. The UN has relabeled its official maps.
In November 2022, Britain’s foreign secretary, James Cleverly, announced that “through negotiations, taking into account relevant legal proceedings, it is our intention to secure an agreement on the basis of international law to resolve all outstanding issues, including those relating to the former inhabitants of the Chagos Archipelago”—a statement that was interpreted as somewhere between opening a door and throwing in the towel. In February of this year, the U.S. Department of State called the expulsions from Chagos “regrettable,” implicitly (if coolly) accepting the historical account of American policy laid out in David Vine’s 2011 book, Island of Shame. Both Mauritius and Britain have indicated that, whatever the ultimate outcome, the U.S. base on Diego Garcia will likely remain more or less as it is. Only the landlord will change.
I spoke recently with Olivier Bancoult, the Chagos activist, as he passed through Washington. No one thinks seriously in terms of independence for Chagos—the goal at the moment is for some sort of special recognition as part of Mauritian sovereignty. But the Chagossians do have a flag, as well as a soccer team based near London that plays internationally. In the future, some of them may even try to move back to the archipelago, though doing so would be difficult: The buildings and infrastructure are gone, and nature has reclaimed almost everything. One could imagine that some basic support for the rest of the archipelago—to sustain a modest resettlement—could be provided by way of Diego Garcia, but such a prospect is getting far ahead of events. Bancoult and his group are not involved in the negotiations, but he was pressing his case at the State Department and on the Hill; and in press conferences; and on NPR. Then he made his way to the United Nations, in New York. When I asked Bancoult what he was looking for from the negotiations, he recited a list. But it began with just two words: “an apology.”
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