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The Chagos Archipelago  

Marina Carter

The Chagos Archipelago comprises fifty-five Indian Ocean islands on five coral atolls, which were little known and uninhabited until the 18th century. Small exploratory settlements were set up by the French and British from the 1770s, but the archipelago was not permanently occupied until after the Napoleonic Wars. Collectively—with Agalega—known as the oil islands because of the exploitation of coconut plantations, the atolls were leased and later sold to Mauritian and Seychellois settlers who employed slaves and later nominally “free” laborers to collect, dehusk, and press the coconuts to produce oil. Economically in decline for most of the 20th century, the Chagos archipelago was controversially detached from Mauritius during independence negotiations in the 1960s and reconstituted as the British Indian Ocean Territory. Some 1,500 islanders were displaced and, as Chagossians, have engaged in a series of legal battles to reclaim their homeland. Currently only one island on the southernmost atoll—Diego Garcia—is occupied, utilized as an American military base; it was declared a Marine Protected Area in 2010. Mauritius has been internationally recognized to have the strongest claim to sovereignty of the archipelago but some Chagossians are calling for independent statehood.