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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.

Article

The Chagos Islands and Indian Ocean Geopolitics  

Steffen F. Johannessen

Located in the central Indian Ocean, the Chagos Archipelago was uninhabited until the late 18th century. Midway between India and Mauritius, the clusters of coral atolls were sighted and named by Portuguese pilots in 1512. From the mid-1700s, during the wars between France and Britain, the islands started gaining strategic importance as potential naval bases or supply stations on the India route. Claimed by France, and managed from the French colony of Mauritius, Franco-Mauritian colonizers imported enslaved laborers from Africa and Madagascar to produce copra and coconut oil for a favorable wartime market in Mauritius. By the end of the Napoleonic Wars, sovereignty had shifted to British hands. After slavery was abolished, the coconut industries were supplied by Indian indentured laborers. Small societies developed around the island industries, which would continue to produce until the second half of the 20th century. To make way for a joint UK–US military base on the largest island, Diego Garcia, British authorities separated the Chagos Archipelago from the rest of their Mauritian colony and established the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) in 1965. To accommodate the US Pentagon’s base strategies, British authorities evicted the entire local population to Mauritius and the Seychelles between 1965 and 1973. By the mid-1980s the military base was fully operational. As a forward operations facility strategically located between East Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and Indonesia, Diego Garcia became one of the United States’ most important overseas military bases. From its airstrip, bomber aircrafts attacking targets in Afghanistan and Iraq have lifted and returned. Located along central Indian Ocean shipping lines, the strategic value of the base also connects to the growing export economy of China and that of India, and these major regional states’ dependence on energy imports. The joint UK–US base is, however, highly controversial. International bodies have repeatedly called for full decolonization and the return of the Chagos Archipelago to Mauritius. Objections to the Indian Ocean militarization it represents have a long history, and exiled members of the Chagossian community have continuously fought for their right to repatriation. In other words, the history of the military base, now substantiated by disclosed files revealing how British and American authorities conspired and lied to create it—has become one of the most central threats to this central geopolitical establishment in the Indian Ocean.