The eternal debate is whether Mauritius did ‘troc’ the Chagos and its population for independence?

I recently picked up a copy of Jean Marie Chelin’s book ‘Les Ziles La Haut: Histoire de l’Archipel des Chagos’ published in French by J&S Printing in 2012, from the Blue Penny Museum’s bookshop.

In the Preface to his work, Mr Chelin writes (in French) “The deportation of the inhabitants of the isles of the Chagos Archipelago and their abandonment on the quays of Port Louis was the price paid for the independence of Mauritius . . . “

The December issue of the quarterly magazine ‘Discover & Invest’ carried an article in French from former President Cassam Uteem entitled “La saga des Chagossiens”. In this article Mr Uteem states, as a matter of fact, “. . . : the expulsion and the banishment from their homeland of some 2000 natives of the Chagos Archipelago for the independence of a diminished territory.” The author further affirms “Thus to obtain its independence, Mauritius sacrificed the Chagos Archipelago and the Chagossians.”

Anybody taking note of the above indictments are bound to believe that Mauritius’s independence of Britain was the result of a subterfuge between the mother country and its Indian Ocean possession. As a matter of fact, this line of thought has been fed to most Mauritians as the truth from the time of the uprooting of the Ilois in the 1960s and 1970s. The younger generations of Mauritians at home and abroad have been fed on this sort of judgmental conclusion from their tender age.

From what they have been told, overseas Mauritians are absolutely convinced that Mauritius sold out on the Chagossians for its independence. The son of a friend in the UK is adamant that Mauritius betrayed the people of the Chagos in order to be able to cut loose from the apron strings of the mother country.

He bluntly repeated certain allegations about the diversion of some of the money received for the resettlement of the Chagossians in Mauritius. Worse still, he put a racist complexion on the Chagos saga that the Chagossians were sacrificed because they were ‘Creoles’. (So much for those who believe that overseas, compatriots and their offspring are not community-minded!).

I promised the young expatriate that sooner or later some light would be thrown on the Chagos tragedy. I am therefore attempting to put a few observations on paper for his benefit and the likes of him who have been fed on information of all sorts on the Chagos issue.

UK High Commissioner for Mauritius, Sir Satcam Boolell, talking to Mauritius News editor Peter Chellen (left) in 1996. (Photo: Michael Marain)

Chagos for independence

If what is said about Mauritius’s ‘troc’ of the Chagos for independence is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but truth, we may be forgiven for asking what did India, ’the Jewel in the Crown’ of the British Empire, ‘troc’ for its independence from the mother country in 1947? And likewise, what did Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) ‘troc’ for its release from the colonial yoke in 1948?

To fully understand the sign of the times we must ask, as well, what did those British islands in the Caribbean sacrifice to Britain to be free from the colonial domination: Jamaica in 1958, Trinidad and Tobago in 1962, Barbados in 1966, Guyana in 1966, Bahamas in 1973, The British Honduras in 1981.

And closer to home, it may be relevant to know what did the countries on the African Continent sacrifice to Britain to become independent nations in their own right: Ghana (1957), Nigeria (1960), Sierra Leone (1961), Tanganyika (1961), Uganda (1962), Kenya (1963), Zanzibar (1963), Zambia (1964), Malawi (1964), Gambia (1965), Lesotho (1966), Botswana (1966), Swaziland (1968).

If none of those British possessions had to make any ‘troc’ or sacrifice to be cut free from the apron strings of the mother country, why was Mauritius an exception having to make both territorial and human sacrifices in order to be independent?  Had Mauritius not made the alleged sacrifices, would we still be a British colony to this day? Can anybody imagine Mauritius still being a British colony in 2019 because in the sixties it refused to give away the Chagos Archipelago to the British and to agree to the depopulation of the islands making up the Archipelago? Preposterous!

So, what is the truth about all this palaver that Mauritius committed an act of betrayal to obtain its independence? The truth is that the ‘Wind of Change’ was blowing all over the British Empire from the time that Britain lost ‘the Jewel in the Crown’ in 1947. And that wind, as acknowledged by the then British PM Harold Macmillan  on a visit to South Africa, was fully blowing over the African Continent in the 1950s and 1960s. Mauritius, Chagos or no Chagos, was to be blown out of the Empire, as time went by. But it has been inferred that Mauritian Premier Dr S. Ramgoolam (not Sir then) was ‘a man in a hurry’ to be the first Prime Minister of an independent Mauritius. Was he really in a hurry? It would take another 17 years (from 1965) to be ousted from office, and by whom!!!

The truth was that the British Empire itself was in free fall. The loss of ‘the Jewel of the Crown’ in 1947 saw the beginning of the Fall of the British Empire, and the days of Whitehall rule over all British possessions overseas, including Mauritius, were numbered from the 1940s onwards.

The Hague intervention

When the contention between Mauritius and the UK was heard by the International Court of Justice at The Hague in September last it was hinted by the Mauritian press that the Court’s findings would be made known in January 2019. January has come and gone, and we learn from Mr Uteem’s article that the verdict would be known in a few months’ time. So, the debate is still open.

The debate is whether Mauritius exchanged the Chagos and sacrificed the Chagossians for its own independence. Mr Uteem says in his article under reference that the Chagossians are convinced they were the “Objet d’un troc éhonté et cynique . . . avec l’accord tacite des dirigeants politiques mauriciens d’alors.”

It is to be wondered what the Mauritian delegation for constitutional talks at the London conference in 1965 could do when they were put before a fait accompli that the Chagos would be detached from the Mauritian territory. The fact that they did not overturn the table at Lancaster House and walk out is regarded, as Mr Uteem puts it, as a tacit response, i.e. silently consenting. Not much does, actually, transpire from among the delegates of what took place during the discussions. The only surviving member of this delegation, Anerood Jugnauth (now Sir), does not reveal a lot, except to occasionally deny some erroneous press reporting. Satcam Boolell (later Sir) was part of the delegation as well. As High Commissioner for Mauritius to the UK Sir Satcam told me in 1996, in an interview for Mauritius News, that not all members of the delegation attended every session of the London conference. He affirmed that the excision of the Chagos from the Mauritian jurisdiction was a fait accompli and that the Archipelago was not on the programme as a topic for discussion by the delegates.

In spite of all the arguments and counter-arguments, it cannot be denied that the treatment of the Chagossians by Britain in the 1960s and 1970s, left stranded and abandoned on the quays and waterfront of Port Louis harbour, was inhuman and should be condemned at all times. But to say that Mauritius was a party to it, or could have prevented such destructive actions on the part of the British Government, is an unjust accusation perpetuated by those who want to write history to satisfy their own agenda, political or even racial.

In memory of this tragic historical event it may be commendable that a commemorative monument be erected, let’s say at the Champ de Mars in Port Louis, one like the Tombeau Malartic, to serve as a tribute to the enduring sufferings of an innocent and inoffensive people caused by two mighty foreign powers.

Such a monument will also serve as a reminder that Mauritius was not a party to the tragedy of the Chagossians nor responsible for their removal from their home islands, 1500 miles from its shores.