‘Paradise Lost’: The Chagossians and their Archipelago During the 20th Century

Satyendra Peerthum, Historian, Lecturer, & Writer

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The Chagos Archipelago A Mauritian Territory


The recent announcement by the Mauritian Government of a possible bilateral agreement with the British Government over the Chagos Archipelago and the Groupe Réfugiés Chagos’ name change to Group Resilience Chagos has opened a new chapter in the long and complex history of this unique archipelago and its people.

 The Chagos Archipelago has been part of the territory of Mauritius since the late eighteenth century when our country was a French colony and was then known as Isle de France. The Chagos Archipelago and all the other islands forming part of Isle de France were ceded by France to Britain through the Treaty of Paris of 1814 and Isle de France was renamed Mauritius. The administration of the Chagos Archipelago as a constituent part of Mauritius continued without interruption throughout the period of British rule until its unlawful excision from Mauritius in 1965.

The Chagossians during Early 20th Century

Between the late 1700s and the early 1900s, it was precisely due to the archipelago’s geographic isolation that a distinct and insular island society gradually emerged in the Chagos.  A distinct Chagos Creole, related to the Mauritian Creole and “Seyselwa”, emerged among the islanders which can also be seen in their music such as the sega and their cuisine.  Diego Garcia remained the most important island in the archipelago and the most important of the “Oil Islands of Mauritius”.

By 1911, it had a population of 517 people, along with six villages, several other outposts, and two hospitals, not to mention numerous farm animals. Between the late 1800s and mid-1900s, one of the most important estates and villages in Diego Garcia and the archipelago was East Point Estate and Village with more than 50 Chagossians. During the 19th century and most of the 20th century, the Chagossians, especially those of Diego Garcia, developed an identity of their own in their little island-world in a remote corner of the Indian Ocean.

Between the early 1900s and 1930s, laborers continued to immigrate to the islands from Mauritius and Seychelles during times of prosperity and the islands seem to have been thriving. In 1935, the company that consolidated ownership of the entire archipelago closed the islands and transferred Six Islands’ inhabitants, along with those of Eagle Island and perhaps Trois Frères to Diego Garcia, Peros Banhos, Salomon, and, in smaller numbers, to Mauritius.

While there were always local differences among the islands in Chagos, general similarities were the rule for Chagos as a whole. Chagos Kreol, a kreol French language related to varieties in Mauritius and Seychelles, emerged among islanders. People born in Chagos became collectively known by the name Ilois (also spelled Ilwa, Zilois)—generally translated as “islander.” It is unclear when this name first developed, but the visiting priest Roger Dussercle used the term as early as his report from a 1933-1934 mission. Between 1933 and 1939, Dussercle produced several seminal reports, books and articles on the Chagossians and their famous archipelago which provide valuable insight on the people and their islands.

The Chagos during the Mid-20th Century

It is important to note that after the abolition of slavery in February 1835 and of the Apprenticeship System in April 1839, the general nature of labor relations changed little, even if the quantity and demands of work lessened over time in favour of the labourers during the late 1830s and 1840s.  In fact, in 1949, the Director of the Labour Department commented that generally the “patriarchal” labour relations between the managers and labourers in the Chagos as “dating back to what I imagine would be the slave days, by this I do not imply any oppression but rather a system of benevolent rule with privileges and no rights.” 

Labourers’ houses were generally laid out in rows along roads leading to a village green and the administrative center of each plantation. Here there were workshops, small oil mills, drying sheds for the copra, artisan workshops, company offices, recreation grounds, a cemetery, and a church or chapel (in each of the three main settlements). Small dirt roads traversed the main islands and there were a handful of motorbikes, trucks, jeeps, and tractors. Various sailing vessels allowed travel around and among the islands and at least one motorboat provided transportation between neighbouring Peros Banhos and Salomon.


A regular garbage and refuse removal system was reported as better than that in rural Mauritius. Water came from wells and from rain catchment tanks. Between the 1930s and the 1960s, Chagos moved from relative isolation to increasing connections with Mauritius, other islands in the Indian Ocean, and the rest of the world. Sailing and, later, steam ships from Mauritius and Seychelles stopped in Chagos about two or three times a year by the beginning of the twentieth century and four or more times a year by the 1960s.

The boats delivered food and provisions, mail, visiting priests, government officials, and other passengers and loaded copra, other exports, and passengers leaving the islands. Copra and coconut oil exports were sold in Mauritius and Seychelles and through them in Europe, South Africa, India, and Israel. Wireless communications at local meteorological stations connected the main islands with Mauritius and Seychelles. Short wave radios allowed reception of broadcasts from at least as far off as Seychelles and Sri Lanka.

Between 1901 and 1964, a total of 2,785 people were born in Chagos, whilst deaths during this period amounted to 1,713. In the absence of emigration/immigration the population of the Chagos would thus have more than doubled between 1901 and 1964 (from 965 to 2,037) whereas in 1964 it stood at 993.


The Forced Exile of the Chagossians

Beginning in 1967, any Chagossians leaving Chagos for regular vacations or medical treatment in Mauritius were prevented from returning to their homes and left stranded in Mauritius and the Seychelles. Some Chagossians began leaving for Port Louis and Port Victoria as food, medicines, and basic supplies began running low. Other Chagossians report being tricked or coerced into leaving. In 1971, the U.S. military began construction of military facilities on Diego Garcia and instructed British officials to complete the removals. Later that year, the private company running Chagos for the British, with some assistance from U.S. soldiers, forced all remaining Chagossians in Diego Garcia onto overcrowded cargo ships.

Between 1967 and 1973, the Chagossians, then numbering over 1,000 people, were expelled by the British government, first to the island of Peros Banhos, 100 miles (160 km) away from their homeland, and then, in 1973, to Mauritius (for the relationship between the Chagos Archipelago and Mauritius, see Chagos Archipelago). During this period, the vast majority of the Chagossians were deported on the BIOT British ship the Nordvaer which has lived in infamy as a notorious vessel which tore and exiled them from their native islands. A number of Chagossians who were evicted reported that they were threatened with being shot or bombed if they did not leave the island. Until today, the Chagossians are still suffering from this terrible tragedy and exile which violated their human rights as they lost their paradise on earth.






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