By Mark Nicholson
I had an evening alone the other day while my youngest two were living it up in Nairobi while my wife was searching for them. ‘Live location’ is splendid until the child being monitored turns off the app. ‘Sorry, Mum. My battery dried up’.
Meanwhile I settled down to watch a three-part Netflix documentary called “MH370: The Plane that Disappeared” about the loss of Malaysia Airlines flight 370 nine years ago this month. A friend told me not to bother because the conspiracy theories have blossomed, an inevitable consequence of the strangest unsolved aviation story in history. Shortly after the plane vanished, a South African pilot friend supplied yet another theory viz. that hijackers took over the plane and headed for Diego Garcia intending a suicide attack. That resulted in the aircraft being shot down by a missile. In contrast, satellite data suggested that it ended up in the ocean west of Perth. Yet flotsam from a (the? - depending on whom one believes) Boeing 777 appeared on the beaches of Mozambique, Reunion and Madagascar. From Perth to northern Mozambique is 8000 km, a long way to float when nothing was recovered from the supposed crash site. Strangely, CNN reported that various witnesses including fishermen, an oil rig worker, and people on the Kuda Huvadhoo atoll in the Maldives had seen the missing airliner early the next day, thousands of miles to the west of its supposed course. Anyway, the film took me back to a trip I made a few years ago to some of the Indian Ocean islands and the little-known story of illegal deportation.
As a boy, I read Sir Arthur Grimble’s “A Pattern of Islands”, describing his years as a colonial officer on the Gilbert & Ellice Islands (now Kiribati) in the western Pacific. After University, I ended up on nearby Guadalcanal (well, 'nearby' by the standards of the western Pacific - 5000 km away Google tells me). I there discovered how different the white coral beaches and atolls of low–lying Micronesia were from the densely-forested Melanesian islands with their black volcanic beaches. Poor Kiribati won’t last long as sea levels rise.
Fast-forward a couple of decades to when I set off with two US American ladies for a long Easter vacation from Nairobi to another pattern of islands in the Indian Ocean, starting in the capital of Madagascar, Antananarivo, continuing to Reunion and thence to Mauritius.
One might think that Madagascar, Mauritius and Reunion, being relatively so close geographically, would have something in common. Let me disabuse you: they have almost nothing in common other than being recipients of strong cyclones - 1. Madagascar is an enormous island of 581,000 km, almost two and half times the size of the UK. Ethnographically, the island remains for me the strangest country in the world. It is as if someone has taken a big pot, started with a slightly African-looking people, poured in some Indian, Malay, Indonesian and Chinese genes, added a dash of French and mixed the whole lot up. In terms of biodiversity, it is one of the most fascinating islands on earth, having gone its own way after splitting off from Africa 160 million years ago. It is not the holiday destination for everyone: the government and police force are venal; the roads, even by African standards, are indescribably bad; and the food up-country is fine if you are happy with boiled rice three times a day.
Mauritius is a small (2000 km2), rich, stable, well-run and rather reluctant member of the African Union comprising a small population that is 70 percent Indian. It is a popular destination for wealthy Europeans. Not a lot goes on on Mauritius. It was famous for the dodo, which was hunted to extinction by the Dutch colonists in the late 17th Century.
The equally small Reunion Island is a department of France. Arriving at the airport, lines of white French taxi drivers are there to whisk you to your destination. It is France in the Indian Ocean but twice as expensive. It is also highly volcanic: driving around the island one often has to drive through tunnels dug through recent lava flows. The beaches are also black, in contrast to the white beaches on Mauritius.
We intended our final destination to be the Salomon Islands (sic) in the Chagos Archipelago for no other reason than curiosity because I had worked for two years in the Solomon Islands, half a world away. The Chagos Islands belong to Mauritius. Let me rephrase that: Mauritius claims the Chagos islands, all 26 square miles of them. I had hoped that being with two United Nations staff might increase our chances of getting permission to visit but we were being over-optimistic. We approached the Mauritian authorities who said the only ways to get there were by hitching a lift on a B-52 courtesy of the US Air Force or by private yacht, a hop of 2500 km to the north, having first flown to London to get permission from the British Indian Ocean Territories (known by the hideous acronym BIOT) administration. “That may take several months or possibly years. The British are highly sensitive about our islands”.
So, who owns the Chagos islands? Certainly not the Creole-speaking islanders, descendants of French slaves, as they have only been there a few hundred years, even if they were not there when Portuguese explorer Pedro Mascarenhas discovered the group in 1512, naming the main atoll after his patron, Dom Garcia. The Maldives, Portugal, the Netherlands, France and the U.K. have variously claimed both them and Mauritius (and probably India claimed the Maldives). None of the explorers or their sponsors ever considered the people who had made their home there. They currently ‘belong’ to the UK within BIOT. But the main atoll, Diego Garcia is run by the US American military. No non-American, non-military person is allowed there. From a certain angle, it resembles the outline of Africa:
Between 1968 and 1973, all 2000 islanders were forcibly and secretly moved by the British from the archipelago to Mauritius and the Seychelles where they were rehoused in disgusting accommodation. Each deportee was allowed a small trunk and all their animals and pets were destroyed. In return for handing over Diego Garcia to the US military, the Americans gave a generous subsidy to the British for the building of the submarine-launched Trident ICBM warheads.
The case of the Chagos islanders is now at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague. Both Britain and the USA have been indicted for crimes against humanity. In 1950, when the European Convention on Human Rights was drawn up, Britain specifically excluded Mauritius from the list of colonies to which it applied. A decade later, when UN resolution 1514 specified that “all peoples have the right to self-determination”, both Britain and the US abstained because they were secretly negotiating the use of Diego Garcia as a vital strategic airbase in the Indian Ocean at a time when the USA feared increasing Russian influence in the Indian Ocean.
So while Mauritius claims the Chagos, Britain maintains the archipelago is still “Hers” (or do we say “His”, now there is a King?) and the USA maintains an iron grip over Diego Garcia.
The United Kingdom still claims there were no permanent inhabitants in the Chagos when Britain declared the BIOT. That is patently untrue. Neither was there any need to move them from most of the archipelago except from Diego Garcia. The other atolls have been made into Marine Reserves in which human habitation has been made illegal. The Chagossians have every right to demand compensation and to be given their land back, but, as always, might is right. In 2019, Mauritius won a major victory against Britain when the ICJ ruled that the Chagos Islands should be handed over to Mauritius in order to complete its “decolonisation”. The United Nations General Assembly then voted to give Britain a six-month deadline to begin that process but Britain has steadfastly refused to comply. The United States will never cede Diego Garcia. The rest of the archipelago has been declared a biosphere reserve so the chances of the Chagossians returning to their ancestral homes is about as good as our chances were of visiting the Salomon islands back in the early 2000s.
1 Recent cyclone Fred caused a huge amount of damage and a large number of deaths in Madagascar, Mozambique and as far inland as landlocked Malawi.