The islanders that Britain sold - Political Quote

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Wednesday, December 6, 2006

The islanders that Britain sold

'The islanders that Britain sold' is the title of a Sunday Times article which appeared in the paper in November 1975. It tells the story of the people of llois people who inhabited the Chagos an archipelago in the Indian Ocean. The islands came to Britain as part of the empire and it has held onto them ever since.

The llois are the descendants of slaves and farmers who settled the islands to work the massive plantations in the 18th and 19th century. The islands moved from the control of France to Britain without any impact on the lives of the llios who lived by keeping goats, chickens, pigs and a few cattle and by growing vegetables and worked for the landlords harvesting coconuts from the big plantations for sale in Mauritius.

In the late 1960s it was planned that Chagos would become part of the soon to be established nation of Mauritius. However at this stage the US was showing interest in establishing a military base on the islands.

This would be under a leasing agreement - British-owned but American-run, as found at Ascension Island or Lakenheath. The US rent from the lease of any British territory would go towards paying for Britain's newly-acquired Polaris missiles.

The US initially asked for the Aldabra Atoll, which had no human inhabitants. However, it was found to be home to the rare Aldabra tortoise. There are around 100,000 of these creatures on the islands which, due to their isolation, form a natural 'niche'. The wildlife lobby ensured that the US plans for Aldabra were dropped.

This was good news for the tortoise but very bad news for the poor llois who after centuries of eking out an existence were suddenly now in the way. Not only was their island centrally located, its bay was big enough to berth the entire US fleet. Prime real estate!

Britain decided that rather than allow the islands become part of Mauritius it would buy the islands and its neighbours for £3 million. Shortly after it did a 50 year deal with the US to let them have the island for their base. These islands then became the British Indian Ocean Territory.

The only fly in the ointment was the 2,000 llois. Britain bought the plantations and work dried up for the islanders. By 1969 if you left the island you were not allowed back. In January 1971 the US troops arrived and began construction of a base called 'DIEGO GARCIA' and an airstrip. In March a chap from the BIOT office arrived to tell everyone they had to leave. As nice law abiding peole the llois packed up their belongings, shut their houses and left. The US navy was kind enough to ship them to Mauritius. By October the last of the llois on the islands held their last Mass on the island.

They were deposited en mass on Mauritius. £600,000 in compensation for the llois was paid to the Mauritius government but the llois never saw any of this money. When they asked the British Consulate for a plot of land they were referred to the Mauritius government.

In November 1975, the Sunday Times published an article entitled The islanders that Britain sold this prompted Mr George Champion, a Methodist preacher from Kent, to begin a one-man picket of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, with a placard reading simply: 'DIEGO GARCIA'. He continued until his death in 1982.

There is no doubt that the base has been a good investment for America as B-52s and other bombers have been deployed from Diego Garcia on missions to Iraq during the 1990 Gulf War, to Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom, and to Iraq again during the 2003 invasion. A fleet of B-52s, B-1s and B-2s from Diego Garcia also led the shock and awe attacks on Baghdad.

In 2000 the British High Court granted the islanders the right to return to the Archipelago. In 2002 the islanders and their descendants, now numbering 4,500, returned to court claiming compensation, after what they said were two years of delays by the British Foreign Office.

However, on 10th June 2004 the British government made two Orders-in-Council forever banning the islanders from returning home, reversing the 2000 court decision.

On May 11, 2006 the British High Court ruled that the 2004 Orders-in-Council were unlawful, and consequently that the Ilois were entitled to return to the Chagos Archipelago. It remains to be seen whether the British Government will appeal.

You can help by lobbying the UK government to allow the Ilois to go home and by signing the
on-line petition here.

For more information on the issue visit the Chagos support site here

· Write to UK Foreign Office fax 020 7008 1589 or email c/o
· Write to US Defence Attaché Office in London to demand that the US government recognises the right to return to our islands.Fax:[44] (0) 20 7894-0726 email:

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