United States of Archipelagos: An Intimate Take on the Chagossian Struggle


Chagossian artist Audrey Albert and Mauritian research designer Shane Ah-Siong wrote the following text together (nb. the first person parts refer to Audrey’s personal experience). In it, they describe the Chagossian struggle for sovereignty since the 1960s, when the entire archipelago’s population was evicted from its land to make space for a Britain-leased U.S. military base.

Ah Siong Funambulist
United States of Archipelagos by Shane Ah-Siong for this article.
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Cyanotype representing traditional Chagossian meal dhal cooked in coconut milk, done by a Chagossian native during one of the sunprint/cyanotype workshops for Chagossians of Manchester by Audrey Albert.

The Indian Ocean is slated to become the main hub for militarized developing-to-developed countries globally. It all started with the unlawful deportation of Natives and residents of the Chagos Archipelago, which was once under the sovereignty of the state of Mauritius. Once a French colony, it became a British Crown one in 1810 under the Treaty of Paris, Mauritius was known as the “key” of the Indian Ocean, given its stop-point for pan-Asia-African maritime trade. During the tirades of the Franco-British rules, Mauritius was the base for other dependent islands, namely Seychelles, Chagos Archipelagos, Rodrigues, Agalega, Tromelin.

The creation of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) in the late 1960s was imperially strategic: the U.K. government swiftly excised the Chagos Archipelagos from Mauritius and loaned the Chagos to the United States (contractually till 2036). From then on, Chagossians were evicted from their homes to make space for the United States Navy. Chagossian people ended up as refugees, provided a lump sum to merely self-sustain from the U.K. government, and left to fend for themselves in alien/non-native territory: Mauritius and the Seychelles. A place of no return for its Natives, the capital of the Chagos Archipelagos, Diego Garcia has since become a military base for the United States.

Diego Garcia is where my grandma Philline was born and raised. It is where she met her husband Seellal, where she learned to swim and spent a lot of her time fishing with her sister. Philline was also amongst the people who were put on a boat with her family and friends and told they could not go back home. They saw their pets being gassed, their houses being destroyed, and were told that their homeland had been sold. Many Chagossians died during and after the process from lasagrin (sadness) after they were left on the docks of somewhere they would never be able to call home. The aftermath of the Chagossian deportation was as horrible, if not worse than the deportation itself.

Many Chagossians died during and after the process from lasagrin (sadness) after they were left on the docks of somewhere they would never be able to call home.

Chagossians suffered from racial discrimination in Mauritius and a lot of them, Philline included, decided to hide their heritage and where they were from as a means to protect themselves and their families. After spending days at sea in inhumane conditions, they were dumped on the quayside at Port Louis (capital of Mauritius) with nothing. No money, no home, and most of their personal belongings miles away. Mauritius was not the ideal destination for relocation — not only was it overpopulated, but the high level of unemployment made it impossible for Chagossians with no formal education to find work. To this day, the Kreol community (afro-descendants including Chagossians) faces structural and institutional racial discrimination.

Chagossian history and culture has been ignored and re-written; having to live with the collective fear that one’s identity and culture was bound to be a dying, erased, and forgotten one. Today, families are still being torn apart; one of the main reasons for this is an anomaly in the U.K. nationality laws that exclusively grant British citizenship to Chagossians born between 1969 and 1982. The majority of Chagossians currently living in the U.K. are in low-paid jobs which makes it almost impossible for descendants not born between 1969 and 1982 to be granted U.K. visas, which are atrociously expensive. This second exile towards the West, echoes issues faced by gran dimounn (elders) during the first exile towards Mauritius and the Seychelles.

Chagossian Natives and their descendants are only able to feel and see their homeland through yearly arranged visits facilitated by the U.K. and the Mauritian governments. Chagossians cannot dig their toes into the sand of their motherland, cannot taste the saltiness in the air, and bathe in the seas they know inside out. And meanwhile on Diego Garcia, soldiers have access to more alcohol than orange juice, according to former officer Maricela Guzman. During an international conference held in Mauritius, she spoke about how rules were ignored on the military base, how workers were ill-treated, and about the guilt she now has to live with. Guzman reckons that more and more soldiers stationed on Diego Garcia are aware of the forceful removal of the Indigenous Chagossian population and stressed the importance of cultural training for military personnel before deployment.

U.S. Navy wives and families who visit as tourists are catered to a downtown area with local bars, or even a protected heritage for sea turtles. One can only wonder how a people with generational knowledge of local fauna and flora can be more endangering to the archipelago than strong U.S. men testing and disposing of bombs and (rumored) nuclear toys. To this date, the U.S. Navy Base in Diego Garcia has officially recorded deployments to Afghanistan, Kuwait (Gulf War), Saudi Arabia (Gulf War), Iraq, and occupied-Palestine. And to say that the United Kingdom and, by association, Mauritius, are also culprits in the mass assassination of nations is an understatement.

A quick Facebook search will bring up multiple pages about Diego Garcia — promoting a radio station on the military base, showcasing what tropical Naval military life is like. Soldiers can be seen playing volleyball on pristine beaches or enjoying a BBQ on the hot sand at sunset. These mundane activities happen on the same sand my ancestors used to hold their weekly séga, a well-earned moment of festivity; dancing, singing, playing traditional Chagossian instruments while drinking baka (a drink made of fermented wheat, dhal, rice or lentils and pumpkin and other fruits) and kalou (a juice which is made from fermented coconut palm sap) after a hard week of work on the copra plantations. It has been 53 years since the Chagossians have been fighting for their right to return to their homeland. In vain.

In the face of this surreal modern tale of colonization and historical erasure, Chagossians are resilient. They have been coming together for the past 53 years to celebrate and share their culture with the world and with each other. To tell their stories, to reclaim their history and share it. Traditionally a matriarchal society, it is no surprise that one of the first Chagossians activist groups was created by a collective of fierce women namely; Lisette Talate, Charlesia Alexis, and Rita Bancoult. Together, they led protests in Mauritius but also in the U.K. Together they stormed inside the British High Commission to unfurl protest banners with “RANN NOU DIEGO!” (“Give us back Diego!” in creole) and “ANGLAIS ASSASSINS!” (“British murderers!” in French) while shouting “Ramgoolam sold Diego!” They managed to be let inside by cleverly borrowing sophisticated clothing from their friends, wearing makeup, perfume, and coiffed hair pretending they were requesting visas.

This boldness and fierceness lives through Chagossian descendants. Chagossian activists and community groups are numerous nowadays, namely the Chagos Refugee Group, the Chagossian Welfare Fund, the Chagossian Social Committee, the Chagos Solidarity Trust Fund, and more recently Chagossian Voices. Chagossian Voices have been working with Chagos Support U.K. have been monitoring the new U.K. immigration bill to make sure that if changes are made to the nationality anomalies, Chagossians are not forgotten in the equation. All of these groups contribute to the exposure, rights, cultural transmission and celebration of Chagossian history, traditions, values, and heritage. To claim that Chagossian culture is a dying one is a false statement. It is thriving and will keep being through art, protests, oral history, activism, and community work.

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Larap Koko (Chagossian handmade coconut grater). / Matter Out of Place by Audrey Albert (2019).

My whole practice centers around my Chagossian origins. My work is a way of reclaiming history and of sharing the stories and ways of life of my ancestors with anyone who would like to listen. The Copra industry was the main source of employment as well as the economic base of the Chagos. The creation of the BIOT and the 2010 creation of the Marine Protected Area (still by the British government) around the Archipelago and its lagoon, which ultimately led to the destruction of numerous coconut plantations, brought me to realize how the Chagossian community had been virtually voiceless in the conversations about the future of their own homeland. I interpreted the destruction of coconut plantations as a violation of a strong Chagossian symbol, staple food, tool, and means of earning a living. I decided to call my coconut photograph Coconut Chaos. It was a way of reclaiming, reusing, and re-defining this term first employed by Peter Carr, a British military officer on Diego Garcia.

I interpreted the destruction of coconut plantations as a violation of a strong Chagossian symbol, staple food, tool, and means of earning a living.

Coconut Chaos is part of a body of work titled Matter Out of Place which explores Chagossian history and culture while building narratives around erased land, denied stories and totemic Chagossian objects. Matter Out of Place has gradually morphed into a creative community project by Chagossians for Chagossians called Chagossians of Manchester. It includes intergenerational workshops focusing on memories of home, mixed identities and oral history. It aims to create safe spaces where the elder and younger members of the community can get together to share their experiences and reminisce.

In recent years, the International Court of Justice has ruled that the U.K. return the Chagos Archipelago to Mauritius, following protests and the United Nations mandate to the rightful return of the Chagossian people. So far, not much has been done by the U.K. in response to the International Courts of Justice (ICJ), the United Nations (UN) public mandates, and International Criminal Court constitutions, which unravel the resistance that the British did not allow to the Chagossians. Mauritian sovereignty for the Chagos Archipelagos would mean a “rightful” return for Chagossians back to their homeland. To Chagossians, however, Mauritius having played a key role in their evictions means that trust has to be earned first before even considering such a scenario. How can Chagossians trust a government that elevates their stories without being considered political? So far, the lack of collective power from Mauritians to elevate Chagossian voices is only calling for action. And as the elderly population of Chagossian refugees is slowly giving up the reins to their descendants, so will their memories and colonial experiences. Acknowledging the dilution of colonial memory through time, Chagossian descendants and organizers around Mauritius and the U.K. currently host events to build solidarity and agency, together.

Diego Garcia was only the genesis, unraveling the strategic location of the Indian Ocean to world superpowers. As China and India are rising in the developing world, so are their militarized forces, and thus giving more importance to the Indian Ocean. India’s military is currently building its base on an uninhabited part of Agalega, Mauritius — a legal loan provided by the Mauritian government. The ramifications of such military expenditure and colonization are yet to be seen, but one thing is for sure: the Chagossian people are not going back home any time soon.

What is the future of this military fulcrum in the Indian Ocean? What is the role of the International Courts of Justice, United Nations, and the World Court if colonial superpowers remain just that: colonizers? To this day, Chagossian descendants carry the traumatic and generational burden of unlawful eviction and with that, an agency to get their home back to be reckoned with. ■