On October 7, British ITV showed a documentary by
renowned journalist John Pilger that used recently
released documents to show how the British government had
conspired with the United States to expel the Chagos Islanders
and turn their home into a US terror base. Days after the
documentary screening, the High Court agreed to re-examine a
degree legalising the expulsion. In this article, Pilger
continues his expose.
Three forgotten, grainy films shot more than 40 years ago
reveal the evidence of a crime committed by British
governments against some of its most vulnerable citizens. What
they tell is a shocking, almost incredible story in which the
British government of PM Tony Blair has played a major part.
One of the films, made in 1957 by the government's Colonial
Film Unit, shows the people of the Chagos Islands, a British
Crown colony in the Indian Ocean. The setting is idyllic; a
coral archipelago lying midway between Africa and Asia: a
phenomenon of natural beauty and peace where, says the
commentator, "most of the people have lived for
There are thriving villages, a school, a hospital, a
church, a railway, docks, a copra plantation. In the second
film, shot by missionaries, the islanders' beloved dogs splash
in a sheltered, palm-fringed lagoon catching fish; and there
is a line of proud mothers, in their finery, with their babies
awaiting their baptism. Here surely, was Britain's empire at
its most benign.
The third film marks the end of all this: an act of
ruthlessness and duplicity with few imperial parallels. The
year is 1961; a stocky man strides ashore in Diego Garcia, the
main island of the Chagos group. He is Rear-Admiral Grantham
of the US Navy and his visit is followed by a top secret
Anglo-American survey of the island for a military base —
one of the biggest US bases outside the United States: what
the Pentagon in Washington calls an "indispensable
platform" for policing the world.
Today, on Diego Garcia there are more than 2000 US troops,
anchorage for 30 ships, including nuclear-armed aircraft
carriers, a satellite spy station and two of the world's
longest runways, from which B-52 and Stealth bombers have
attacked Afghanistan and Iraq. Through the vapour haze as the
bombers take off you can just see, on the other side of the
lagoon, the broken villages: the houses claimed by the jungle,
some still with their furniture, pictures and other personal
belongings that were left the day the people were expelled.
Roaming wild are their donkeys and dogs that are now feral,
but there are few of these descendants of the islanders' pets.
As the Americans began to build their billion-dollar base 30
years ago Sir Bruce Greatbatch, KCVO, CMG, MBE, governor of
the Seychelles, ordered all the dogs on Diego Garcia to be
killed. More than 1000 pets were gassed with exhaust fumes.
"They put the dogs in a furnace where the people
worked", Lisette Talatte, in her 60s, told me, "and
when their dogs were taken away in front of them our children
screamed and cried". Sir Bruce had been given
responsibility for what the US called "cleansing"
and "sanitising" the islands; and the killing of the
pets was taken by the islanders as a warning.
For what had been agreed between Washington and Whitehall
in secrecy was that the 2000 Chagos Islanders would be forced
from their homeland. A 1965 Foreign Office memorandum
describes how the US government made the expulsion of the
entire population "virtually a condition of the
agreement". As for the gentle Creoles they were throwing
out, "these people have little aptitude for anything
other than growing coconuts". They are, wrote Sir Bruce
Greatbatch, "unsophisticated and untrainable". In
other words, expendable.
Files found in the National Archives in Washington and
Public Record Office in London provide clear evidence of a
conspiracy between the Labour government of Harold Wilson and
two US administrations in the form of a searing narrative of
official lying that will be all too familiar to those who have
chronicled the lies over Iraq.
The conspiracy got under way with the creation of a fake
colony called the British Indian Ocean Territory, or BIOT. The
sole purpose of this was to get rid of the people. To do it,
the Foreign Office invented the fiction that the islanders
were transient contract workers who could be
"returned" to Mauritius and the Seychelles, 1000
miles away. This was the equivalent of "returning"
the majority of Australians, whose ancestry dates from 1770,
the same year the first islanders settled in the Chagos.
The aim, wrote a Foreign Office official in 1966, "is
to convert all the existing residents into short-term,
temporary residents". What the files also reveal is an
attitude of brutality and contempt.
In August 1966, Sir Paul Gore-Booth, permanent
under-secretary at the Foreign Office, wrote: "We must
surely be very tough about this. The object of the exercise
was to get some rocks that will remain ours. There will be no
indigenous population except seagulls." At the end of
this is a handwritten note by DH Greenhill, later Baron
Greenhill of Harrow, "Along with the birds go some
Tarzans or Men Fridays?" Under the heading
"Maintaining The Fiction", another official urges
his colleagues to reclassify the islanders as "a floating
population" and to "make up the rules as we go
As for the United Nations and international law, which
invested in the remaining colonial powers a "sacred
trust" to protect the basic human rights of their
citizens in dependent territories, a senior Foreign Office
official proposed "a policy of 'quiet disregard' —
in other words, let's forget about this one until the United
Nations challenge us on it".
Reading these documents, I could find not a single word of
concern for the suffering caused or even recognition that
Britain was, in effect, kidnapping its own citizens. There is
worry about the press finding out and "damaging
publicity" and now and then the conspirators appear to
get the wind up. "This is all fairly
unsatisfactory", wrote one official, "We propose to
certify these people, more or less fraudulently, as belonging
The cover-up went right to the top. In 1968 Foreign
Secretary Michael Stewart wrote that "by any stretch of
the English language, there was an indigenous population and
the Foreign Office knew it". Yet on April 21, 1969, in a
secret minute to Harold Wilson, Stewart proposed that the
government lie to the UN "by present(ing) any move as a
change of employment for contract workers — rather than
as a population resettlement".
Five days later, Wilson gave his approval, which was copied
to senior members of the cabinet. At first the islanders were
tricked into leaving; those needing urgent medical care in
Mauritius were prevented from returning home. There is a
photograph taken outside the administrator's office on Diego
Garcia. It is a haunting image, taken in 1973, not long after
the massacre of the dogs. The stunned crowd has just been told
their islands have been sold and they are to be expelled. They
could take only one suitcase. On one journey in rough seas the
copra company's horses occupied the deck, while women and
children slept on a cargo of bird fertiliser.
Arriving in the Seychelles, they were held in a prison
until they were transported to Mauritius. In the first years
of exile suicides were common. "Elaine and Michel Mouza:
mother and child committed suicide", said a report in
1975. "Josie and Maude Baptiste: poverty — no roof,
no food, committed suicide". Lisette Talatte lost two
children. "The doctor said he cannot treat sadness",
she told me. Rita Bancoult, now 79, lost two daughters and a
son; she told me that when her husband was informed the family
could never return home, he suffered a stroke and died.
Only after more than a decade did the islanders receive
compensation: less than £3000 each. In 2000, the High
Court ruled their expulsion illegal. However, the Blair
government, although it did not appeal the decision, blocked
them from going home by conjuring up a "feasibility
study" to determine whether the islands could be
resettled. It found they were "sinking" —
perhaps under the weight of the thousands of US servicemen,
their bars, barbecues and bombers.
In 2003, the islanders were denied compensation in a now
notorious High Court case, with the judge referring to
"we" as if the Foreign Office and the court were on
the same side. Last June the government invoked a "royal
prerogative" — a decree — to overturn the 2000
decision, bypass parliament and ban the islanders from ever
After the October 7 screening of my documentary on ITV,
this epic struggle turned yet another corner when the High
Court agreed to a judicial review of the royal decree. The
islanders, led by Olivier Bancoult, who went into exile as a
child, and their extraordinary London lawyer, Richard Gifford,
say that if this fails they will head for the European Court
of Human Rights.
Article Seven of the new International Criminal Court
leaves little doubt that what was done to these gentle,
tenacious people was a crime against humanity. As US President
George Bush's bombers take off from their homeland, his
collaborator in Downing Street might reflect on that.
om>. John Pilger's ITV documentary, Stealing A
Nation, can be ordered on video. Write to: Video Library,
ITV1, Gas Street, Birmingham B1 2JT, UK. If you would like to
help the islanders, you can give to the Ilois (islanders)
Support Trust. The London bank account is Natwest, No
90213319, sort code 60-30-06.]
From Green Left Weekly, November 3, 2004.
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