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History of the Chagos Islands


Located in the Indian Ocean, the Chagos Islands, currently part of the British Indian Ocean Territory, are some of the most isolated islands in the world. Having lived on the Islands since approx 1783 the Chagossians are direct descendants of indentured labourers and slaves. Up until their eviction they lived relatively self sufficienly and worked on a coconut plantation for generations.

Beginning in the 1960’s the entire population of over 2,000 inhabitants, were forcibly displaced from their homeland by the British Government to make way for a U.S. Navy base; the final depopulation ending in 1973.

The expulsion was part of a secret deal brokered between the British and US governments to lease the islands at the height of The Cold War. It is now one of the largest most strategic U.S. bases in the world. At the U.S. request the British government cleared the population to ensure maximum security. In exchange the British government received discounted Polaris Nuclear Systems, the U.K.’s first nuclear arms.

In one of the most shameful episodes in British post-war history the Chagossians were transported in cargo ships and dropped at the seaports in Mauritius and the Seychelles, over 1,000 miles away. Having no homes, belongings or skills outside of the coconut plantation, ‘re-settlement’ has been a struggle.

For the last 40 years the Chagossians have lived in abject poverty and strive for survival. The remaining native population has dwindled to approximately 750 people. Since 2004 many of the community have re-located to Crawley, London where they are once again struggling to re-settle as they long to return to their native land and regain their roots.

Further Reading:


Chagos Refugees Group & Chagos Refugees Group U.K

Ilois Support

David Vine: Island of Shame

SpeakHuman Rights & Environmental

Peak of Limuria: The Story of Diego Garcia and the Chagos
Archipelago, by Richard Edis




slavery act



16th, 17th & 18th Century
In the 16th Century the Portuguese ‘discovered’ the uninhabited Chagos Islands. They name the archipelago ‘Bassas de Chagas’, Portuguese for Chagas (wounds) referring to the Holy Wounds of the crucifixion of Jesus.

In 1532, Diego Garcia lands on the Chagos Archipelago, the largest island being named after the Portuguese explorer.
Due to the isolation of the islands, they remained uninhabited until 1769, when it was explored again.

In 1776 the French, lease the islands to plantation companies, to produce oil and copra. The first colony was settled on the largest of the islands, Diego Garcia. The labourers were slaves imported from Madagascar & Mozambique through Mauritius or the Seychelles.

At war with each other Britain claim the Chagos islands from France in 1786.

19th Century
However, in 1814, during the Napoleonic Wars the islands changed hands yet again and became a French colony as part of the Mauritian territory. The colonial authority also sent lepers to the Chagos. The coconut plantation continued to flourish.

Over this period of time the Chagos Archipelago inhabitants form an inter-island culture, called “Ilois” (a French Creole word meaning Islanders).

In 1834 slavery was abolished in Britain and its colonies. Other than the addition of Indian indentured labourers, due to the isolation of the islands, life on the plantation continued uninterrupted.

1865 plantation owners buy their land outright from the government, the islands becoming privately owned. Unchanged by this, plantation life continues on the Chagos. An administrator, usually from Mauritius, oversaw the plantation with managers assisting on the islands.

In 1883, the then three separately owned plantations are bought and merged into ‘The Societe Huiliere de Diego et Peros’ / The Diego & Peros Oil Company. It remained under this ownership until 1962.

20th Century
In the 1940’s the Chagos Archipelago served as a re-fueling and minor base for the British Royal Navy. To protect the lagoon a battery of guns were installed, the remains of which are still visible today.

In 1944 during a cyclone one of the Catalina air-crafts was damaged and beached on Diego Garcia. Many Chagossians have fond childhood memories of playing on the ruins of the plane, the relic still remaining today.

In the 1950’s the islands were identified as a potential military base by the U.S. government.

In February of 1964 the defense departments of U.K. and U.S. met several times. In August 1964 there was a joint U.S. / U.K. military visit, to survey the islands. Due to the depth of the lagoon at Diego Garcia it was ideal for aircraft carriers.

In November 1965, the U.K. purchased the entire Chagos Archipelago from the then self-governing colony of Mauritius for £3 million to create the British Indian Ocean Territory (B.I.O.T.), with the intent of ultimately closing the plantations to provide the uninhabited British territory for the U.S. to conduct its military activities in the region.

December 1966, the U.S. and the U.K. executed an agreement through an Exchange of Notes which permit the United States Armed Forces to use any island of the B.I.O.T for defense purposes for 50 years (through December 2016), followed by a 20 year optional extension (to 2036) to which both parties must agree by December 2014. As of 2010, only the atoll of Diego Garcia has been transformed into a military facility.

Between 1967 and 1973 a joint United States-United Kingdom military base on Diego Garcia was developed.

In March 1971, U.S. Naval Seabee construction battalions arrived on Diego Garcia to begin the construction of the Communications Station and airfield.

October 1971. To satisfy the terms of an agreement between the U.K. and the U.S. for an uninhabited island, the plantation on Diego Garcia was closed in October of that year. The plantation workers and their families were initially relocated to the plantations on Peros Banhos and Salomon atolls in the northwest of the archipelago; those who requested were transported to the Seychelles or Mauritius.

In 1972, the U.K. decided to close all the remaining plantations throughout the Chagos, and deported the Ilois to the Seychelles or Mauritius.

The then-independent Mauritian government refused to accept the islanders without payment, and in 1973, the U.K. gave the Mauritian government an additional ₤650,000 to resettle the islanders. However the islanders remained in inadequate housing and living conditions.





A group of refugees from the Indian Ocean islands of Chagos Archipelago gather outside the High Court in London on October 31, 2002.  REUTERS/Michael Crabtree. MC/AHCopyright (2013) Thomson Reuters

A group of refugees from the Indian Ocean island of Chagos gather outside the High Court in London on October 31, 2002.
REUTERS/Michael Crabtree. MC/AH
Copyright (2013) Thomson Reuters



Wikileaks released cables on 2 December, 2010. British Foreign Office and American officials discuss plans to establish a marine park on Diego Garcia and the surrounding islands, which they say would effectively end the islanders resettlement claims. Please follow link for full cable

Wikileaks released cables on 2 December, 2010.
British Foreign Office and American officials discuss plans to establish a marine park on Diego Garcia and the surrounding islands, which they say would effectively end the islanders resettlement claims.
Please follow link for full cable



Struggling for survival in life outside of the plantation, it takes many years for the community to mobilize.

In 1975 a small group of Chagossians begin petitioning the UK government.

In 1978 a compensation deal is brokered for payment of approximately £650 at the time. However many families did not receive any money. A small group of women begin a three-week hunger strike in protest.

In 1979 a group of Chagossians and a British lawyer begin a case against the U.K. government. The British government offers compensation but only in exchange for renunciation.

In 1981 there was a large-scale community demonstration and Chagossian women go on hunger strike at Company Gardens, Port Louis, Mauritius.

In the following years Chagossian organisations such as The Chagos Refugees Group, the Chagossian Social Committee and the Chagos Social Committee are founded.

In 1997, Fernand Mandarin, a long standing Chagossian activist and his lawyer gain recognition for the Chagossians as an indigenous or autochthonous people before the U.N. Working Group on Indigenous Populations.

In 2000, in a case initiated by Oliver Bancoult, leader of the Chagos Refugees Group, the British Court rules in favour for the Chagossians right to return to the Chagos Archipelago, but not Diego Garcia.

The U.K. Government publishes preliminary study on the feasibility of resettlement.

On 10th June, 2004 Royal Orders were passed and The Queen using sovereign law, took away the right of Chagossians to live in their homeland. Full immigration controls over the B.I.O.T are reinstated.

In 2004 the first groups of Chagossians immigrate to the U.K.

On 11 May 2006, the High Court ruled that the 2004 Order in Council preventing the Chagossians’ resettlement of the islands was unlawful, and consequently the Chagossians were entitled to return to the outer islands of the Chagos Archipelago.

A Court Case in the European Courts of Human Rights is underway.

In 2007, The British Government appealed against the ruling again, and was defeated at the Court of Appeal, with the judges calling the treatment of the islanders unlawful and an abuse of power.

In Feb 2008, David Milliband admits Diego Garcia was used for rendition flights during the Iraq / Afghan war.

On October 2008 The British Government then took its appeal to the House of Lords, where the Law lords ruled by a majority of three-to-two to allow the government’s prior ruling, banning the Chagossians right to return once again.

On December 3rd, 2010, Wikileaks release a secret U.S. diplomatic cable revealing the British Foreign Office has privately admitted its latest plan to declare the islands ‘the world’s largest marine protection zone’, was established primarily to legally block attempts by the Chagossians to return to their homeland.

In December 2012, after an eight-year deliberation, the European Court of Human Rights dismisses the case.

This text was cited from:
The Electronic Law Journal, Richard Gifford ‘The Chagos Islands – The Land Where Human Rights Hardly Ever Happened’
Next Year in Diego Garcia, by Jean Claude de L’Estrac
Peak of Limuria, The Story of Diego Garcia by Richard Edis
Island of Shame by David Vine
The UK Chagos Support Association