Guest post by Sean Carey
The Chagos Regagne conference at the Royal Geographical Society in London on May 19 focused on the possibility of establishing an eco-village and research station on one of the outer islands of the Chagos Archipelago, part of the disputed British Indian Ocean Territory. It turned out to be extremely interesting.
But this wasn’t just a “scientific” conference for marine and other scientists. Instead, there were conservationists, lawyers, development geographers, cultural anthropologists and a good number of former U.K. Foreign Office personnel, including David Snoxell, the former British high commissioner to Mauritius, as well as John MacManus, the newly appointed administrator of the British Indian Ocean Territory.
Mauritius High Commissioner Abhimanyu Kundasamy attended. Mauritius is host to the largest group of Chagossian exiles and their descendants, around 3,000 people, who live in the capital, Port Louis, and surrounding areas. Mauritius wants the return of the archipelago. In 1965, under international law, the archipelago was illegally excised from its territory by the U.K. in order to provide the U.S. with a military base on Diego Garcia.
Also in attendance were around 150 Chagossians. They had travelled from Crawley and Manchester where they have settled since leaving Mauritius and the Seychelles and becoming British passport holders in 2002.
I met David Vine, of American University in Washington, D.C., who gave an excellent and impassioned summary of his book, Island of Shame, as well as sharing his more recent thoughts on why the U.S. prefers isolated, unpopulated islands for its military bases. Put simply, it’s all a question of “no people, no problems.”
David received a rapturous round of applause from the Chagossians (and others) in the auditorium when he highlighted the fact that the islanders had been removed from their homeland by the British authorities between 1968 and 1973 at the behest of the U.S., because they were “a relatively small population and black.”
Philippe Sands, professor of international law at University College London, launched a blistering attack on successive British governments for the “colonial” and “racist” treatment of the Chagos Islanders, as well as the excision of the Chagos Archipelago from the colony of Mauritius before independence in 1968. He levelled a similar charge against the Pew Charitable Trusts for its decision to back the creation of the Marine Protected Area, announced by former British Foreign Secretary David Miliband (@dmiliband) on 1 April, 2010. His intervention clearly discomfited Pew’s representatives in the audience.
By contrast, my role at the conference was relatively minor – the delivery of some population and passport statistics in the afternoon session. It did, however, allow me the time to talk to others in attendance including Cambridge University’s Mark Spalding, a world expert on coral reefs. I wrote an article for the Guardian based on our conversation as well as other observations about the conference. (David Vine is also mentioned in this Guardian article.
Finally, everyone who attended the conference owes a debt to Laura Jeffery, of Edinburgh University, an expert on Chagossian communities in Mauritius and the U.K. She provided a translation in both English and Chagossian Creole of the vast majority of the presentations in both the morning and afternoon sessions — no easy task given some of the technical jargon involved. She also found the energy to deliver her thoughts on a future research strategy for discovering Chagossian ideas about the future of Chagos with participants drawn from the communities in Mauritius, Seychelles and the U.K.
A summary of Chagos Regagne will be delivered to current U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague in the near future outlining the findings and conclusions of the conference. Looking forward to his response!
Sean Carey obtained his Ph.D. in social/cultural anthropology from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. He is currently research fellow at the Centre for Research on Nationalism, Ethnicity and Multiculturalism (Cronem) at Roehampton University. He writes for the Guardian, Mauritius Times, New African and New Statesman.