Book Reviews

 

I just finished a small but interesting book and some of our classmates might like to know about it. "Island of Shame" by David Vine
 
This is a recent writing by the young US scholar, David Vine, who began this work in 2001 . His research is extensive and thorough and he has a remarkable compassion for a small population cruelly mistreated and abused by big powers.
 
The subject is the island of Diego Garcia, located about 1600 km south and a bit west of India, coordinates 7º18'S, 72º24'E. It is part of the Chagos archipelago. Diego is approximately U-shaped with the opening to the north. It has the appearance of a folded shoelace-a few km wide with a large lagoon in the center , about 8 by 19 km. This provides excellent protection for a large number of vessels and has adequate depth for the largest ship, especially after dredging out the coral heads. 
 
This land was first occupied by French settlers who established a coconut industry with slave labour from Africa and then imported Indian labour after the abolition of slavery in 1835.  The Islands reverted to England after the Napoleonic wars. Creole was the main language and over half a dozen generations the people developed a self-sustaining society based on copra and with self-sufficiency in food from the ocean and their own garden plots. Schools and basic medical services were created. As part of the British Colony of Mauritius, more complex treatments and commercial activity necessitated a four day voyage by boat to the larger island.
 
In the fifties the US Navy and a civilian employee, Stuart Barber, recognized the end of colonization and a consequent lack of Western influence over wide areas of the world, especially the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Barber astutely concluded that mainland military bases would be subject to popular opposition and proposed the "Strategic Island Concept" on which there would not be any remaining people to cause disruptions as was already being seen in Okinawa, for example. This would allow the US to protect its "future freedom of military action."
 
Vine devotes some space to the idea of US Empire. He has world maps showing the vast number of bases now possessed by the military, perhaps as many as 1000. Some of these were obtained as long term leases from Britain is exchange for Lend-Lease. Others were gained by military conquest and others by post-war agreements with defeated powers. The numerous Pacific Islands were kept as war booty. About a million US troops are stationed beyond US borders.   
 
After Suez, Barber's concept gained wide acceptance in the Navy. After inspecting Diego Garcia he realized it was an ideal base with a dominating location and only a few inhabitants to be removed. In 1960 discussions started with the British to obtain a long term lease and to permit early construction of facilities. The Navy suggested that Diego be detached from the Mauritius Group before the granting self-government to Mauritius. In 1963 Britain agreed to the suggestion, in principle. In 1965 Britain offered the potential Prime Minister the choice of   £3 million  and the detachment of the Chagos Archipelago or no independence; he selected independence.
 
The British Indian Ocean Territory was thus formed by order-in-council and was not disclosed to the British nation. This violated a UN resolution about maintaining the integrity of non-self-governing territories but the UN also discovered this after the fact and took no action. BIOT became the new colony comprising the Chagos and a few islands in the Seychelles.
 
The US insisted on complete political and military control and would not tolerate any residual inhabitants so the British tried to develop a process which would allow evacuation without violating one of the basic principles of the UN  charter which stated "the interests of the inhabitants of the territory are paramount." Thy did this by creating the fiction that the islands had no permanent inhabitants and the residents should be treated as a "floating population."
 
After the 1966 agreements Chagossians travelling to Mauritius were not allowed to purchase a return ticket and were stranded. A policy of limiting food supplies caused others to abandon the islands but it was not until 1971 that the Navy received funds to proceed with construction. At that point the  inhabitants were gathered and told that BIOT was closing Diego Garcia and the plantations.
 
So early in 1971 the removal was initiated in old and badly overloaded steamers. The residents were allowed only a few belongings and were deposited in Mauritius without funds, compensation of any sort or employment. The last boatload left In October, 1971 with 146 people packed onto a deck with space for 60. In total between 1500 and 2000 Chagossians were displaced.
 
 The hardships in this strange and poor overcrowded island had the usual effects of high mortality, abuse by the host people, disease, early deaths, lack of schooling and medical care. No housing was allocated and people lived in terrible conditions
 
The US embassy in Mauritius recognized the lack of a resettlement plan and its hugely severe consequences for the refugees. A deputy named Henry Precht tried to get the State Department to recognize US responsibility for these people since they ordered their removal from their established homeland. The argument was fruitless as no one was going to act on the pleas of such a low ranking official and the Navy brass wanted no part of it.The official response was that this was a British problem and the US had provided $14 million to look after it.
 
One of the continuing fictions regarding the islanders was that they were "migrant copra labourers." No one showed any curiosity as to how they could be migrants when the nearest mainland was 1500 km distant
 
The author spent significant time with these evacuees and devotes several chapters to the stories of individual families whom he befriended and who trusted him. He describes the formation of several protest and self-help groups in the late 70's and early 80's. In 1997 a Mauritian attorney agreed to bring a lawsuit against the British government. In November 2000 the British High Court found that the expulsion was illegal under British law. This caused the laws to be changed to allow the return to all islands except Diego Garcia which Robin Cook said was "never achievable politically with the Americans."A class action suit against the US failed in 2004. That year, in response to American pressure, the British government passed orders-in-council banning return to any of the Chagos Islands. This was contested in the High Court again and it declared the expulsion illegal and overturned the  Orders. The judges wrote "The suggestion that a minister can, through means of an Order in Council, exile a whole population from a British Overseas Territory and claim that he is doing so for the 'peace, order and good government' of the territory is, to us, repugnant."  The government appealed this decision and Court of Appeal who upheld it and called the Orders "nothing less than an abuse of power."  Again, the government appealed this ruling to the House of Lords to have been heard in 2008. The judgement was not available at the time of writing.
 
Vine concludes that the expulsion was an act of racism. "Because they were considered black, planners could easily regard them as insignificant, as a 'nitty gritty' detail." He points out that these people had been previously displaced from their birthplace as an enslaved people by the British and French empires. Displacement goes on to this day and he sights an example in South Korea where Camp Humphreys required several thousand acres of farmland which the farmers were forced to surrender.
 
Diego Garcia and Guam allow the US to control a very wide swath of the world. Diego was used to launch the bombing of Iraq both times as well as Afghanistan. The Persian Gulf and the mid-east oil resources are today   more directly controlled; a plan now is shaping up to build a base on the island of Sao Tomé in the Gulf of Guinea on the west coast of Africa. Guinea  supplies 15% of US oil imports. This area will become as important as the middle east for US oil supplies. Sao Tomé is described as another Diego Garcia.
 
Stuart Barber died in the early nineties but David Vine managed to track down his son who revealed that his father wanted Diego to be returned to the Chagossians since it no longer served a useful purpose as the Cold War was over. He also said the expulsion was not needed militarily and,indeed, private yachts are now numerous in the Diego lagoon and foreign workers are everywhere.
 
Britain was forced to abandon all its activities east of Suez in 1971 for economic reasons. Is it also a sign that the US Empire will have to shrink rapidly to avoid an economic catastrophe? Can $1.5 trillion deficits be sustained when the debt ceiling is approaching $20 trillion and are there any leaders present to raise the alarm about the impending disaster?
 
 
Emil Bizon
 
4 Feb 2010

 

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