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A Black and Disgraceful Site

But the greatest deceit related to the people of the Chagos Islands. Mindful that international law required them to regard the interests of a territory’s permanent inhabitants as paramount, US and UK officials lighted upon a device Vine rightly describes as “Orwellian.” They would simply pretend that the Chagossians were not a permanent population with homes, deep roots, traditions, and ancestral burial places on the island, but a “floating” group of “transient workers” eligible for none of the UN’s safeguards. This, the officials themselves recognized, was nothing more than a “fiction.”

The deception was maintained when the Navy faced questions from senators keen to know if there was a Chagos population they ought to worry about—“negligible” came the answer— and kept up again with the American public when the Nixon administration announced its plans for Diego Garcia in December 1970, describing the population as “a small number of contract laborers from the Seychelles and Mauritius.”

So it was that, too far away to be noticed, the people of the Chagos Islands saw their birthright sold. The Americans paid the British, who in turn paid the government-in-waiting of soon-to-be-independent Mauritius. The latter was given a choice: accept a $3 million bribe and the loss of the Chagos Islands—or there will be no independence. It took the money.

With the UK, Mauritius, and the US Congress all lined up, the path was now clear for building to begin. Vine describes how in March 1971 a tank landing ship and five others

descended on Diego with at least 820 soldiers…. The Seabees brought in heavy equipment, setting up a rock crusher and a concrete block factory. They used Caterpillar bulldozers and chains to rip coconut trees from the ground. They blasted Diego’s reef with explosives to excavate coral rock for the runway. Diesel fuel sludge began fouling the water.

Wasting no time, the British began ridding Chagos of its people. First those luckless enough to be away from home were told they could not return: their islands were now closed. Those still on the archipelago were then informed that it was a criminal offense to be living in Chagos—a place that most of them had never left—without a permit. Next they were, in effect, starved out, as British officials deliberately ran down supplies of food and medicine. Salvage crews came to dismantle the plantations: there would be no work and no rations. Then, in a demonstration of US and UK resolve, the commissioner of the British Indian Ocean Territory, as it was now renamed, gave the order for the islanders’ pet dogs to be killed; after US soldiers armed with M16 rifles failed to shoot them all, the animals were gassed as their owners looked on.

The remaining Chagossians were forced to board crammed cargo ships for a nightmarish crossing—sleeping on decks slick with urine and vomit— to Mauritius or the Seychelles where they were dumped, with no homes to go to and no compensation to make up for the possessions and livelihoods they had been forced to leave behind. From then until now, they have lived among the corrugated tin shacks of the slums of Port Louis in Mauritius, their lives scarred by extreme poverty, unemployment, drug and alcohol abuse, and diseases unknown in their previous island home. Most lethal was the sagren, the deep melancholy brought on by the loss of a homeland, recognized by the World Health Organization as a genuine medical phenomenon. Rita Bancoult believes she lost her husband and three of her children to sagren : all now dead, they could not recover from the pain of dispossession.


The place they left behind looks very different now, not that many people have seen it. Among the few is the Conservative member of Parliament Michael Mates, who, as chair of the House of Commons select committee on defense in the early 1990s, visited Diego Garcia. “It is quite an astonishing sight,” he told me. “There’s a vast American fleet anchored offshore, ships containing a division’s worth of armor and artillery.”

He estimated that as many as 150 tanks, armored personnel carriers, heavy artillery, and engineering vehicles were kept in the hold of cargo vessels, safely away from the corrosive sea air. Every year or so, Mates was told, the entire fleet is sailed back to the US, where the vehicles are unloaded, driven around to make sure they still work properly, then reloaded onto the ships and sailed back to Diego Garcia. “The expense of it is mind-boggling,” he says.

Indeed, the base is predicated on the assumption that money is no object. Vast amounts of multibillion-dollar hardware and equipment are maintained as a contingency, so that if they are needed, they are pre-positioned, ready to go.

The visiting MPs were left in no doubt about whose guests they were. The official designation of the site as RAF Diego Garcia was, says Mates, “a complete fiction”: it is a US facility, rebranded as the “Footprint of Freedom.” The new masters do at least care for the habitat they have taken over. Mates recalls being told he could walk on the beach so long as he didn’t pocket any shells. “It is gorgeous,” he remembers. “Absolutely lovely.”

And useful. No one has denied that the Footprint of Freedom was the launching site for the bombardment of Iraq and Afghanistan. More cloudy is Diego Garcia’s service in the system of extraordinary rendition by which the Bush administration picked up wanted men in one foreign country, then flew them to another for coercive interrogation, if not outright torture.3 What is known came to light on February 21, 2008, when the British foreign secretary, David Miliband, had to admit to the House of Commons that his fellow ministers had misled Parliament when they had repeatedly denied that Diego Garcia had been used for rendition. “Recent US investigations have now revealed two occasions, both in 2002, when this had in fact occurred,” Miliband said, claiming that a US clerical error had prevented the truth from emerging earlier. He explained that in both cases a plane with a single detainee on board had landed at Diego Garcia on a mere refueling stop. These men had not left the aircraft and no other “US detainees have ever been held on Diego Garcia…or any other Overseas Territory,” Miliband said.

Those reassurances have met with skepticism, partly because of the earlier denials and partly because of a series of statements from authoritative sources. Last August, Time quoted a “senior American official” and regular participant in White House situation room meetings saying that the CIA had twice confirmed that the US had imprisoned and interrogated “high-value” detainees on Diego Garcia in 2002 and possibly 2003.4 Separately, and in two interviews two years apart, the retired four-star US general Barry McCaffrey listed Diego Garcia alongside Guantánamo and Bagram in a roll call of American detention facilities outside the US, apparently unaware that the information was even controversial.5 A Council of Europe report has spoken of “concurring confirmations,”6 and the UN’s special rapporteur on torture of “credible evidence” that Diego Garcia was used to hold suspected terrorists.7

The London-based human rights organization Reprieve draws particular attention to two items of circumstantial evidence. First, the prison facility on Diego Garcia was upgraded in December 2001, just as similar work was underway on US bases in Poland and Romania, locations that served as “black sites” for unlawful interrogations. Second, the suspicion that detainees were held in a floating prison off Diego Garcia is strengthened by the US admission that John Walker Lindh, the so-called American Taliban, was held on board the USS Bataan—a ship that Reprieve says has been serviced from the island. The group is also interested in the USNS Stockham, which was deployed to Diego Garcia in July 2001 and which was extensively modified in 2004 in order to support the “war on terror.” One Reprieve document quotes Vice Admiral Brewer, commander of Military Sealift Command from August 2001 until his retirement in early 2006, saying of the Stockham : “That ship is off doing some real good stuff that we can’t talk about.”


Vine could easily have written a book called Islands of Shame. He argues that there are at least sixteen such cases, where “often in isolated locations, often on islands, and often affecting indigenous populations, the US military has displaced local peoples” to make way for bases or similar activity. They range from the Bikini Atoll, picked for a nuclear test, to Koho’olawe, Hawaii, taken after Pearl Harbor; from Guam, of which the US military controls around one third, to the Philippines, where “Clark Air Base and other US bases were built on land previously reserved for the indigenous Aetas people.” The Navy pushed aside Aleutian islanders in Alaska, Puerto Ricans from the small island of Vieques, and Inughuit people from Danish Greenland—to say nothing of the 250,000 people displaced by the US base in Okinawa, fully half of the island’s population.

Vine’s evidence casts a fresh light on the ongoing debate over whether or not the US can be said to constitute an empire and, if so, how it might compare with its historical predecessors.8 It had previously been fashionable to regard the US empire as exceptional, a break from the past in that its influence is almost entirely indirect and economic, since it refuses to join the Romans or British in ruling over colonies directly.

Thanks to the work of scholars such as Chalmers Johnson and now Vine, we can see the weakness in that argument. The latter estimates that there are one thousand US military bases and installations “on the sovereign land of other nations.” This “base world,” as Johnson calls it, is presented benignly, as the product of voluntary, bilateral pacts between the US and those states that agree for their land to be occupied. But often this presentation is, in the idiom of that British official, a “fiction.” Behind the veneer can lie the crude expropriation of land and the callous dispossession of some of the world’s weakest people. That is how it used to be in the old days of empire, whether under Rome or Queen Victoria. And that’s how it was in the Chagos Islands not much more than a generation ago.

Of course there are some novelties. For one thing, not all of today’s imperialists are cartoon racists and bigots. While one British foreign official waved aside the Chagossians as no more than a “few Tarzans or Men Fridays,” US Admiral Zumwalt made his mark by integrating the Navy and granting more senior roles to women, saying: “There is no black Navy, no white Navy—just one Navy—the United States Navy.”

Nor were these men blind to the consequences of their actions. One naval official warned a colleague that “a newsman” could cause great damage by reporting that

long time inhabitants of Diego Garcia are being torn away from their family homes because of the construction of a sinister US “base.”

There is a further, more intriguing difference between contemporary US officials and their imperialist forebears. The ancients would be surprised to see that their current counterparts have reversed the previous driving logic of empire. Following the lead of the Romans, London once dreamed of coloring the map pink, ruling the world by conquering as much territory as it could. But its US successor seeks to do the opposite, to rule by holding, directly at least, as little terrain as it can. Vine quotes military expert John Pike:

Even if the entire Eastern Hemisphere has drop-kicked us” from every other base on their territory, he explained, the military’s goal is to be able “to run the planet from Guam and Diego Garcia by 2015.”


In view of the strategic importance of their island home to the sole global superpower, simple realism surely says that the tiny Chagossian nation, numbering no more than five thousand, should give up all hope of ever reclaiming it. After all, the US is not about to retreat from a region just as potential rivals move in. Beijing now runs surveillance facilities on islands in the Bay of Bengal, while working on an extremely ambitious, Panama Canal–style plan to link the Indian Ocean to China’s Pacific Coast. India, meanwhile, has established its own naval stations and listening posts on Madagascar, Mauritius, and the Seychelles. The US is not likely to leave them to it. Robert Kaplan reports that in October 2007 the US Navy decided that it needed a “sustained forward presence in the Indian Ocean.”

All of which should surely spell doom for the Chagossians. Yet they have not given up. Instead they have fought a marathon legal battle, enduring every possible reversal of fortune. In 2000, Britain’s high court ruled that the original expulsion was unlawful and that the people of Diego Garcia had the right to go home. Then in 2004, the UK government sought to void that court decision by issuing an executive order, bypassing Parliament, that simply abolished the islanders’ right of abode. In October 2008 that decision was upheld by a 3–2 ruling in the House of Lords, Britain’s highest court. The three law lords in the majority had apparently been persuaded by testimony that after September 11, 2001, the US regarded Diego Garcia as a “defence facility of the highest importance” and that, in the wrong hands, the islands would be useful to terrorists. Lord Hoffmann dismissed the very notion of a fundamental right to abode in the place of one’s birth: “The law gives it and the law may take it away,” he said.9

Nevertheless, the Chagossians refuse to disappear. Their lawyer, Richard Gifford, told me, “They are literally pining to go home,” to return to what he calls “their paradise lost.” In March the European Court of Human Rights served the British government with legal papers, demanding a response by June 12. Gifford hopes that the European Court will order the UK to restore the Chagossians’ right of abode and do whatever is necessary to enable them to realize that right in practice.

It is not such an unrealistic request. The Chagossians are not asking that the base on Diego Garcia be dismantled; Bancoult and the Chagos Refugees Group insist that they do not oppose it. They will be happy for the chance to work there, they say, confining their resettlement to the two thirds of Diego Garcia currently unused by the US military or, failing that, returning to the dozens of other islands in the archipelago, some 135 miles away from the Footprint of Freedom. That the US military can exist alongside civilians in those places is borne out by the fact that yachtspeople visit there frequently, either scuba-diving and snorkeling or enjoying beach barbecues close to the empty homes of the former villagers.

The Chagossians are convinced that they could make a go of it, by turning the archipelago into a high-class tourist destination boasting what is said to be the finest marine ecology in the world. They even imagine restoring the old coconut plantations, noting that coconut oil currently fetches the best price on the biofuels market. Yet for thirty years the coconuts have simply been falling to the ground uncollected.

If the legal route fails, it will have to be politics that returns the people of Chagos to their home. They are surely too small in number to stir an international movement on their behalf. But one likes to think that if Barack Obama were somehow to stumble across a copy of David Vine’s fine book, he would instantly realize that a great injustice has been done—one that could easily be put right.

—April 29, 2009


Island of Shame’: An Exchange on Diego Garcia July 2, 2009

  1. 3

    For a full account of the rendition network, see Stephen Grey, Ghost Plane: The True Story of the CIA Torture Program (St. Martin’s, 2006), reviewed in these pages by Raymond Bonner, January 11, 2007.

  2. 4

    See Adam Zagorin, “Source: US Used UK Isle for Interrogations,” www.time.com, July 31, 2008.

  3. 5

    See McCaffrey’s interviews with NPR in 2006 at www.npr.org and in 2004 with MSNBC at www.msnbc.msn.com.

  4. 6

    See “Secret Detentions and Illegal Transfers of Detainees Involving Council of Europe Member States: Second Report,” June 11, 2007, at assembly.coe.int.

  5. 7

    See Jamie Doward, “British Island ‘Used by US for Rendition,’” The Observer, March 2, 2008.

  6. 8

    This specific question forms a core part of the argument in my own essay, “Bush’s Amazing Achievement,” The New York Review, June 14, 2007.

  7. 9

    See Duncan Campbell and Matthew Weaver, “Chagos Islanders Lose Battle to Return,” guardian.co.uk, October 22, 2008.

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