The Chagossians


The school, Diego Garcia, 1964 - one year before the Chagos Islands were detached from Mauritius to create the new colony of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). (photo credit Andrew Nunn)


"There is nothing wrong in law or in principle to enacting an immigration law which enables the Commissioner to deport inhabitants of BIOT. Even in international law there is no established rule that a citizen has a right to enter or remain in his country of origin/birth/nationality etc. A provision to this effect is contained in Protocol No 4 to the European Convention on Human Rights but that has not been ratified by us, and thus we do not regard the UK as bound by such a rule. In this respect we are able to make up the rules as we go along and treat the inhabitants of BIOT as not ‘belonging’ to it in any sense."

So reads a secret minute written by a Foreign Office lawyer on 23 October 1968 when plans were being drawn up to deport the Chagossians from their homeland to make way for a US military base on the island of Diego Garcia.

The detachment of the Chagos Islands from the colony of Mauritius had been carried out 3 years earlier in defiance of the United Nations General Assembly Declaration 1514(XV) which called upon colonial powers to give complete independence to former colonies without alteration of their borders. The UK neglected this and the requirement: "to transfer all powers to those peoples ….without any conditions or reservations" and instead created a new colony - the British Indian Ocean Territory. This prompted the UN to pass General Resolution 2066:

" Noting with deep concern that any step taken by the administering Power to detach certain islands from the Territory of Mauritius for the purpose of establishing a military base would be in contravention of the Declaration [1514 (XV)] …Invites the administering Power to take no action which would dismember the Territory of Mauritius and violate its territorial integrity."

Nonetheless, the British Government pressed ahead with their plans for the new colony, and on 30 December 1966 signed an 'Exchange of Notes' with the US Government, granting the US the rights to use the whole of the archipelago for defence purposes for an indefinite period. This was initially to be 50 years until 2016 and thereafter renewal is automatic for a further 20 years.

The fate of the islands was sealed and the indigenous Chagossians (Ilois) were initially prevented from travelling back to the Chagos from visits to Mauritius and were finally deported between 1971 and 1973. 

Words written by the Manager of the last Plantation on Ile du Coin, Peros Banhos just before the removal of the islanders in 1973 (photo credit Mark Spalding)

The Role of the United States

US Seabees landing on Diego Garcia 20 March 1971 (photo credit Tony Hutson)

It has long been thought that the US played a central role in the removal of the Chagossians by demanding that the territory should be free of inhabitants. Recent research, however suggests that this is not true. 

David Snoxell 1 wrote in 2009, "Although the US was looking for an uninhabited island to serve as a base, there is no available evidence that they insisted on the depopulation of all the islands. It was British officials who were the instigators of this policy, albeit with American concurrence.

Evidence has now been found in government papers which confirms this and exonerates the US. Whilst the US undoubtedly required Diego Garcia to be depopulated, the removal of the remaining population from Peros Banhos and Salomon was entirely at the behest of the British Government. A letter 2 from the East African Department of the FCO to the British High Commissioner in Mauritius recounts that: "Our agreement with them [US] leading to the 1966 Exchange of Notes required only Diego Garcia to be empty. They had no objections to the other Chagos Islands remaining populated; it was our decision to clear the lot and resettle in Mauritius."  

1 - Snoxell, D.R. (2009) Anglo/American Complicity in the Removal of the Inhabitants of the Chagos Islands, 1964-73. Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 37:127-134
2 - Hewitt (EAD) to Ward (BHC Mauritius) dated 4 December 1980. File FCO 31/2770. National Archives, London.

How Many Chagossians were Removed from the Chagos Islands?

Robert Lemaitre, aged 82 years, a retired docker and fisherman from Salomon with his grandson. Roiche Bois, Port Louis, Mauritius November 2005

Examination of HM Government files in the National Archives at Kew have allowed researchers to build a reasonably accurate picture of the removal of the population from the Chagos. They concluded that:

By 1973, all the inhabitants had been removed by the British Government to make way for a US Military Base on one of the islands, Diego Garcia. Although the recorded population of the Chagos in the early 1960s before the formation of the British Indian Ocean Territory did not exceed 1,000 at any one time, the nature of the society and their links to colonial Mauritius masked the true numbers who had been born on and lived in the islands and were entitled to consider themselves native islanders or ‘Ilois’ and whose employment and lifestyle involved a freedom of movement between Mauritius and the Chagos. The size and nature of the Ilois were deliberately manipulated and concealed by British colonial officials in order to avoid scrutiny by the United Nations. By comparing the best available contemporary records and government archives, we conclusively demonstrate that the policy of the British Government drove between 1,328 and 1,522 Ilois into exile and poverty on Mauritius, and a further 232 on the Seychelles.

The full paper can be found in the academic journal Population Space & Place: Gifford,R. & Dunne,R.P - A Dispossessed People: the Depopulation of the Chagos Archipelago 1965–1973  (PSP - Early View). Copies of the paper are available on request (e-mail:

Exile in Mauritius

In 1983 Sean Carey visited Mauritius where he talked to exiled Chagossians, his report appeared in Africa Now in the same year: Carey 1983 Africa Now.pdf

See also:

Sandra J.T.M. Evers and Marry Kooy (eds.) 

This book examines the history and contemporary living conditions of Chagossians who were evicted from the Chagos archipelago in the Indian Ocean to make way for a strategic U.S. military base. Initially part of colonial Mauritius, Chagos was integrated into a new colony named the British Indian Ocean Territory in 1965. In 1966, Great Britain transferred control of Diego Garcia, the largest Chagos island, to the Americans under a fifty year lease. The expulsions which followed were designed to satisfy the U.S. demand for an unpopulated territory. The Chagossians were thus forced to resettle in Mauritius and the Seychelles, where livelihoods are poor and marginalized. The Chagossians are currently engaged in a campaign seeking right of return to the archipelago and recognition as a people forced to live in diaspora. 

For more details: Brill Publishers

For further reading, see the House of Commons Library Standard Note "The Chagos Islanders" at: (last updated 20 April 2012).

Further Reading

Diego Garcia: a contrast to the Falklands. The Minority Rights Group - Report No. 54. 1985

Links to Chagossian  & Other Support Groups:

R P Dunne,
Mar 6, 2012, 8:23 AM
R P Dunne,
Feb 20, 2012, 10:17 AM