the Disillusioned kid: The Chagossian Diaspora
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Saturday, September 17, 2005

The Chagossian Diaspora

The Blogheads amongst you will no doubt already be familiar with concept of a blog carnival, regular themed postings hosted on participating weblogs which link to the best (or occasionally worst) posts dealing with the Carnival's theme. There are a multitude of succesful examples including the Carnivals of the Uncapitalists and the Godless and probably at least as many failures. One of the latest attempts is J. Otto Pohl's Mini Carnival of the Diasporas. Helpfully he offers a succinct definition of the concept of diaspora, which is one of those terms that's used quite often, but which is probably quite difficult to tie down.
I consider a diaspora to be a culturally defined group of people living outside their historic homeland that have maintained a transgenerational connection to that homeland. These ties can be cultural, political or even just psychological. But, they do prevent total assimilation of these groups into their host populations and continue to mark them as being parts of larger communities across international boundries.
Pohl notes that "the prototypical diaspora group are the Jews," but other examples include the Armenians, Indians and the Palestinians.

I would like to suggest that the term could also be applied to the Chagossians (also known as the Ilois), expelled from their island homes on the Chagos Archipelago by the British Government in order to make way for a US military base. The Chagossian community is relatively small, probably numbering around 4,500 and is spread between Mauritius (where most of the islanders were taken), the Seychelles and the UK.

For many years the British Government sought to defend its policy vis-a-vis the Chagossians by suggesting that they by means of what historian Mark Curtis has described as “the giant lie at the heart of British policy... that the Chagossians were never permanent inhabitants of the islands but simply ‘contract labourers.’” In a secret note to Prime Minister Harold Wilson in 1969, Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart noted that it would be helpful “if we can present any move as a change of employment for contract workers rather than as a population resettlement.” This was a fiction maintained by successive governments until recently. In fact, as the government now admits, there was in fact a settled population and many of the Chagossians were fifth-generation islanders, descended from slaves brought to Diego Garcia, the largest island in the Archipelago, by the French colonists in 1776.

Over time the Chagossians had come to develop their own culture alongside their own distinctive Creole alnguage. Their social system was matriachal - presumably a legacy of the leper colony established on the island by the French, because women survive the diesease better than men. The islanders were largely Christian and broadly Catholic. There was a church on the island made from coral rock. Over time as the population grew it spread to other islands in the Archipelago, although visits between the islands were limited by the distances between them. Although there was a schoolhouse on Diego Garcia, there was little in the way of formal education and the islanders apparently had no understanding of a cash economy. This way of life continued largely undistrubed until the 1960s when the US decided it wanted a base on the island.

The removal of the islanders is something I've written about before and not really the focus of this post and so it will suffice to say that the Chagossians did not by any means leave voluntarily. Most of the Chagossians were dumped on the quaysude at Port Louis Mauritius. They were given no support and had to find what accomodation they could. Most ended up in slums, some even in animal huts. A handful of islanders who held a sit-in on the boat bringing them to Maurititus received some compensation, much to the chagrin of earlier exiles. Mauritius was already racked by overcrowding and high unemployment and unsurprisingly the newcomers were not exactly made to feel welcome. As a result of their situation, rates of alcoholism, drug use and even suicide were chronic. Many of the islanders died, whether at their own hand or from malnutrition.

Tragically the situation in which most Chagossian live has barely improved in the intervening period. Unemployment amongst Chagossians runs at around 60% compared to a national average in Mauritius of 4%, while Chagossian illiteracy is 45% and Mauritian 15%. Levels of drug abuse, alcoholism, prostitution and suicide are similarly high. John Pilger's recent (and recommended) documentary Stealing A Nation included a section where he visited a family who had been filmed in 1982 living in abject poverty with 25 sleeping in shifts in one room. Twenty-two years later he finds them in the same house, in much the same conditions. The Chagossians, however, have not resigned themselves to their plight and continue to struggle for their rights. Pilger expresses admiration for the elderly women who are at the forefront of the struggle, participating in protests outside the British High Commission. Their fight has not been entirely succesful, yielding some compensation (although in practice this did little to lessen the plight of most recipients) and a High Court victory, which declared their expulsion illegal.

Many of the islanders want to return to their island homes, something the British Government has used a series of machinations to prevent. Even organising a visit by a contingent of Chagossians to their relatives' graves, agreed by then Foreign Office Minister Bill Rammell in November last year has proved difficult enough. In light of this, a number of Chagossians have made the decision to come to the UK in the hope of finding a better life. Despite having British citizenship the government refused to do anything for them and local councils were forced to fill their gap, something they only conceded after the issue was brought before the courts.

The plight of the Chagossians remains little-known and the size of their community means that they are considerably less politically influential than many other disaporic groups. Nevertheless, it is important that their experiences and their struggle not be airbrushed from history.

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