May 29, 2015

Chagos Archipelago

On the last morning of our passage from the Maldives to Chagos, menacing thunderheads materialized around our boat and then the wind picked up. With vanishing visibility we raced against the weather to pick our way past reefs and into the safety of the lagoon. Cautiously we wove our way through coral bommies, past lush uninhabited islands, to the anchorage at Boddam Island. There we picked up a mooring that some enterprising yachtie had previously built and headed ashore to explore one of the most isolated places we'll visit.

For yachties, Boddam Island is a fabled Indian Ocean stop. It's found in an atoll in the northern part of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), a huge region that includes six atolls and over 1,000 islands. Off most people's radar, the best known island in the territory is found 100 miles south: Diego Garcia is a US Naval base that rose to infamy when it was identified as a possible CIA black site.

In previous years cruising boats stayed in Chagos for months on end. Traveling between fair weather anchorages with dolphins and manta rays, and the old settlement on Boddam Island, with its wells, flourishing gardens and orchards (and even a few feral chickens), it was a peaceful lifestyle. Each week, or so, the BIOT boat would stop by to collect garbage and a token fee.

Our Robinson Crusoe Eden comes at huge a cost. In the 1960s Britain and the US made an unsavoury deal to set the islands aside for defence purposes and build the base at Diego Garcia. Over the next decade the 2000-2500 islanders, who'd initially been brought to the islands in the 1790's as slave workers for coconut plantations, but who went on to develop a unique and permanent culture, were expelled to Mauritius and the Seychelles.

Some had journeyed the 1200 miles to Mauritius for an annual shopping expedition and when it came time to return home they were abandoned on the docks—they were told that there was no boat available and they couldn't go home, ever. Others were slowly forced out by cutting off their jobs at the coconut plantations and stopping the flow of goods to the stores. The shop shelves grew empty, the church attendance dropped and the schools were closed. In some cases even the local animals were killed by officials.

No force was used to remove the people but they were told they had to go because the US navy wanted their land. Initially no provision was made for their settlement into Mauritius. They were left to fend for themselves. Many ended up in slums or prison.

It's a strange thing to be permitted to use the nation of an exiled people as your personal tropical playground. While yachts used to stay for months, these days you can only get a 28-day permit after mailing away reams of paperwork and paying a significant fee to the British Indian Ocean Territory.

It's still a better deal than the one the Chagossians got. There's a story of Chagossian fishermen attempting to stop in to collect coconuts—and being threatened with a $20,000 fine. The islanders weren't permitted to revisit Boddam until 2006, 30 years after the last residents were removed. At the time it was thought the formal visit was the first step in a pilot resettlement program. But the deal with the US for the lease on Diego Garcia is for sterile, uninhabited islands. Despite a variety of tribunals and reports that have come out in favour of repatriation for the Chagossians, they are no closer to coming home now than they've ever been.

While they wait, we explore. Using a machete we cut our way through the jungle, we search out their cottages, gardens and church. At one point we made our way to the graveyard. Time has rubbed away the inscriptions from almost all of the grave stones but as we stood in the peaceful place it seemed fitting to make a pledge to share the story of Chagos.

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1 comment:

Jonathan said...

Grim tribute, thank you for making us aware.