There has been an abundance of media discussion on the ‘Special Relationship’ between the UK and the US in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory in the US Presidential Election, and the haste of Nigel Farage to play the Blair poodle to Trump’s Bush has been fairly excruciating to witness over the last few days. Obama’s ‘back of the queue’ response to Brexit set the British cat amongst the American pigeons a few months ago, yet the extent of the UK handover to US interests in the wake of the Empire’s dissolution half-a-century ago remains relatively under-reported.
Take the British Indian Ocean Territory, for example. Not familiar with it? Halfway between Tanzania and Indonesia, this area encompasses around a thousand islands within 23 square miles, the largest landmass of which is Diego Garcia, covering 17 square miles. Today, its inhabitants are US and UK military personnel and numerous contractors numbering up to 2,5000, though until the late 60s and early 70s the island had a native population of 2,000 descended largely from eighteenth century slaves originally emanating from Mozambique and Madagascar. Even after the abolition of slavery within the British Empire in 1834, the Chagos Archipelago remained a colonial outpost where the natives were very much second-class citizens; with the nearest imperial HQ in Mauritius, a considerable distance away, the post-slavery ‘freemen’ on Diego Garcia were poorly-paid contract workers employed by an absentee landlord, whose working and living conditions were rarely studied or improved.
During the Second World War, British and Indian troops were garrisoned on the island, with its strategic position attracting the peacetime attention of both the UK and US Governments, who entered into discussions to establish a permanent military base there. There had already been a significant change in the island population due to the French ownership of the various plantations there; a 1964 census claimed up to 80% of the populace were contract workers imported from the Seychelles. When talk of a military base resurfaced in the mid-60s, UK sovereignty in the region meant that the territory would remain British, despite any proposed base being a joint enterprise with the USA. Mauritius gaining independence in 1968 caused the UK to relieve the newly-independent former governor of the remote islands in the Chagos Archipelago of its duties, and to set about making plans for the main island’s future.
Fifty years ago next month, the British and American Governments signed an agreement that is shortly due to expire, one that allocated the region for military use, nominally under UK control, but essentially an army base for the US. In order to carry out the stipulations of the agreement, the native population was required to be evacuated from Diego Garcia, a task undertaken in virtual secrecy by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office between 1967 and 1973. This depopulation removed most of the island’s inhabitants to Mauritius and the Seychelles, though many settled in the unlikely environs of Crawley, West Sussex.
Sneakily skirting around UN rules and regulations on such issues, the British Government claimed the majority of the island’s population as it stood when seeking to evict them was ‘non-resident’, implying most were migrant workers with no historical or emotional attachment to the area. Those who actually contradicted the official view soon found themselves separated from family and friends when attempting to return home from visiting Mauritius, denied entry and suddenly rendered both homeless and jobless.
Perhaps the most despicable method of depopulation came via the cruel and cynical massacre of the island resident’s pets. According to veteran journalist John Pilger, upwards of a thousand animals kept as pets, mostly dogs, were taken away from the natives and gassed with exhaust fumes. This barbarous act served as a warning to the population that it was time to pack their bags, and when Labour MP Tam Dalyell received word of what was happening and expressed his intentions to raise the subject in the Commons, the FCO responded with a hastily-compiled excuse to cover their tracks that exposed their compliance with US military interests. By 1971, construction had already begun on establishing an American base on Diego Garcia.
In 1972, compensation payments to natives totalling £650,000 were handed to the Mauritian Government by the British, though it took the best part of five years before these payments reached those evicted from Diego Garcia. When the Washington Post tried to raise public awareness in America in the mid-70s, subsequent US Congressional Committees seeking to look into the matter were brushed off with a ‘classified information’ clause, whereas successive efforts to return islanders to their home have failed, blocked by endless legal loopholes as the case has been a virtual pass-the-parcel game through various international courts over the last 25 years that the British public has been largely ignorant of.
This week it has been announced that the latest attempt of islanders and their descendents to return home has been rejected by the British Government. FCO Minister Baroness Anelay has said that resettlement was turned down on the grounds of ‘feasibility, defence and security interests’ as well as ‘costs to the British taxpayer’, offering £4 million compensation payments spread over the next decade as a means of fobbing off ongoing campaigns to reclaim Diego Garcia from the US military.
Next time the subject of the ‘Special Relationship’ is raised, it’s probably worth examining precisely what that vague description actually means. In the case of the British Indian Ocean Territory, it essentially translates as the British selling their remaining dependencies down the river for the benefit of the American military, something that the upcoming Trump administration would probably wholeheartedly approve of. Nice one, Nigel.
© The Editor