A Matter of Detail

The detachment of Chagos 


The American interest in the Chagos dates as far back 1962, if not earlier. By 1964, it had become impossible for the British and Americans to conceal their plans about Chagos…


It is often put forward that the independence of Mauritius was in a way conditioned on the detachment of Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius. The suggestion then is that Sir Seewoosagur would have wilted in favour of Independence to the detriment of Mauritian sovereignty over these islands.

Much is indeed made of the British recording of the conversation between Harold Wilson, the British Prime Minister, and Sir Seewoosagur at a one-to-one meeting in 10 Downing Street in the morning of 23 September 1965. As per Prime Minister’s Wilson’s brief, the meeting was: “to frighten (Sir Seewoosagur) with hope: Hope that he might get independence; Fright lest he might not unless he is sensible about the detachment of the Chagos Archipelago”.Sir Seewoosagur is recorded to have said that “he was convinced that the question of Diego Garcia was a matter of detail; there was no difficulty in principle”.

It is rather reductive to attempt to ascribe too much meaning to a few words. A more careful analysis of the records prior and after that meeting, which records have been made publicly available for some time now, present indeed an entirely different picture. As we near the 50th Anniversary of our Independence, it is high time that the record be set straight.

The American position

“We know that the American interest in the Chagos dates as far back 1962, if not earlier. By 1964, following an Anglo-American survey of Diego Garcia and other islands, it had become impossible for the British and Americans to conceal their plans about the Chagos Archipelago. The American position was that the whole of the Archipelago should be detached from Mauritius in the interests of security and future contingencies. The British position, at least since the beginning of 1965, was that the Archipelago was legally part of Mauritius and that generous compensation for Mauritius, the inhabitants and commercials interests in the islands would be necessary to secure the acceptance of any proposals for detachment…”


We know that the American interest in the Chagos dates as far back 1962, if not earlier. By 1964, following an Anglo-American survey of Diego Garcia and other islands, it had become impossible for the British and Americans to conceal their plans about the Chagos Archipelago.

The American position was that the whole of the Archipelago should be detached from Mauritius in the interests of security and future contingencies. The British position, at least since the beginning of 1965, was that the Archipelago was legally part of Mauritius and that generous compensation for Mauritius, the inhabitants and commercials interests in the islands would be necessary to secure the acceptance of any proposals for detachment.

In 18 March 1965, in a secret brief intended for the British Secretary of State ahead of his visit to Washington, the Permanent Under Secretary Department writes that an approach had been made to ascertain the views of Dr Ramgoolam as the Premier of Mauritius, but “[his] reaction remained guarded”. On 23 July 1965, the Governor General, Sir John Shaw Rennie writes in a telegram to the Colonial Office that he had informed Ministers in Mauritius of what was being proposed. He writes: “Dislike of detachment was expressed both by Premier [Sir Seewoosagur] and Duval though I explained this was regarded as essential. It was clear however that any attempt to detach without agreement would provoke strong protest”.

It appears that Sir John was mandated to put across the British position. On 30 July 1965, Sir John writes another telegram to inform the Colonial Office that the Council of Ministers had met and Sir Seewoosagur speaking for Ministers as a whole said that “the Ministers objected to detachment” and had asked with “sympathy and understanding” whether the US/UK requirements could be reconciled with a long-term lease of 99 years. The Colonial Office in reply insisted that a leasehold arrangement would not do. Finally, on 13 August 1965, Sir John wrote another telegram to the Colonial Office advising that it would be counterproductive to press further as both Sir Seewoosagur and Duval were not prepared to agree with the British proposals.

Talks would start again in September 1965.

On 20 September 1965, Sir Seewoosagur and Messrs Koeniq, Mohamed, Bissoondoyal and Paturau attended a meeting in London at the Colonial Office. The record is there for all to see. The British tactic was to say that the Americans did not regard the Chagos Archipelago as indispensable to the defence plans and that the Americans could conceivably establish their base on islands belonging to the Seychelles.

Sir Seewoosagur remained resolute and is recorded as having stated that: “the Mauritian Government was not interested in the excision of the islands and would stand out for a 99-year lease”. Sir Seewoosagur proposed that consideration be given to a leasehold with rent of £7 million for the first 20 years and £2 million thereafter. The alternative, Sir Seewoosagur proposed, was for Britain to concede independence to Mauritius and to allow the Mauritian Government to then negotiate directly with the Americans over the Chagos Archipelago.

The displacement of the islanders was not discussed, and certainly as far as the Mauritian position was concerned, this was not contemplated at all.

To be clear, according to Sir Seewoosagur’s proposal, Mauritius would have leased the islands directly to the Americans in consideration for rent and preferential bilateral arrangements. In the event of detachment, Sir Seewoosagur’s fall-back position was that the arrangements he had proposed in the context of the lease would have to be bettered and, importantly, the islands would have to be returned to Mauritius when no longer needed for defence purposes.

The American position remained doggedly that the Archipelago needed to be detached from Mauritius (whether with or without Agreement). The British also started moving from the initial position that agreement with Mauritius was a constitutional necessity. The pressure started to bear on the British with talks on defence planned with a high-level American delegation on 23 and 24 September 1965.

Prime Minister Wilson’s veiled threat

“In his Minute to Prime Minister Wilson dated 5 November 1965, Anthony Greenwood, in justifying the need to proceed urgently to make the Order in Council, writes “[i]t is therefore important that we should be able to present the U.N. with a fait accompli”. Mauritius too was put before a fait accompli. That fateful meeting between Prime Minister Wilson and Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam is therefore not revealing for the latter’s stand. Indeed, Sir Seewoosagur remained dignified, steadfast and consistent in trying to obtain the best deal for Mauritius, amid intense pressures and threats…”


The British then arranged for Prime Minister Wilson to meet Sir Seewoosagur on 23 September 1965 at 10.00 am, in yet another attempt to pressure Sir Seewoosagur into accepting the British position.

Prime Minister Wilson began by stating that the question of detachment of Chagos was a completely separate matter and not bound up with the question of independence. However, when Sir Seewoosagur reiterated the Mauritian position, Prime Minister Wilson made a hardly veiled threat. The record reads:

“[Prime Minister Wilson] went on to say that, in theory, there were a number of possibilities. The Premier and his colleagues could return to Mauritius either with Independence or without it. On the Defence point, Diego Garcia could either be detached by order in Council or with the Agreement of the Premier or his colleagues.”

Sir Seewoosagar is recorded to have replied “that he was convinced that the question of Diego Garcia was a matter of detail; there was no difficulty in principle”.

It would not be correct to read in Sir Seewoosagur’s reply a significant concession to the British position. The Mauritian position had always been that it was agreeable (in principle) to the use of the Chagos Archipelago for the setting up of a military base, but the devil was in the details. Sir Seewoosagur’s position remained unchanged, although he would no doubt have taken note of the harder line of Prime Minister Wilson. What followed next confirms that.

Indeed, later on that day, in the meeting at Lancaster House on defence matters with his ministerial colleagues and Anthony Greenwood, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, amongst others, Sir Seewoosagur would once more reiterate his request that the Chagos Archipelago be leased. The British again rejected the proposal. Detachment was the only option. Discussions then centred over the conditions for detachment, including that the islands be returned to Mauritius once the need for the military facilities disappeared.

Although Sir Seewoosagur and Messrs Bissoondoyal and Mohamed gave their agreement to the overall proposal, they still expressed the wish to discuss matters further with their other ministerial colleagues in Mauritius. In other words, there was no definite agreement. Everything remained subject to ratification by the Mauritian Council of Ministers. Sir Seewoosagur had always favoured a collegiate approach in dealing with the difficult issue of Chagos. He was not going to change now.

Anthony Greenwood thereafter left Lancaster House to advise the British Prime Minister of the breakthrough, and it is reported that he was acclaimed for having secured an agreement.

The British’ own records, however, reveal a far more nuanced position. In its very own record of the UK/US talks on 24 September 1965, the British described the Mauritian position as “not yet crystal clear”. By 6 October 1965, Mr Greenwood was still writing to Sir John Shaw Rennie seeking “confirmation that the Mauritius Government [was] willing to agree that Britain should now take the necessary legal steps to detach the Chagos Archipelago…” The legal step was an amendment to section 90(1) of the Mauritius Constitution Order in Council 1964.

United Nations’ scrutiny

By the end of October 1965, the agreement of the Council of Ministers had still not been obtained. The British became increasingly anxious about timing and feared impending United Nations’ scrutiny of the UK/US proposal for detachment. In a telegram addressed to the UK Mission to the United Nations in New York, the Foreign Office raised concerns that any reference to the UK/US proposal in the United Nations “might jeopardise final discussions in the Mauritius Council of Ministers, which it would be difficult for local reasons to hold before 5 November [1965]”.

Finally, on 5 November 1965, the Council of Ministers chaired by Sir John Shaw Rennie considered the proposal. Sir John right away wrote an urgent and secret telegram to the Secretary of State for the Colonies. The account of Sir John is by no means conclusive. Whilst Sir John wrote that the Council of Ministers had confirmed agreement to the detachment of the Chagos Archipelago, the Council of Ministers had raised a number of matters and made certain further proposals.

The British were rapidly running out of time and decided to press on with the making on 8 November 1965 of the British Indian Ocean Territory Order of 1965 without addressing the matters and requests of the Mauritian Council of Ministers. In his Minute to Prime Minister Wilson on 6 November 1965, the Secretary of State for the Colonies conceded that “Mauritius Ministers have also given their formal approval, subject to official confirmation that we agree to the following points […] I propose to reply to their latest request that it is being further considered but that it has been necessary for the Order in Council to be made.”

By the time Anthony Greenwood replied to Sir John, the British Indian Ocean Territory Order of 1965 had already been made. The outstanding matters and requests of the Council of Ministers were either dismissed or remained under consideration, without Mauritius ever being afforded a right of reply.

Certainly, negotiations between the British and Mauritius had reached very far and that there was a semblance of an agreement or at least an agreement in principle, but the details remained to be finalised. No doubt, it would have served Sir John, Anthony Greenwood and indeed the overall British interest to claim that there was an agreement, but this was not true.

The Mauritian position was that negotiations were still open. However, any further possibility of negotiations was cut short with the making of the British Indian Ocean Territory Order of 1965. In his Minute to Prime Minister Wilson dated 5 November 1965, Anthony Greenwood, in justifying the need to proceed urgently to make the Order in Council, writes “[i]t is therefore important that we should be able to present the U.N. with a fait accompli”. Mauritius too was put before a fait accompli.

That fateful meeting between Prime Minister Wilson and Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam is therefore not revealing for the latter’s stand. Indeed, Sir Seewoosagur remained dignified, steadfast and consistent in trying to obtain the best deal for Mauritius, amid intense pressures and threats.

Rather, the meeting is significant for it exposed the deceit of a colonial power. Britain, cowed by its American ally, had finally proceeded with the unilateral detachment of the Chagos Archipelago, as its Prime Minister had threatened that it would.

 

* Published in print edition on 9 March 2018

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