From the Capture of Ile de France to the Chagos Archipelago,

last remnant of British sovereignty in the Indian Ocean

The Indian Ocean is today of immense strategic importance, just as it was in the early nineteenth century and again during the Cold War. But there really is nothing to prevent the UK now permitting resettlement and ceding at least the Outer Islands to Mauritius, and actually there never has been

By David Snoxell

I begin with the background to the British Capture, as we commemorate, if not celebrate, the bicentenary of both that momentous event in the history of Mauritius and the assumption of British sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago.

Since the start of the Napoleonic Wars there had been talk of capturing Ile de France to prevent it from becoming a base for a French invasion of India and from threatening the trade routes and passage to India. For a successful expedition a high level of cooperation between the British forces in India and South Africa, the Royal Navy and the East India Company was essential. Stephen Taylor comments in his ‘Storm and Conquest’: “There was no single defining point, no moment of decision at which the might of Britain – the Navy, the Army, the East India Company with all its resources – was mobilised against Ile de France.” It was the coming together of political, economic, strategic and climatic conditions, precipitated by the capture of five Indiamen (the Company’s ships) and taken as prizes to Port Louis by Commodore Hamelin in early January 1810 which set the plans for invasion in train. In London the Chairman and Court of Directors of the Company at India House in Leadenhall Street and the President of the Board of Control in Whitehall, who was the minister responsible for overseeing the Company, and the Lords of the Admiralty gradually became convinced that the Mascarenes (Ile de France, Rodrigues and Ile Bourbon, renamed Reunion in 1793 and Ile Bonaparte in 1806) had to be taken to protect India and its valuable commerce and trade.

But the momentum for action lay at the Cape and in India. The combined European, Native and Sepoy forces (between 6500-7500) were drawn from Ile Bourbon, Bombay, Madras and Bengal. They were joined by a fleet from Calcutta and later 2000 Royal Navy sailors from the Cape who arrived just after the Capitulation was signed. About 19 warships and 50 transport vessels took part in the operation.

Terms of Capitulation

The Capitulation and surrender of the Isle of France and its dependencies was signed for Britain by Major General Warde and Commodore Rowley, on behalf of General Abercromby and for France by General Vandermaesen and Capitaine de Vaisseau Duperre, on behalf of Capitaine General Decaen (Governor of the Island), at an early hour on 3 December 1810. Generous clauses included: “The inhabitants shall preserve their Religion, Laws and Customs”; “The land and sea forces, officers, subalterns and privates shall not be considered as Prisoners of War” (contrary to the Governor-General’s instructions to Abercromby); “The troops of his Imperial and Royal Majesty shall be conveyed, together with their families, to a port in the French Empire”. It was a magnanimous settlement. The cession of Ile de France was enshrined in Art. V111 of the Treaty of Paris, 30 May 1814 between His Britannic Majesty and His Most Christian Majesty.

Britain restituted the French colonies “à l’exception des Iles de Tobago et de St Lucie, et de L’Ile de France, et ses Dépendances, nommément Rodrigue et les Seychelles, lesquelles Sa Majeste Tres-Chrétienne cède en toute propriété et Souverainté à Sa Majesté Britannique”. There is no mention of the Chagos Islands, just Seychelles and Rodrigues. So does the Chagos Archipelago still belong to France? It depends on the interpretation of ‘nommément’ – the English translation was ‘especially’, not namely. Bourbon was not specifically mentioned in Art V111 either and yet it was restored to France. In any case Britain assumed sovereignty over the Chagos Islands as one of the dependencies of Ile de France.

With its Indian Empire, colonies on the East Coast of Africa and Indian Ocean islands from Ceylon, down through Maldives, Chagos, Seychelles and Mauritius, the next 150 years saw the Indian Ocean as very much a British sphere of influence with France having control of the southern edges with Madagascar, Iles Glorieuses, Tromelin, Reunion, St Paul & Amsterdam and the Kerguelen. All except Madagascar still remain French today though Britain has kept only the Chagos Archipelago.

Creation of BIOT

Roll forward to the 1960s when the wind of change was blowing through Africa, the Cold War was at its height and the Americans were looking for a base in the Indian Ocean. Diego Garcia, the largest (44 sq km) and most southerly of the atolls of the Chagos Archipelago where there had been a radio station during WWII, looked a good bet but there were two problems – the Chagos, some 55 islands, was a dependency of Mauritius which would soon get independence, and there was a resident population.

In 1964 a joint Anglo-American survey of the islands took place. About 1,500 inhabitants were recorded in the Islands. A joint memorandum agreed on a course of political action, including the need to separate the Chagos from Mauritius, and 3 islands (Aldabra, Farquhar, and Desroches) from the Seychelles. The UK would create a new colony to be called the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), but how to persuade Mauritius to agree to its detachment? There was also the difficulty to be got round, of the UN Charter, Chaper X1 (Declaration Regarding Non-Self-Governing Territories), Article 73(e) requiring colonial powers to report on territories to the Secretary General, and UNGA Resolution 1514 (I Dec 60) which stated ‘Any attempt aimed at the partial or total disruption of the national unity and the territorial integrity of a country is incompatible with the purposes and principles of the UN Charter’.

So a strategy was conceived which would provide independence to Mauritius in 1968, compensation to that government, dislocation allowances for the Ilois, the setting up of BIOT in 1965, the Crown to buy out the copra estates, the gradual removal of the people, who would be described as a transient population of contract workers, to Mauritius and Seychelles and American compensation to the UK. This would provide an uninhabited territory for which there was no UN reporting requirement, ready for the establishment of a US naval communications facility on Diego. If the strategy worked, the entire Archipelago, covering some 544,000 sq km of ocean, would be free from prying eyes. It worked rather well, for about three decades.

UK/US discussions, 1964/5

I now go into more detail which I have drawn directly from declassified State Department and FCO documents. For nearly two years there were discussions between the UK and US about expansion of an American presence in the Indian Ocean to support the British presence. The US was looking for an unpopulated island and both Aldabra and Diego Garcia were of interest. Diego had been used as a base for flying-boats and as a radio communications station during WWII. Talks were held in London, 25-27 February 1964, on the basis of a 1963 US paper (Defense Problems in the Indian Ocean Area). A memo of 3 March 1964 from Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Politico-Military Affairs, Jeffrey Kitchen, to Secretary of State Dean Rusk reported on the UK’s position:

“It was clear that the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence were pleased at the US initiative and that they wished to be as cooperative as feasible, having in mind their own interests. They noted they intended to remain in the area in force, and that our presence would compliment theirs, rather than substitute for it. British strategic concepts are similar to our own in that they envisage development of islands as supplementing existing bases or staging facilities on the Indian Ocean littoral, and as reinforcement in depth for mainland commitments. For example they favour US development of the Chagos Archipelago for a central communications station and austere supporting facilities.”

More specific details were agreed: “With regard to our present and funded requirement for a communication station, it was agreed a joint survey of Diego Garcia should take place quickly, the timing being dependent on British decisions when and how to transfer the administration of DG from Mauritius. Here, despite Colonial Office reservations and desire to consult local authorities, the Foreign Office clearly indicated that control over the Chagos Archipelago should be transferred in such a way as to minimize substantially or remove the possibility that use of the islands could be hampered by external pressures for self-determination… Colonial Office representatives, while sympathetic to US interests tried unsuccessfully to obtain some indications that the US could help with aid programs or by large employment operations to benefit local economies. We made clear we preferred exclusive control, preferably without employing local inhabitants in islands where we might install facilities, while of course being willing to share these facilities with the UK… The UK delegation agreed that the UK should be responsible for acquiring land, resettling the population and compensating them therefore at HMG’s expense, while the US would be responsible for construction and maintenance costs.”

A joint UK/US memorandum of May 1964 (Indian Ocean Territories) refers to “the repatriation or resettlement of persons currently living on the islands selected”. It goes on: “If, in fact, they are only contract labourers rather than permanent residents, they would be evacuated with the appropriate compensation and re-employment. If, on the other hand, some of the persons now living and working on the islands could be considered permanent residents, i.e., their families have lived there for a number of generations, then the political effects of their removal might be reduced if some element of choice could be introduced in their resettlement and compensation.” While depopulation was clearly under consideration, it seems that at this stage re-location of inhabitants on islands destined for military installations only, was envisaged. In July 1964 a joint Anglo-American survey of the Chagos Islands was undertaken.

In his witness statement of 30 September 2005 for the Judicial Review of the 2004 Orders in Council, Robert Culshaw, Director for the Americas and Overseas Territories at the FCO, summarises the position in 1964/5:

“In February 1964 discussions between the US and UK Governments began over defence interests in the Indian Ocean. At this stage the US wished to develop an island as a defence facility. Following an Anglo-American Survey conducted later in 1964, the US Administration informed the UK Government in January 1965 that Diego Garcia had the most potential for such a facility; that it would be desirable for the Chagos Islands and other islands to be detached from Mauritius and Seychelles both for security reasons and so as to have other sites available; but that there was no reason to relocate the population of any island (other than Diego Garcia) prior to that island coming into use for defence purposes.”

A memo of 28 July 1965 from Mr T Jerrom of the FO unveiled the FO’s intentions: “Our understanding is that the great majority are there as contract labourers on the copra plantations of a number of islands; a small number of people were born there, and in some cases, their parents were born there too. The intention is, however, that none of them should be regarded as being permanent inhabitants of the islands. Islands will be evacuated as and when defence interests require this. Those who remain, whether as workers on those copra plantations which continue to function or as labourers on the construction of defence installations, will be regarded as being there on a temporary basis and will continue to look either to Mauritius or Seychelles as their home territory.”

US agreement to pay costs, June 1965

A memo of 12 June 1965 from Assistant Secretary of Defense (McNaughton) to Robert McNamara, Secretary for Defence stated: “As a result of joint surveys last summer, the British are willing to detach the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius and Aldabra, Farquhar and Desroches from Seychelles. On the grounds that ‘the ante has gone up’ they now ask that we contribute one half of the anticipated detachment costs (estimated up to £10million, US share about $14million). The British are anxious to complete the detachment proceedings before the following events later this summer:

(1) The constitutional conference on the future of Mauritius, sometime between August-October
(2) Renewed hostile debate in the UNGA on colonial administration, and
(3) The UK Defense Policy Review which could expose the project to attack by the ‘west of Suez’ group.

The memo recommended “that you approve a US contribution of one half of the British detachment costs. This contribution would be premised on the explicit understanding that the British would continue their responsibilities east of Suez and that the contribution would be arranged as a set-off against R&D surcharges owed by the UK to the US.” McNamara agreed.

 Establishment of BIOT, November 1965

The British government had given an undertaking “that if the need for the facilities on the islands disappeared the islands should be returned to Mauritius” and “that the benefit of any mineral or oil discovered in or near the Chagos Archipelago should revert to the Mauritius Government”. Following the agreement on 23 September 1965 at the Lancaster House Conference by the Mauritian delegation to detach the Chagos Archipelago (in the knowledge that HMG would have gone ahead anyway, without their consent) and the confirmation on 5 November of the Council of Ministers, BIOT was established on 8 November 1965.

In answer to a PQ two days later Anthony Greenwood, the Colonial Secretary, announced: “With the agreement of the Governments of Mauritius and Seychelles new arrangements for the administration of certain islands in the Indian Ocean were introduced by Order in Council made on 8th November. The islands are the Chagos Archipelago, some 1,200 miles north-east of Mauritius, and Aldabra, Farquhar and Desroches in the Western Indian Ocean. Their populations are approximately 1000, 100, 172, and 112 respectively. The Chagos Archipelago was formerly administered by Mauritius and the other three islands by that of Seychelles. The islands will be called the British Indian Ocean Territory and will be administered by a Commissioner. It is intended that the islands will be available for the construction of defence facilities by the British and United States Governments, but no firm plans have yet been made by either government. Compensation will be paid as appropriate.”

The mention of compensation was the only clue to the fate of the inhabitants. An FCO official noted on 12 November 1965: “The present idea is that the inhabitants (1,500 altogether) would not be removed from any of the islands until they are required for defence purposes. This is going to make it very difficult to avoid having to report on the new territory under Article 73 (e) of the Charter.”

On 16 December 1965 the UNGA adopted resolution 2066 noting that “any steps by the administrative power to detach certain islands from the territory of Mauritius for the purposes of establishing a military base would be in contravention of the Declaration in GA resolution 1514, particularly para 6 on territorial integrity.”

The Unfolding Strategy

On 25 February 1966 the Colonial Secretary wrote to the new BIOT Commissioner (Governor of Seychelles): “Our primary objective in dealing with the people who are at present in the Territory must be to deal with them in a way which will best meet our future administrative and military needs and will at the same time ensure that they are given fair and just treatment. With these objectives in mind we propose to avoid any reference to ‘permanent inhabitants’, instead to refer to the people in the islands as Mauritians and Seychellois… We are taking steps to acquire ownership of the land and consider that it would be desirable… for the inhabitants to be given some form of temporary residence permit. We could then more effectively take the line in discussion that these people are Mauritians and Seychellois; that they are temporarily resident in BIOT for the purpose of making a living on the basis of contract or day to day employment with the companies engaged in exploiting the islands; and that when the new use of the islands makes it impossible for these operations to continue on the old scale the people concerned will be resettled in Mauritius and Seychelles.”

In a minute of June 1966 the BIOT Commissioner noted that “it would be highly embarrassing to us if, after giving the Americans to understand that the islands in BIOT would be available to them for defence purposes, we then had to tell them that we proposed to admit that they fell within the purview of the UN Committee of Twenty-Four.” This was the decolonisation committee to which states had to report annually on the progress of their colonies. Officials gradually realised that the only way to keep BIOT from the prying eyes of the UN was first to claim that the inhabitants were transient migrant workers and later to remove them altogether. But the final decision to remove all the people from all the islands was not taken until 1969.

A document headed ‘Presentation of British Indian Ocean Territory in the United Nations’, prepared as briefing for the UK Delegation to the 1966 UN General Assembly, made the evolving subterfuge clear: “The primary objective in acquiring these islands from Mauritius and Seychelles to form the new BIOT was to ensure that HMG had full title to, and control over these islands so that they could be used for the construction of defence facilities without hindrance or political agitation and so that when a particular island would be needed for the construction of British or US defence facilities Britain or the US should be able to clear it of its current population. We therefore consider that the best way we can satisfy these objectives, when our action comes under scrutiny in the United Nations, would be to assert from the start, if the need arose, that this territory did not fall within the scope of Chapter X1 of the UN Charter.”

US decision to develop Diego Garcia as a base, June 1968

It was almost 3 years after the creation of BIOT that the US decided to go ahead with the development of Diego Garcia as a joint US military facility, based on a report by a joint UK/US survey of June 1967. McNamara’s doubts on the need for it were finally resolved by the UK announcement on 16 January 1968 that it would withdraw its forces from the Far East and Persian Gulf by the end of 1971. In the meantime the idea for an air base on Aldabra was dropped, partly under pressure from a group of conservationists determined to defend the giant tortoise which roamed the island. On 5 July 1968 the US embassy communicated its proposal to the FCO. “As a bare minimum we consider that British flag should fly over facility and that UK liaison officer would need to be appointed in order to establish necessary relations with other HMG officials and local inhabitants.” Agreement in principle was requested by 1 September. A telegram from the US embassy to the State Dep’t reported the substance of the Foreign Office reply by letter of 4 September.

“Brooke Turner (FO) suggests two possibilities might be considered: Removal of population altogether to some locale outside territory, or on to other islands in Chagos group. In order to approach this question, FO wishes to know US views on whether all should move, or whether some of them will be offered employment during the construction phase. FO also wishes further info about eventual size of facility and which, if any, of other islands in Chagos group might be required for further development”.

The telegram continued: “Most difficult question likely to be how and when to make project public knowledge. It will clearly be necessary for both governments to concert closely over this. It is essential to preclude unfavourable reactions by governments of India and Mauritius by taking them into our confidence before there is any possibility of project becoming publicly known or rumoured. UKUN (UK Mission to UN in New York) would prefer no public announcement before end of coming session of General Assembly.”

Robert Culshaw’s witness statement of September 2005 describes the US position thus: “On 5 July 1968 the UK Government was told that the US Government had decided to proceed with an austere communications and other facilities on Diego Garcia, subject to congressional approval. Thereafter there remained uncertainty about the timing of the US requirement, the extent to which it would require inhabitants to be displaced and whether the US would require any islands other than Diego Garcia for defence purposes… The position of the US Administration in November 1968 remained that it was not necessary to clear islands other than Diego Garcia (if the proposed facilities were developed there).
“On 3 February 1969 the US Government indicated that they had no current plans for the use of the islands other than Diego Garcia and that they had no objection to plans for development of those islands, provided that it was understood that the subsequent use of those islands for defence purposes was not precluded. However, on 22 February 1969 the US Government refused to give an assurance that they would not require Peros Banhos or Salomon for 20 years. The US Government did not object to the resettlement on those islands from Diego Garcia provided that they did not prejudice the ultimate use of those islands for defence purposes if required.”

HMG’s decision to remove all the inhabitants, April 1969

Following receipt of the US proposal of 5 July 1968, Michael Stewart, the Foreign Secretary, sent a minute on 25 July to the PM, seeking approval for the UK reply. The PM was made aware that there was an indigenous population but that it was intended to evacuate them. It continued: “We would propose… to deny… the competence of the United Nations to concern itself with a territory which has no indigenous population and in its dealings with the population itself.” The PM approved.

On 21 April 1969 the Foreign Secretary wrote again to the PM: “The problem of the future of these people exists independently of America’s plans but the decision to proceed with a Communications Facility on Diego Garcia has brought it to a head…The people are working in the Chagos under contract and own no property or fixed assets there. However some of them have established roots in Chagos and I should naturally have wanted to consult at least these in advance of any decision about their future, if this had been possible. Officials have examined closely the possibility of giving them some elements of choice, but have advised that this would seem wholly impracticable… In short I ask my colleagues to agree that… we should aim at the return (sic) of the inhabitants of the whole of the Chagos Archipelago to the Seychelles and Mauritius and should enter into negotiations with the Mauritian Government to that end.”

The final solution, 1971-73

In 1971 the FCO went ahead with plans for the phased removal of the inhabitants to Mauritius and Seychelles. Sir Bruce Greatbatch, Governor of Seychelles and the BIOT Commissioner who carried out the removals, claimed in a despatch that the US had made the depopulation of the Chagos Islands “virtually a condition of the Agreement.” But the US had indicated only that they required Diego Garcia to be depopulated. Sir Bruce was clearly seeking wider cover.

Clearly FCO officials had doubts, though the US was hardly likely to object if the UK decided to make a clean sweep. But why FCO officials did not, when they realised that many Ilois were indigenous, allow the population to remain on the Outer Islands is the hard question. Self-determination was probably not a real concern for the FO at the time. The Ilois were just too few to exercise self-determination though clearly it was altogether more convenient not to be saddled with the administrative burden of a new populated colony with its UN reporting requirements. So with an excess of colonial zeal the FCO forsook the ‘paramount interests’ of the people and its ‘sacred trust’ and went ahead with a final solution. By the 1970s officials were trapped in the tangled subterfuge that had been taking shape from 1965. The US remained a silent accomplice.

From 1968 the Ilois who visited Mauritius were not allowed to return home. The Americans arrived on Diego Garcia in March 1971 and began construction work. Removal of those living on Diego Garcia to Salomon and Peros Banhos began in July 1971 and the deportation of the inhabitants of all the islands to Mauritius and Seychelles took place in 1972/73. But in those days of colonial retreat, rapid African decolonisation and the Cold War ‘some few Tarzans and Man Fridays whose origins are obscure’ ( as an FO official put it in 1966), living on remote islands in the Indian Ocean, without any public voice, counted for little in Anglo-American defence plans.


45 years after the excision of BIOT from Mauritius, Britain still has its foothold in the Indian Ocean. Within 3 years, in 2014, there is provision for review of the 1966 UK/US Exchange of Letters, although either side could at any time have proposed that this be done. Clearly the US have never needed the Outer Islands for defence purposes, otherwise they would have said so. A recent letter from Dr Lawrence Korb, a former US Assistant Secretary of State asserts “I can see no good national security reason for not allowing the Chagossians to return to all of Chagos, including Diego Garcia. In fact after reviewing the situation, I cannot understand why they were evicted in the 1960s and 1970s. While there is no doubt that Diego Garcia is a critical base for projecting US power throughout the greater Middle East, there is no good reason why allowing the Chagossians to return would undermine the mission in any way. There are many US bases around the globe that not only have the indigenous population living nearby but actually employ some of these people on the base.”

The Indian Ocean is today of immense strategic importance, just as it was in the early nineteenth century and again during the Cold War. But there really is nothing to prevent the UK now permitting resettlement and ceding at least the Outer Islands to Mauritius, and actually there never has been.

* Published in print edition on 3 December 2010

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