The Story of the Settlement of Diego Garcia and the Chagos Archipelago

Remembering the history of the Chagossians

The present controversial and heated debate surrounding the claims of the Republic of Mauritius as the sovereign owner of the Chagos archipelago brings to the forefront, once again, the historical importance of our country’s indisputable right of ownership on what used to be known as the ‘Oil Islands’. Archival documents located in the Mauritius National Archives, the British National Archives in London and the French National Archives in France strongly support the legitimate ownership of Mauritius over Diego Garcia and its neighboring islands.

Historical documents from the Mauritius National Archives mention that the permanent settlement of Diego Garcia and the Chagos archipelago began during the 1780s when Mauritius was under French rule. The rich, interesting, and complex history of this cluster of islands and of the Chagossians span a period of around 180 years or from 1784 until 1973, when the last Ilois were forced to leave by the British government with the firm backing of the American government.

The settlement of the Chagos

In February 1783, Sieur Pierre Marie Le Normand, an influential sugar and coconut plantation owner from the Black River district, petitioned Governor Vicomte de Souillac for a major land concession on Diego Garcia in order to establish a large coconut plantation. During the same month, the French governor gave this important Mauritian landowner “a favourable reply”.

In 1784, more than a year after the land concession was granted, Le Normand set out with two ships from Mauritius to Diego Garcia with 79 Mozambican and Malagasy slaves as well as a few free coloureds who were skilled workers. The ships also contained materials for putting up a large coconut plantation.

By 1790, Le Normand was able to send back large quantities of copra annually to Mauritius where a limited amount coconut oil was produced for local consumption. The significance of this plantation cannot be underestimated because it marked the genesis of the permanent settlement as well as of the emergence of an important industry in Diego Garcia which was based exclusively on slave labour.

By the 1790s and first decade of the 1800s, three new coconut plantations and a fishing settlement, also relying on unfree labour, emerged on that coral atoll thanks largely to Mauritian entrepreneurs such as Lapotaire, Didier, Danquet, and the brothers Cayeux. By 1808, there were 100 Mozambican and Malagasy slaves working in Diego Garcia under Lapotaire alone.

In 1813, there was a similar number of enslaved labourers in Peros Banhos, shortly after Governor Farquhar granted a jouissance in 1813 to create a coconut plantation there. Other coconut plantations were similarly established under other owners at Six Iles in 1808 and at Trois Frères, Île d’Aigle, and Salomon Islands in 1813.

It is evident that between the mid-1780s and mid-1830s, like in other island colonies of the period, it was the Mozambican and Malagasy slaves who built the archipelago’s infrastructure, produced its wealth, and formed the overwhelming majority of its inhabitants, who were to become the ancestors of today’s Chagossians. Furthermore, it was slave labour which was used to exploit the natural resources of the Chagos which apart from copra included fish, guano, timber, and tortoise. By the first decade of the 1800s, coconut oil was also being manufactured at Diego Garcia and exported to Mauritius.

In 1826, Baron d’Unienville, the Chief Archivist of Mauritius, reported on some of the bountiful conditions which were found throughout the Chagos when he observed:

“L’île produit beaucoup de cocos, elle ne manqué pas non plus de bois, tels que [t]atamaka, bois blanc bon pour pirogues, bois à brûler; elle abonde en poisons, tortues, oiseux de mer, poules sauvages.”

Between the late 1780s and 1828, conditions in Diego Garcia were so bountiful that the island temporarily became a destination for dozens of lepers who were sent by force from Mauritius by the French and then the British authorities to feast on abundant tortoise meat which was thought to be a cure for leprosy.

Slavery in the Chagos

By the first decade of the nineteenth century, French colonial power in the Indian Ocean crumbled with the capture of Mauritius and some of the other islands in the south west Indian Ocean. The Chagos, like the Seychelles at this point, was considered to be one of the dependencies of Mauritius and was formally ceded to Great Britain through the Treaty of Paris in 1814. In general, life in the Chagos Archipelago changed very little under British rule and slavery remained the defining feature of the coconut plantations and settlements, as it would until the abolition of slavery in Mauritius and its dependencies in 1835.

A letter from 1828 from the Mauritius Archives mentions the names and origins of some of the slaves of the Chagos, who eventually became its permanent residents, such as Pierre Louis (Creole of Mauritius), Prosper Jean (Malagasy), Marie Jeannie (Mozambican), Michel Levillain (Mozambican) and his wife, Prudence Levillain (Malagasy), and Theophile Le Leger (Creole of Mauritius).

These names, while they were common in the Chagos Archipelago during the 1820s and 1830s, to a certain extent, resemble some of the names of today’s Chagossians who reside in Mauritius and the Seychelles. The tables provide a breakdown of the white, free colored, slave and leper population in the Chagos in 1826.

Thus, in 1826, barely a decade before the abolition of slavery in Mauritius and its dependencies, there were 375 slaves, 9 whites, 22 free coloureds, and 42 lepers. In all, there were 448 inhabitants in the Chagos Archipelago with Diego Garcia containing more than half of the residents. For the Chagossian slaves, life was dominated by the daily orders of the administrateurs which was enforced by their commandeurs.

The work of the slaves was long and hard, as the owners reported, “from sunrise to sunset for six days a week.” Outside their work days and working hours, some of the Chagossian slaves were able to save some money and have a “petite plantation,” which allowed them to raise animals and cultivate produce. They seem also to have exercised some control over their own social relations through the guidance of older men and women as well as an informal council of elders, a system that may have had its roots in East Africa and Madagascar.

After emancipation in February 1835, the general nature of labor relations changed little, even if the quantity and demands of work lessened over time in favor of the labourers during the late 1830s and 1840s. In fact, in 1949, a visiting representative of the Mauritian Labour Office commented that generally the “patriarchal” labour relations between the managers and labourers in the Chagos as “dating back to what I imagine would be the slave days, by this I do not imply any oppression but rather a system of benevolent rule with privileges and no rights.”

The emergence of the Chagossian community

The biggest change with the end of slavery came when plantation owners during the 1840s and 1850s began importing indentured laborers from India to work. These new workers gradually integrated themselves into Chagossian society and many among these newly arrived labourers as well as the Ilois converted to Catholicism. Many of the Indian labourers intermarried with the inhabitants thus becoming the ancestors to some of today’s Chagossians. By 1881, they numbered around 760 Chagossian men, women, and children.

It was partially because of their isolation from Mauritius and the other dependencies that a distinct and insular island society had emerged among the Chagossians by the turn of the 20th century. A distinct Chagos Creole, related to the Mauritian Creole and “Seyselwa”, emerged among the islanders. Diego Garcia remained the most important island in the archipelago and the most important of the “Oil Islands of Mauritius”. By 1911, it had a population of 517 people, along with six villages, several other outposts, and two hospitals, as well as 81 asses, 3 horses, 3 bullocks, and 1 mule. During the 19th century and most of the 20th century, the Chagossians, especially those of Diego Garcia, developed an identity of their own in their little island-world in a remote corner of the Indian Ocean. However, it was always remembered that the Chagossians form part of the Mauritian nation and the Chagos islands an integral part of our Mauritian dependencies.

Population of Diego Garcia in 1826

Grand Total: 275

Men

Women

Boys

Girls

Blancs

5

1

Libres

1

4

6

3

Slaves

168

37

3

10

Lepers

30

5

2

Total

204

47

9

15

Population of the Chagos Archipelago in 1880

Total: 760

Men

Women

Children

Total

Diego Garcia

227

86

87

400

Peros Banhos

80

25

45

150

Salomon

56

20

24

100

Eagle Islands

40

10

10

60

Six Iles

26

12

12

50

Satyendra Peerthum, Historian and Writer

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